By Jack Holland
“What about you?” is the traditional Belfast greeting, and as such I suppose it is pleasant enough. It invites you to reply with such information about yourself as you feel it is reasonable under the circumstances to give. It is usually offered (unlike many things in Belfast) in a good-humored and non-threatening manner.
However, the phrase has unfortunately been incorporated as a kind of rhetorical device that characterizes a whole species of argument in Northern Ireland which has become known as “Whataboutery.” Depressingly, at times it seems the only manner in which “debates” (though that is too fine a word to describe the exchanges) are conducted between nationalist/republicans and unionists/loyalists. These consist of one side making assertions which totally contradict the assertions of the other side, before the discussion slides into all-out “Whataboutery.”
An example of “Whataboutery” appeared recently on the Ulster Television website, which bravely offers readers the opportunity to e-mail in their responses to the station’s news stories. In this case, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, was reported as blaming republicans for orchestrating street violence in East Belfast. He accused the IRA of being committed to “a strategy of tension, demonstrated in the orchestration of the riots.”
The first response came from “Edward Carson” of Belfast. (No prizes for guessing what that would be.)
“Sinn Fein/IRA have so much to gain from stoking the fires of the paramilitary controlled working-class areas, and effectively keeping the two communitys [sic] well and truly polarized, after all they are not only the richest party in Northern Ireland but they have a private sectarian murder machine that generates up to 18 million pounds a year (at least).”
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The next response came from “Owen” to “the two-faced First Minister”: “The continuing instability in the process comes from the UUP’s strategy of tension towards the agreement. Trimble, Donaldson, Burnside etc twisting and turning trying to turn the GFA into a tool to exclude Sinn Fein and their voters from the democratic process.”
A three-line e-mail from “Kieran from Belfast” criticized Trimble for “blaming one side not the other” before true “Whataboutery” breaks out.
Maxxie from Belfast responded: “To Carson the deluded bigot. The only people keeping the communities apart is the Loyalist community, spearheaded by the Orange Order led by King Paisley. What about the violent Orangism you moron. What about the Catholics that are routinely pipebombed, blastbombed, murdered and what about the sick harrassment [sic] of school children. What about the 80 years of bigoted discrimination that has caused all this violence.”
These are parallel lines of argument that truly will never meet, and the line of argument known as “Whataboutery” can go on seemingly forever. Maxxie stops at 80 years of “bigoted discrimination.” But no doubt if the debate had continued, before long he would have been back to 1169. After that, there are problems, it must be confessed, in continuing “Whataboutery,” since before the Norman invasion of Ireland it is hard to find any one to blame for whatever ills or injustices were inflicted upon the country. (There were the Vikings, who did a fair bit of plundering and pillaging for a few centuries, but because they never really took root in Irish soil, though they founded all our major cities except Belfast, they are not usually dragged into the argument. At least not yet.)
Almost any discussion about Northern Ireland can spark off an outbreak of “Whataboutery.” If a republican dares suggest that the IRA has done everything expected of it in advancing the peace process, a Unionist will retort: “What about Colombia?”
The republican can then legitimately respond: “What about the pipe-bombing campaign?”
Unionist: “What about IRA shooting in Short Strand?”
Republican: “What about the Holy Cross Girls School:?”
The argument can quickly leap from current grievances to the more historical ones.
“What about Enniskillen?”
“What about the Dublin bombs?”
“What about La Mon House?”
“What about Bloody Sunday?”
“What about Bloody Friday?”
At this stage, it looses all semblance of an argument and becomes a sort of verbal riot, with each “what about” transformed into a kind of linguistic brick to be hurled at the head of your opponent. Meanwhile, whatever started the argument, it has been forgotten about. In other words, the argument has been transformed rapidly into a riot of accusations and counter-accusations, in many ways duplicating what happens on Belfast’s streets.
What does this tell us about the nature of Northern Ireland society? Nothing very cheering, I fear. One thing it starkly reveals is the incomprehension that one side feels for the other. There is no effort to try to see the discussion from the other person’s point of view, not even as a rhetorical exercise.
The other is the assumption that the only thing that can counter one grievance is another, bigger grievance.
The trouble is, of course, that each grievance is snatched from its context and treated as if it were a singular, unique event which is only explicable by reference to the wickedness of the side guilty of committing it. The moral universe has been reduced to a series of isolated complaints, unrelated to anything except that sense of grievance felt by the warring parties. This ignores the simple fact that in the real world, most events are caused by other events. In a very real sense, Bloody Friday was caused by Bloody Sunday. That is not to say that individual members of the Provisional IRA, under their commanders, can be absolved of responsibility for what they did. The point is, had Bloody Sunday not happened, the Provisionals would probably not have had the means nor the motivation to escalate their war, as represented by the heightening of their civilian bombing campaign. But those who argue for each event’s singularity believe not in causality but in the evilness of those who perpetrated the crime. The inherent wickedness of the British or the IRA is sufficient to explain what they have done. Any attempt to explain the events by other means is denounced as in effect excusing them.
In fact, when one looks at human history, few, if any, atrocities and crimes are explained simply by evil. No matter how often you counter one “what about” with another, it never leads to an explanation.