On the Non-Existence of Northern Ireland — Alan Cunningham

The sign says: "This gate must not be operated from admin side."

Finally! Multi-national sports equipment manufacturer Reebok has confirmed what I suspected all along: Northern Ireland doesn’t exist.

Don’t worry, though. If you’re sitting in Derry, Belfast or Armagh – all of which are, admittedly, not very well known for their influence on Irish history, culture or affairs – enjoying a cup of tea and thinking, “well, where the hell am I then?”, take a moment to rejoice, instead, in ambiguity. This isn’t bad news: it is time for a rethink and there are useful lessons here for us all.

With its Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) “Ireland” t-shirt – a piece of marketing merchandising no doubt fast tracked into production on the back of the Conor McGregor phenomenon – renowned cartographical society and political think tank Reebok have finally closed the circle of (almost complete) non-expression that has haunted the entity officially known as “Northern Ireland”.

Compromised graphical representations of that other nebulous concept, “The United Kingdom” – wherein political/cultural units Scotland, England and Wales (Great Britain, natch) are all proudly on display but NI is excluded – have, of course, always existed.

Now we finally have an expression of “Ireland” that fails at accurate representation too, geographically and culturally.

But praise be Reebok, I say. We from the north are now free from the shackles of history, culture and politics. Both “sides” have finally forgotten we exist, in whatever form there may have once been a connection.

I’ve always been quite glad that the graphical expressions of the UK excluded the north, as it reflected a skepticism and disregard for authoritative notions about countries that I developed there in the first place. It is much harder to take the idea of a complete nation, state or government seriously, if you grew up in a place where you saw such ideas so often horribly abused, by both sides.

Also, the north, at least in certain parts, is a little different, I feel, so it was always secretly pleasurable to see it excluded. It is nice to feel like the outsider and to have that feeling reinforced. NI still functions, for example, in a much more state centred way that most of the rest of the UK, or indeed the Republic – probably a lot more so than the Republic, in fact, which I think lags behind even GB in terms of state provision (and this during and after the riches of the boom).

I feel like the truly free market – with all the implications that idea contains – has never really taken hold in the north in the ravenous way it has in many other parts of the Republic or GB, particularly the South East. I’ve always thought of that as a nice side-effect of marginalisation, although I know many would disagree and things are of course changing (for better or worse in the long run I don’t know, but the short term benefit exists, I’ll admit that).

My status as someone from the north, and particularly from South Armagh, the so-called “Bandit Country”, has also made me particularly attuned to attitudes other people have about the place. Some people really see it as a place apart, and not necessarily in a good way. When I hear people talk about upping sticks and getting out of London or Dublin, for example, there is not the same obsession with moving to the north of Ireland as there is with certain other places. But all this is fine with me. It means that when I visit the place it is largely free of the pressures and pace of modern life. I’m not arguing for a second that life is always great there, or that it is not without its serious problems, but hey. As with non-expression, you just have to take what you can get.

Because I think it is perversely even better now that we have become completely eradicated from visual representations of both the UK and Ireland. Equally disregarded and left to our own devices. Of course, artists got here or hereabouts many years ago, though in a slightly more subversive way. Patrick Ireland (aka Brian O’Doherty) had a similar idea with his 1980 Swift inspired work A Modest Proposal wherein, however, instead of disappearing the six counties entirely, they were superimposed over much of south eastern Ireland.

But enough with art and it is clever subversions – Ireland’s idea clearly didn’t go far enough. Here then, with an object of pure commerce, a Reebok UFC t-shirt no less, is an opportunity for a much more useful designator, a more contemporary expression of what it is to be, rather than a simple matter of nationality. Northern Ireland is, I think, as GB has long hinted at but Reebok now proves, nothing. It is a void, no longer defined alone by its own historical failures but – perhaps more accurately – by the additional failures of its neighbours.

The Republic, so called, reneged on the radical and revolutionary basis of its birth to become simply an outpost of the much larger neo-liberal dream. Ireland is also additionally burdened – and for this I feel really sympathetic – by the notion of a somehow “appropriate” Irishness, which is really quite tiresome. Guinness! The craic! Tayto crisps! Barry’s Tea (ok, I’ll leave Barry’s tea alone). We are not even allowed our accents – they fall outside categorization if they are not deemed “Irish” enough. A friend of mine from England was recently travelling through the Inishbofen peninsula in Donegal. He was innocently surprised by the similarity between the accent in Donegal (ostensibly Ireland) and Derry (ostensibly the UK). It surprised me that he thought Dublin a more natural centre of influence for Donegal than Derry, and the Dublin accent ubiquitous. There is no end to this kind of stuff, though, innocent or not – my girlfriend mentioned to an Irish colleague that her boyfriend was from Ireland. Where, she inquired? Newry. Oh, that is not real Ireland, she was quietly informed – but I take it as a compliment. I’m happy to not meet the membership requirements of either side and to live instead in the margins of statehood and national identity.

The failures of the United Kingdom? Well, I don’t really need to say much about the failures embodied there. The kingdom? The fading dream of the NHS? Privatization of everything? I mean, really, what more needs to be said?

So, politicians and people of the north, please, at least think about it. Something completely our very own: Non-existence. Stop bothering with devolution, or the idea of a United Ireland, or more of the same old Unionism. What we could become is instead a sovereign netherworld, existing and non-existing, holding power and yet having none at all, culturally and historically important and yet not so at all. A nation and simultaneously nothing, dismissive of the petty concerns about national status that so bother many other parts of the world.

Please don’t get offended by this, northern Irish women and men. Here is a great opportunity for a vital and ethical stance on the grand stage of nations. Complete ambiguity and skepticism as to sovereignty; as to, even, whether the place or state even exists at all.

And look, there is a positive note to this for all of you: everybody can be nothing. It involves… well, it involves nothing at all. We could here perhaps adapt the refrain of Bartleby, the Scrivener, and all try to actively negate, saying, “I would prefer not… to be a nation”.

So, Reebok, please get back to work. If only other countries could benefit from this opportunity. More of these t-shirts. Exclude Germany from a map of Europe. The US from North America. New Zealand from the Antipodes, London from an illustration of England. Take Saudi out of the Middle East.

For perhaps this ambiguous non-state/state existence offers a final answer to the question of emancipatory politics that so often parallels these questions of nationality, sovereignty and identity.

Nothing belongs to no-one, see? It cannot be owned. It must, by definition, be shared. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes that neither the state nor the market can offer a way out of the catastrophic problems of existence but he also adds that there is no easy solution to propose on this point, no reconciliation of existing ideas to be offered as a solution. It is instead, he argues, “crucial to re-invent one”.

So, from the ashes of Northern Ireland, destroyed at last by a Reebok t-shirt, I therefore propose this: A preference for nothing, and the freedom and ability to live there.


Alan Cunningham is the author of Count from Zero to One Hundred (Penned in the Margins, 2013). Coming originally from nothing he is now based in London. @alanmcunningham.

Image: SignStill Burning, Creative Commons.