Can the slow death of Irish Nationalism be averted?

Two weeks ago during a fleeting exchange with Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers I congratulated her on her government’s radical attempts to dismantle the UK’s bloated public sector and hard-earned welfare state before encouraging a bold expedition of the project where its need is greatest: Northern Ireland.

On a personal and professional level Ms. Villiers came across just fine – approachable, polite, all that stuff – but I was never likely to be smitten since the very nature of her office is an affront to anyone with an ounce of self-respect. Hi, my name’s Ruarai and I’m an Irish Nationalist.

The idea that a reluctant blow-in North London MP is better placed than local people to exercise even one iota of power on this island is an affront. This, essentially, is the core point of Irish Nationalism and, seen this way, it should not be such a tough sell. Yet, as polls on the likelihood or desirability of a “united Ireland” and, more tellingly, the relative lack of heavy-hitters sitting on Stormont’s nationalist benches demonstrate, constructing a coherent, up-to-date, sell-able agenda for all-island based change has never been harder. Why?

Let’s consider the backstory. From a thriving collection of micro-groups and emerging groups, tireless and inspiring community activists and competitive, determined, articulate electoral candidates, Northern Nationalism eventually settled into two dominant and mutually hostile analyses of why Northern Ireland must change and how that change could be achieved (1) The traditional Irish Republican attempt (until – with the exception of “dissidents” – 1994*) to justify political violence as a legitimate and necessary means of rejecting and overthrowing the existence of any variant of a Northern Ireland state, irrespective of any potential reforms, and (2) the NICRA and later SDLP project of prioritizing civil rights based reform of the Northern state through non-violent means.

Today nationalist community activism lives more in the collective folk memory, gable walls and bar songs than ongoing advocacy. Republicans, saving their violence largely for their former comrades, have ‘embraced’ the reform agenda they spent years denouncing. The SDLP – once the party of accomplished “doctors, lawyers and teachers” – today appears more focused on resisting change (i.e. internal party change) than on creating it through anything resembling a new post-Agreement all-island policy agenda.

There is a chance, of course, that Sinn Fein’s future may involve simultaneously holding ministerial briefs in Dublin and Belfast but for those enchanted and intrigued by what the Provisionals might do with cross-border executive power, the party’s ministerial performance in Stormont indicates a disappointing answer: Largely whatever civil servants ‘advise’ them to do. As Gerry Adams has said, they’ll “always be subversives”. Think about that.

The contrast between today’s dreary nationalist frontbenchers and the vibrant, radical and impactful nationalist political culture of 68-98 is clear but comparing the sterility of contemporary nationalist politics with the ongoing usurpation of Northern Ireland’s professional classes by a highly-educated, mobile and growing Catholic middle-class is more instructive.

At a time when Nationalist politics should have more talent and energy to draw on than ever before, Stormont “Ministerial” (please) briefs have been held largely by a collection of note-readers; candidates whose combined extra-political professional experience measures very poorly against the talent residing in its voting constituencies.

Whatever the growing Catholic and non-Catholic middle-class is most motivated by, defining the potential and contours of a post-Agreement united Ireland – i.e. not just playing SF’s romantic subversive or the SDLP’s glorified constituency social worker – then running on that platform for Stormont, Westminster or the Dail appears far down the list.

Given the backdrop of a supposedly at least somewhat-nationalist constituency possessing the education, wealth and professional ‘clout’ capacity to construct, pursue and promote a coherent political critique of the current Northern Ireland state, what explains the dearth of anything resembling such a critique? Why has nationalist interest in mobilizing for radical change decreased so much since the pre-Agreement days?

The obvious answer, perhaps, is that today’s Northern Ireland state is so unrecognizable from the one that incubated the 1960s members of The Republican Clubs, NICRA, the People’s Democracy and so on, that there’s little left to criticize let alone rally opposition to.

Another answer is a leadership gap. How many nationalist politicians can you name who possess the ability, charisma and savvy required to provide and sell a critique of the Northern state? Moreover, how many even try anymore?

Irish nationalism is drifting. Its would-be voters are caught between a secret desire to see just how far Sinn Fein can take their all-Ireland project – and in fairness to Sinn Fein, at least they have one – and a sense that local politics is essentially a theatrical sideshow staffed by empties. The project is being left to two relatively small and, in different ways, dysfunctional political parties north of the border.

John Hume used to scoff at the notion that one side in Northern Ireland could secure an outright victory over the other. If unionist politicians were to lose their permanently pugilistic posture they might just find that some arguments really are easier to win hands down.

*Although the PIRA ended their first ceasefire in ’96 before reinstating it in 1997, this 96-97 campaign was, to paraphrase Anthony McIntyre (from memory and I hope correctly), a negotiating tactic designed to gain Sinn Fein’s access to all-party talks, i.e. a very different, scaled back objective from their decades long “Brits out” campaign.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.