The decline of traditional patriotism in Britain and Ireland

Remember the great closing episode of Blackadder from the trenches of the Great War where the artful dodger meets his nemesis at last   : “ We need a futile gesture?” The “futile gesture” being that he was to lead his men over the top to be mown down by the German machine guns.  But it was in Ireland that the futile gesture worked best, in the blood sacrifice of 1916.   The Irish Times had some fun at the taoiseach’s  expense today, carrying a signed article by him explaining   his constitutional reforms including the case for abolishing the Seanad  in the referendum on 4th October. My take is slightly different from Mick’s.  Enda’s pitch leading with a checklist of savings is anything but uplifting,

 Already, the Dáil is to be reduced by eight TDs, saving €2 million. Already, the Dáil is doing more with less, working harder and sitting longer. We are already reducing the number of city and county councillors by over 40 per cent. And if the people vote Yes to abolishing the Seanad, the number of politicians in Leinster House will be reduced by one-third.

The Times then allows its curmudgeonly  columnist John Waters to slap him down with another one of  those Was It For This questions. Was it for this – Enda’s tinkering  with the constitution  – that the  blood sacrifice  was made?  Enda’s real opponents next month, warns John will be the ghosts of the men of 1916   The headline runs:  “2016 election will pitch Kenny against Pearse.” But the piece manages to make even the compliment a pretty backhanded one:

 Perhaps what we most urgently require to recall about 1916 is not the heroism but rather the fatal loss of vision which it finally amounted to. In getting themselves shot, Pearse and the others denied posterity the quality of intelligence which their continuing presence would have brought to the independence project.

In the aftermath of their absence, Ireland was left to the tender mercies of till-minders and crawthumpers, and the consequences can still be heard on the radio any morning, as politicians and self-describing “experts” seek to define the existential difference between €2.8 billion and €3.1 billion.

Leave aside the that it took the men of 1916 “  to get themselves shot” for the practical revolutionaries like Collins  to get down to the real business  of planning assassinations and organising the funds. As a much later poet politician Mario Cuomo once said : “You campaign  in poetry but govern in prose.”  Nobody has ever accused Enda of being much good in either.

The wider question is this. Waters relies on  a vision of  Irish patriotism  against which to compare the  pedestrian taisoeach of today.  Apart from in the minds of a few romantics in the south and rather more in the north for whom it was never fulfilled,  how much of this patriotism still exists?  Ireland made the transition  from the patriotism of the oppressed to the  patriotism of the State  via a civil war and unfulfilled unity. Now that the civil war legacy is present only in the forms of the party divide and unity is viewed with greater detachment what is Irish patriotism about beyond a sense of “us” in a more or less settled state?

I ask myself a similar question about British patriotism. the dog that never barks in the Scottish referendum debate. Nobody has yet put the gut emotional argument in favour of the Union. It’s all of a tangle about money, the head before the heart as they put it. British patriotism is still hobbled by angst about Empire, Irish patriotism  inhibited by the acceptance of being unable to deliver the promises of the Proclamation. Both are consequences of grappling with reality at close quarters.  Are we left with anything more than the polemics of John Waters and a call for another round in the back parlour?

 Far from nation-building, the self-styled inheritors of the mantle of Michael Collins propose to dismantle the institutions for which the blood of past generations flowed in rivers. Instead of leadership, they seek to appease the mob by offering the depletion of their own numbers without benefit of firing squad.

Great stuff, great stuff. Mine’s a black Bush.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London