I say Flora, you say Dairygold: Ireland is divided by religion, politics - and consumer culture, says Brian Cathcart

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THE TWO lists printed here, compiled by Nielsen, the market research company, show what the people of the two parts of Ireland buy most when they shop for groceries. They are different, perhaps surprisingly so.

Only eight of the 20 most popular branded products in Northern Ireland figure in the top 20 in the Republic. Of those only Coca- Cola (number one in the North and two in the South) and Kellogg's Cornflakes (six in the North and eight in the South) occupy even roughly the same position in the lists.

Ariel, Flora, Persil and KitKat are all much higher up the Northern list than the Southern; Pampers and Tayto (crisps) are lower. Coke aside, the two parts of the island prefer quite different soft drinks and drink different brands of coffee. In the North, they like Nescafe, in the South, Maxwell House.

What does this tell us? It tells us that in grocery terms at least, 70-odd years of partition have had a quite drastic effect - Ireland is divided.

We knew that, of course, but in a different way. The North is mainly Protestant and pro-British while the South is independent, overwhelmingly Catholic and, at least by tradition, nationalistic. We know, too, that the North is divided internally and that the Catholic minority there would, on the whole, prefer to be ruled from Dublin. These are the divisions stamped on our minds by 25 ugly years, and rightly so, for they are clearly the main differences underlying the long political crisis there. When people speak of healing the divisions in Ireland, whether it be John Hume or John Major, they are thinking of these and not the groceries.

But the groceries have their significance. It is not that religion, race or politics are reflected in brand choices - there is nothing in anybody's catechism about which kind of soap powder you should use - it is that North and South have acquired, for want of a better word, distinct traditions.

The seven decades of division have encompassed the consumer age; even the oldest brands on the two lists were fairly new in 1920. For as long as there have been supermarket chains there have been two Irelands for them to develop in, and for as long as there have been television advertisements there have been different commercial channels, North and South, to carry them.

As a result, the common currency of the kitchen table is different: the North likes Nambarrie and Punjana tea while the South likes Lyons; the North likes Muller yogurt while the South likes Yoplait and Petit Filou; the North likes Flora and the South does, too, but the South likes Dairygold more.

Partition coincided, more or less, with the arrival of radio in Ireland. The motor car was establishing itself; mass production, plastics, pop music and the British Welfare State all lay in the future. There was no concrete and there were no motorways.

Many of these things, the essential furniture of modern everyday life, have developed separately in the two parts of Ireland. Bridging the divisions, even if the process stops short of political unity, may involve more far-reaching changes than many imagine.

It is possible to make too much of this. Television viewers in the South, for example, follow the plot of Coronation Street as closely as those in the North; when people go to the pub, North or South, they drink Guinness and Smithwick's (beer), or Bushmills and Jameson's (whiskeys); when they talk football it is often Manchester United and Liverpool.

It is only natural that they have a good deal in common, but for such a small island the differences between North and South are surely more striking than the similarities. And although Nielsen has not broken down grocery consumption in Northern Ireland by religion, it is a fair bet that the purchasing preferences of Catholics there are closer to those of their Protestant neighbours than of the people of the South.

Republicans used to call this sort of thing 'cultural imperialism' - Northern Catholics being brainwashed into a sort of brand loyalty to Britain. (Nielsen has a similar list of the top-selling brands in the United Kingdom and it has much more in common with the Northern Irish list than the Southern.) Republicans might argue today that this could all be quickly undone by having all-Ireland commercial television with all-Ireland advertisements, but it would not be so simple as that. The differences between the two lists are symptoms of something deeper.