Mark Simpson of the BBC recently told us that British ministers are now permitted to refer to “Ireland”. Previously, as outlined in a confidential briefing document from 1985, it was “best avoided”, as “a term with an all-Ireland context”.
“So what do we say?” I’m sure they asked. Well not “Free State” either. This was the “[o]fficial name of Republic 1922-37. Sometimes used as a slightly derogatory term particularly used by extreme republicans. No longer in common usage. Unacceptable.” Nor are “Southern Ireland” or “Era” (Éire) particularly welcome I hope they were told. But what entity exactly is it that they are now allowed to call “Ireland”? The difficulty could explain why at some point in the difficult negotiations of the peace process era a state appeared to have been born called “Dublin”.
“Free State” may have been unacceptable for British ministers and diplomats but it was in common usage in the 1970s and I’m sure also in the 80s among both nationalists and unionists in – what shall I say? – the North, and without any particular connotation or side to it. It was just, I think, that everyone was a bit slow in getting up to speed with John A Costello’s demarche of 1948.
What people call things when no one is watching them and what they call them when they are being observed and perhaps judged or interpreted can be different things. And while politicians and diplomats (and newspaper style books) generally have to settle for one acceptable term, ordinary folk can and often do call the same thing by several names.
As the British observed, “extreme republicans”, or even republicans, have a difficulty with calling the twenty-six-county state (there I go) “the Republic”, preferring “the South” or, less frequently now, “the Free State”. I would normally tend to call it, interchangeably, “the South” or “the Republic” if it is being thought of in distinction to “the North”, otherwise perhaps just “here”. And if it is being thought of in distinction to France or Germany or Britain, simply “Ireland”; and I think this “Ireland”, in this context, almost always denotes the state, not the island.
For someone brought up a nationalist and from that place, “Ulster” is unacceptable (and not just because of the rather tedious pedantry about Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan); “Northern Ireland” probably just about acceptable; “the North” a preferred option; and if your chosen term is “the Six Counties” (not to mention “the occupied Six Counties”) you are wearing your politics on your sleeve.
Most Protestants I knew (a good number) were content to call the city they lived in “Derry” when I was growing up there. If there was a television camera or a radio microphone pointing at them, however, it could often become “Londonderry”. As for ourselves, our local purveyor of news and much opinion, The Derry Journal, went to the greatest lengths to deny the slightest legitimacy to the other side’s point of view, or indeed to their existential rights. If the prime minister, Lord Brookeborough (the man who famously wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place), referred in a speech to Ulster, as he often did, the word would be transcribed in the paper between quotes, as if he was speaking with a curl on the side of his mouth: “We have been under threat before, we have seen dark days, but we have prevailed, for ‘Ulster’ is strong and ‘Ulster’ men are made of strong stuff.”
The biscuit, however, was taken in a photograph caption I remember from the later 1960s. On a winter’s day a local bus (the service was provided by the Ulster Transport Authority or UTA) had skidded on the ice and was lying on its side, half in the ditch, on a country road, providing the paper with a great front page photo opportunity. The caption read: “A ‘U’TA bus which skidded and crashed in icy conditions outside Donemana yesterday morning”.