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Do the ‘Nordies’ and ‘Free Staters’ even like each other and what does it mean for Irish unity?

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Speaking in the Free State Seanad in 1924, at a time when the Boundary Commission was considering changes to the Border, the poet WB Yeats predicted he would not see a united Ireland in his lifetime.

But the South would win “Ulster” eventually, he believed, through enlightened government, and in particular by the creation of “a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young”.

Nearly a century later, a differently spelled Yates – the Dublin-based broadcaster Ivan – summed up one of the reasons this high-minded vision had not materialised. The context now was Brexit, which had put a united Ireland back on the agenda, although Yates was less than enthusiastic about the prospect. “The fact of the matter,” he explained, “is we don’t actually like the Nordies.”

This was standard talk-show hyperbole, designed to provoke reaction, which it did. But it was not without some substance. Like his near namesake of 1924, Yates was speaking as a Protestant in a traditionally Catholic country, and he claimed “a certain insight” into Northern Ireland’s problems.

Compared with the Republic’s pluralism, he claimed, the North was still stuck in a “time warp”. In common with most people here, he had lost all patience with “both sides” of its sectarian divide, he asserted.

Overstated as that may have been, the dislike of some in the South of “Nordies” is more than matched in reverse, certainly when averaged out among the North’s two predominant communities. We take for granted the hostility of unionists towards the Republic. But even northern nationalists are not always as enamoured of the “Free State” – the description many still use – as they might be.

Culturally different

Writing in the Derry Journal a few years ago, for example, GAA pundit Joe Brolly put things in more humorously generous terms than Yates. “Culturally, we are no doubt slightly different [to people in the South],” he conceded.

“In a way, northern Gaels are more ferocious about our Irishness because we had to fight harder for it.” Then he quoted his father, a veteran republican, gaeilgeoir, traditional musician, and lover of all things Gaelic, who nevertheless preached tolerance for the less committed: “Don’t be too hard on the southerners Joe, some of them are almost as Irish as we are.”

This is of course different from the unionist distrust of Dublin and all its works. Even at its angriest, much of the nationalist exasperation about which Brolly joked arises from a frustrated wish to belong.

A thoughtful blogger on cross-Border differences, Daniel Collins, explains the continued use of the term “Free Stater” as expressing “a mild underlying resentment or derision reserved generally on account of the northern nationalist’s sense of having been abandoned in an oppressive orange state by his or her fellow Irish men and women”.

It is a sort of companion term, he suggests, to the aforementioned “Nordie”, which, if inoffensive, is not always used with affection. Reared along the Derry-Donegal frontier, Collins first heard himself described as a Nordie when he moved to Dublin in the early 2000s. The term was used “generally without malice”, he admits, yet it did make him feel “culturally different [. . .] like a semi-outsider”.

Feelings of betrayal aside, northern nationalists have on occasion shared more of the unionist outlook towards their cross-Border neighbours than they might like to admit. Back in the pre-Tiger years, for example, they could be equally fond of joking about the Republic’s bad roads.

Even today, they can still exalt the NHS over the Republic’s health system or young people’s ability to buy a house in Belfast as opposed to in Dublin as reasons to paraphrase St Augustine: “Lord make me a citizen of an all-Ireland republic, but not yet.”

Costs of living

The difference in costs of living generally, North and South, is another reason not to rush into the Republic’s arms. If there is one thing that unites northern unionists and nationalists, it’s a feeling that southerners must be soft in the head to pay the prices they do for basic things.

Northerners’ traditional Mexican border metaphors for the frontier between North and South don’t work so well as jibes these days, when the Republic’s economy might be said to be more like that of the US, which would make Northern Ireland Canada (an unlikely prospect anytime soon). The road jokes are not what they were, either.

On the contrary, since the coming of the M1, southerners have yet another reason to complain about Nordies. When driving from Dublin towards Newry now, you might suspect the road itself had been partitioned, with northern-reg cars confined to the fast lane and southern ones to the slow.

