Comment: Could our admiration for the Irish include the Unionists also?

The British find all the marching embarrassing, like Caliban seeing his face in a mirror
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was a teenager my family moved from Scotland to a tiny, mostly Protestant town in Northern Ireland. One summer in the 1970s I asked a Catholic friend if he was going, as usual, to the local dance hall at the weekend. He shook his head. "They'll be marching that day," he said of the Orangemen who were our neighbours and friends. "It's not a good time for me to be going dancing." I was astounded. There were bombs going off in Belfast and Derry, but our thriving County Antrim town was apparently untouched by the Troubles.

It was a good place to grow up. Relationships between Protestants and Catholics were free and easy, but I quickly learned that at this time of year a Protestant like me could safely go dancing while a Catholic would always think twice. To outsiders, Northern Ireland's marching season always looks like a time of collective madness: of banging drums and banging heads off brick walls. The British find it especially embarrassing, like Caliban seeing his face in the mirror. All those Union flags and overt devotion to the Queen. The red, white and blue painted kerbstones and bunting.

How so very un-British, the British think, to protest your Britishness. But this remarkable weekend, poised uneasily between the Stormont peace talks, tomorrow's Orange parade at Drumcree, and the peak of the marching season on 12 July, it is worth reflecting that there has never been a time in living memory when it has been more fashionable to be Irish.

Irishmen are publicly Glad to be Green, though the Unionists of Northern Ireland have yet to share any of this new cachet. With the possible exception of the Serbs, there is no national or ethnic grouping in Europe which receives such a consistently hostile press and is so in need of an image makeover as Ulster's Protestant community.

As one English journalist with a long history of covering the Troubles put it to me recently, even when Unionists are in the right, they have a talent for sounding surly and wrong. The Ulster Protestants with whom I grew up, and whom I admire, tell jokes suggesting a perverse pride in stubbornness. We even have an Ulster-Scots word for it. We are thrawn, stubborn beyond belief. "How many Ulster Protestants does it take to change a light bulb?" one Belfast joke goes. The punchline is, "Change? Who said anything about change..."

But consider how far the image of Ireland itself has changed in the past decade, despite years of anti-Irish propaganda and prejudice, and it is not impossible to believe that Unionists might eventually work the same miracle. Most British people grew up with traditionally racist jokes about Irish Catholic stupidity, fecklessness or drunkenness. In 19th-century Punch cartoons, Irish characters were simian, almost subhuman creatures.

The impoverished image of Ireland, forged over centuries, is rooted in the British consciousness - and the Irish consciousness. Remember just a few years ago the film from a Roddy Doyle story, The Commitments? A young Irishman puts together a band in a grim north Dublin housing estate, musicians who sing black American soul music and transform it into Dublin soul. The film made an explicit link between the dreadfulness of working- class life in Ireland and that of the American ghettoes, in which misery could be transcended through the joy of popular culture.

The bleak north Dublin estates still remain, but Britain has finally woken up to the fact that it has a truly remarkable neighbour, that no other country this century has produced so much talent from such a small space. The list is endless - Joyce, Synge, Yeats, O'Casey, Beckett, Heaney, Kinsella, Shaw, Muldoon, O'Brien, O'Faolain, O'Connor, McLaverty, Doyle, and so on. But the transformation in the image of Ireland in just one decade has sprung from two other sources - newfound economic confidence and the prospect that, at last, Republican leaders are prepared to contemplate an end to an endless war.

Recently I was invited to an Irish charity ball in London, a magnificent, glittering affair. The main speaker, an Irishman who had pulled himself from a poor background to the top of a business empire, told a couple of jokes, and then admitted that everybody would rather be dancing than listen to him drone on. His speech took about four minutes. So much for the British stereotype of the prolix stage Irishman. Then the elegant Irish woman to my left nodded to the ballroom filled with well-heeled men in dinner jackets twirling women in evening dresses, and murmured, "This is Toffs against Terrorism, isn't it?"

The idea was to support charities north and south of the Irish border in the hope of bringing the peoples of the island together. Whatever the ups and downs of the past week and the trouble still to come, the tide of history is in favour of the politics of those in dinner jackets, the new sharp suits of Sinn Fein and those parties linked to the loyalist paramilitaries, rather than the perpetual street politics of those in denim jackets.

My hosts at the Irish dinner wondered whether the charity, set up to help their own island, might soon be re-directed elsewhere. Poverty in Ireland had not been cured, they admitted, nor had ignorance and bigotry; but Ireland's prosperity and optimism was so strong that some of the charity benefactors were considering whether Rwanda or Kosovo or Latin America might be a better home for their largesse. Even now, at every international crisis, disaster or combat zone, you hear an Irish accent booming out from an aid worker, a missionary, a doctor or a nurse.

When they talked of their own problems, some of these Irishmen spoke of one simple economic fact, again unique in our lifetimes. Returning to live in Ireland was becoming almost prohibitively expensive. London, notoriously one of the world's most expensive cities, had cheaper house prices than the capital of Ireland. James Joyce's dear, dirty Dublin was not so dirty any more - but it is very, very dear.

The fashion for Ireland, thankfully, goes way beyond all the phoney Irish theme pubs that clutter the streets of British cities. Ireland is fashionable because the rest of the world likes success and cultural strength, and admires the capacity to change. Can Unionists do it, too?

The question may seem ludicrous this weekend. But in the days after the Birmingham, Guildford or Brighton bombings, the idea of the Irish as fashionable would have seemed equally lunatic. There are even, I admit tiny, orange shoots of recovery. Ulster Unionist leaders, thrawn to a man, have for years neglected to explain to outsiders why Unionists act as they do. David Trimble is the first actively to write articles for British newspapers and court American politicians.

If you re-read the list of great Irish cultural names above, you'll find that some are from Northern Ireland. Quite a few are Protestants. Even at this most difficult weekend, in this most impossible month, the thrawn people with whom I spent my teenage years, are changing. It is glacially slow, but it is change.

And what is the alternative? Another generation of teenagers, another long, hot July? Another dance on a Saturday night where Catholic boys do not think it advisable to attend?

Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC News24. Fergal Keane is away.