When I hear “Macedonia is Greek!” I think of the slogan used by opponents to Irish independence in the early 1900s: “Ulster is British.” The two cries are mirror images of national agony.
The “Macedonian” issue has very strong similarities with the history of Ireland. When Ireland won its partial freedom from Britain, the island was divided: The northern region, named “Ulster,” was split – six of its nine counties remained in the UK and are now known as “Northern Ireland,” while the other three became part of the Republic. “Divided Ulster” became a battle cry for the nationalists who continue to pursue the unification of the whole island.
Historically, Ulster has been the heartland of Irish identity and mythology. The greatest body of Irish epic poetry, the medieval “Ulster Cycle,” features some of the greatest heroic figures of the Irish imagination: Cuchulain (believed to be the son of a Celtic god and with very strong similarities to Herakles) and Deirdre, a tragic heroine who has inspired numerous modern incarnations. On the island of Ireland, some of the most sacred topoi of Irish identity remain in the UK.
This probably stirs atavistic memories in many Greeks, who regard Philip of Macedon and his imperialistic son Alexander as quintessentially Greek. The division of historic Macedonia, between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece, replicates that of Ulster: Vergina, linked indissolubly with the rise of Alexander, remains in Greece, which must irk some nationalists in FYROM.
If we fast-forward to the present day, the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, both at present within the European Union is also relevant to Greece. Ever since “partition,” hardline republicans, represented militarily by the IRA and politically by Sinn Fein, have campaigned for the unification of Ireland and the final eviction of the British.
Here comes the difficult history lesson: The Irish Constitution of 1937 included two articles which asserted the de jure right of the republic to reclaim the “Six Counties,” while acknowledging the de facto situation “pending the reintegration of the national territory.” The irredentist form of these articles was removed in 1999 when it became obvious that no progress would be made between the British and Irish governments on the future of the territory unless that claim was abandoned.
Here we see a parallel with the FYROM constitution, which while not quite so insistent on reclaiming lost territory nevertheless has irredentist ambitions. As Greek politicians and UN negotiators continually point out, a change is necessary if Greece is to become amenable to a name for FYROM.
And then there is the question of language and identity. From 1922 Northern Ireland was governed by a Protestant majority which controlled the voting system and in effect suppressed the human rights of the Catholic minority. The Irish language (Gaelic) was suppressed. If language is the principal marker of identity, the inability to articulate one’s existence – to say nothing of participating in politics via the vote – is to be denied a life with any hope or meaning.
So here’s a second lesson: A friend in Toronto, whose Macedonian father emigrated to Canada 100 years ago, went back to his father’s native village, on the Greek side of the border, to trace his roots. He found not only that the cemetery, with its distinctive Macedonian tombstones, had been bulldozed, but that the church records of births and deaths had also been “disappeared.” The only sad conclusion he could draw was that Greek authorities in both the civil and ecclesiastical spheres were eradicating traces of an identity which they wish to deny: the right to be Macedonian and, at the same time, Greek.
In my opinion, if Greece wishes to resolve the issue of FYROM’s name, it needs to look at the diplomatic maneuvers between Dublin, London and Belfast regarding the eventual governance of Northern Ireland, especially if the north will no longer be in the EU. Greece needs to acknowledge the existence of a Macedonian language and culture, a heritage which is partly shared with classical Greece and partly a distinct historical entity with a legacy to the present day.
If you look at the Irish history lesson through the eyes of both Greeks and Slav Macedonians, and if you put aside all appeals to sentiment, it is still possible to be both pragmatic and aspirational: To continue to object to FYROM being called “Macedonia” is absurd; so too is any claim based on ethnicity or territory to reintegrate what has always been an imprecise geographical area.
History can never be arrogated to one side or another. History is shared. And sharing depends on understanding, on respect, and on a desire to move forward. Nationalists, however noble their cause, seldom move forward because they cling to a past that is often indistinct and even unhelpful. History is the signpost to the future and as such it shows how that future is to be negotiated, as a matter of compromise, the art of the possible, which is anathema to hardliners.
Ireland may never be united. Neither will Macedonia. Irish people living in Northern Ireland, in the UK, are nevertheless Irish, whether they are in the EU or not. Macedonians will also live both sides of a border which, at present, is also an EU border. If Alexander was truly “Great,” then he can be both Greek-great and great for Macedonia.
Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Kathimerini.