Alex Massie

A Scots-Irish candidate for a Scots-Irish people?

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Megan McArdle is surely right that Jamie Kirchik's prediction that Massachusetts may vote Republican this November seems, shall we say, implausible. Kirchik suggests that:

a Scots-Irish war veteran as the Republican nominee complicates predictions about whom Kennedy Country will support come November.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. As Megan says, "Irish" America is largely catholic, whereas the descendants of the Scots-Irish, er, are not. More to the point, not many of them live in New England. The Scots-Irish constituency, to the extent is still exists, is found in Tennessee, southern Virginia and the Carolinas.

Still, in pointing out Kirchik's mistake, Megan commits one of her own. It wasn't Iain Paisley who popularised the oft-misquoted line that Northern Ireland be "protestant nation for a protestant people", it was James Craig (himself of fine Scots-Irish stock), the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. This, for sure, offends modern sensiblities but ought to be remembered in the context of its time. To wit, an era in which Eamon de Valera insisted upon the virulently Roman Catholic nature of the Free State to the south. As Craig told the House of Commons in 1934:

The hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.

Until the last 20 years, of course, Ulster (or, rather, the six counties of Nothern Ireland) was "ahead of the South" in economic terms at least. This does not, for sure, justify or exonerate the discrimination faced by catholics in the north, but it might be remembered that protestants faced suspicion and discrimination of their own in the south (though not, admittedly, on the scale of that endured by catholics in the north). Still, the decline in the protestant population south of the border from 1922-45 is not simply a matter of birth-rate politics.

Anyway, the American politician most closely associated with the Scots-Irish is Senator Jim Webb. Heck, he did write the book* on the subject. Webb, of course, is sometimes mentioned as a potential Vice-Presidential** pick for the Democratic party and to the extent that the Scots-Irish constituency exists - though it's more a matter of sentiment and attitude than strict bloodlines these days - Webb's appeal to the white working class in Appalachia might be useful to Barack Obama.

*Well-worth reading. Its account of British and Irish history is overly simplistic and Webb's vision is somewhat corrupted by an impossible romanticism, but it's a splendid, even stirring, read. To wit:

Standing on the mountain, I worry that when this generation dies, the memory of those who went before me will be lost just as completely, buried under the avalanche of stories that have on occasion ridiculed my people and trivialised their journey. They came with nothing, and for a complicated set of reasons, many of them still have nothing. The slurs stick to me, standing on these graves. Rednecks. Trailer-park trash. Racists. Cannon fodder. My ancestors. My people. Me.

This people gave our country great things, including its most definitive culture. Its bloodlines have flowed in the veins of at least a dozen presidents, and in many of our greatest soldiers. It created and still perpetuates the most distinctly American form of music. It is imbued with a unique and unforgiving code of personal honor, less ritualized but every bit as powerful as the samurai code. Its legacy is broad, in many ways defining the attitudes and values of the military, of working-class America, and even of the peculiarly populist form of American democracy itself.

**I have my own doubts about this, mind you. Webb is not a natural campaigner, though this has the benefit of demonstrating a natural, awkward cussedness that, whatever else it may be, is, in the buzzword of the day, authentic. But I doubt that Webb is a "team-player" and suspect he'd be more useful to the Democratic party in the Senate than the Vice-President's office.

For lots more on Webb and McCain I can't recommend Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song highly enough.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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