Contrasting risks of punishment is the obvious explanation for this, but it may also reflect a difference in sporting cultures. Northerners, both Catholic and Protestant, are more likely to be “petrolheads”, whether in official motorsport or otherwise.

The difference has been especially noted along the Border, even to the extent of reviving the Mexican analogy. Dundalk’s punk poet Jinx Lennon laments in song the fondness of “Northern pups” for cross-Border joy-riding in the southern playground: “This is Tijuana/This is their Venice/Northern pup/Motor menace.”

GAA hostility

The GAA, ironically, is a big generator of mutual hostility between northern and southern nationalists. Even before the rise of what Pat Spillane called “puke football” in 2003, it was an article of faith for many in the other three provinces that the defensive game as played in Ulster was somewhere between grim and unwatchable.

Conversely, Ulster counties revelled in the hardness of their provincial championships. And the run of different northern teams winning All-Irelands in the 1990s and 2000s, especially at purist Kerry’s expense, was a source of great pride.

This bordered on snobbery for a time in Tyrone and Armagh, when their feud grew too big for Clones, and Ulster finals had to be played in Croke Park instead, where the pitch and surrounding streets were wide enough to contain the swagger.

Fierce as that and other northern rivalries are, however, they tend to be submerged when any Ulster team takes on the major powers down south. No other province matches this solidarity. Brolly also tells a story of when Tyrone scored their decisive goal in the 2005 final against Kerry, whereupon a Derry man in the stand jumped up, punched the air and shouted: “Come on you Tyrone bastards!”

Meanwhile, in rugby, even though in the North that game used to be a preserve of Protestants, there is less of a cross-Border edge these days.

The nine-county Ulster flag and the six-county Northern Ireland one co-exist peacefully among supporters at Ravenhill, or at least they did pre-Covid. And even those who hate the thought of a united Ireland can still more or less happily support the all-Ireland team at Lansdowne, gritting their teeth through Amhrán na bhFiann while waiting for Phil Coulter’s compromise anthem before they join the singing.

But the days when the Ulster rugby team might have been regarded as a second national team, for unionists, have gone out with professionalism. When the home fans sing “Stand up for the Ulster men” now, as often as not, they’re also standing for Leinster men too.

The national surplus of top players from Dublin’s traditional rugby schools has given rise to a mini-plantation of Ulster in recent years, including the Ireland international Jordi Murphy. In one of the better rugby nicknames, his move north saw him renamed “Nordi” Murphy overnight by Leinster fans, who considered him a gift to the underprivileged.

System of culture

Such sporting subversion aside, events in broader Irish life may be belatedly vindicating Yeats’s dream of an all-inclusive system of culture that might capture the imagination of the young on both sides and sweep the Border away eventually.

After the recent referendums in the Republic, northern Protestants can hardly raise the spectre of “Rome Rule” any more. On the contrary, liberalisation of the Republic has forced a small but odd realignment north of the Border between the DUP and some conservative Catholics, while a younger generation born in the North since the Troubles now looks South for an example of what it wants Northern Ireland to become.

But the practicalities of unification would still have to unravel a century of estrangement and distrust in which the Free State/Republic was too Irish for one half of Northern Ireland and not Irish enough for the other, while in the process both halves earned a parity of disesteem in the South.

Speaking of culture and the young, paradoxically, the huge success of the TV series Derry Girls suggests that Nordies can in fact be lovable, not just to the Republic but in Britain too. Set in a Catholic convent school, with zeitgeisty heroines including a nun who doesn’t take religion very seriously, it’s another example of the cultural confidence among northern nationalists these days.

But it may be telling that the programme’s most obvious southerner, Tommy Tiernan’s mild-mannered Gerry, is the butt of endless abuse from his northern Fenian father-in-law. Only one other character on the show is treated with similar levels of contempt. Just as tellingly, perhaps, that’s the “wee English fella”, James.

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