Irishness before and after nationalism

 

In the early part of the seventh century a monk got out his parchment and quill and wrote a letter to the Pope about one of the theological disputes of the day. What he said about the debate need not concern us. The modern reader is more likely to be struck about how the holy man describes himself. He goes out of his way to make it clear he is Irish. Another letter to Frankish bishops emphasises the point. In the missive he is careful to distinguish himself again as Irish and also different from Britons and Franks. In other words, fourteen centuries ago, this monk whose consciousness of himself might in theory have been entirely shaped and dictated by his membership of a powerful, universal Church, recognised he had a distinct cultural sensibility which was separate not only from his religious outlook but also from the identities embraced by the other people he encountered on his travels.

Columbanus, a remarkable figure who founded two major monasteries on the Continent, was far from being the first to talk about identity. As long ago as the fifth century BC, Herodotus refers to a common Greekness. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese also marked themselves out as different from other peoples. But these were major civilisations. What makes Columbanus’s self description interesting is that despite coming from a windswept, boggy, rocky island with scarcely any art, architecture or literature he still had pride in his roots. National self confidence runs very deep no matter who you are or where you’re from. There is a danger though in reading too much political awareness into this outlook. For example if someone had asked Columbanus whether Irish people should have their own state he literally would not have known what they were talking about.

It would be in fact many centuries later until the first states came into being. Before these new political entities emerged after the Middle Ages, people were obligated to a variety of powerful figures including lords, monarchs, emperors and even popes. Allegiances overlapped meaning there was no clear hierarchy of authority. To add to the confused picture, governance wasn’t territorially based. Homage might easily be owed to a king in another land.

Even when centralised government came into being, it wasn’t universally adopted. Germans for instance didn’t get a single unified state until the late nineteenth century. Nowadays, the existence of a ramshackle entity like the Holy Roman Empire under which German speaking peoples lived for most of the last millennium looks like an aberration. But its longevity suggests the loose governance arrangements in some way satisfied the region’s complex political needs.

Now that the state has become the dominant form of political order, it looks as if its worldwide adoption was historically determined. That’s an unwarranted conclusion. A global system of confederations and federations where individual countries have limited autonomy remains a viable, and possibly more attractive, alternative. Another more troubling issue, which is rarely examined, is the exclusive and wide-ranging control the state is able to exercise over the individual. Political philosophers have struggled to justify the extraordinary sovereign rights each and every government takes for granted.

The best and perhaps only justification for the state is a pragmatic one. It offers a reasonably efficient way to order our affairs. But its limitations are becoming more evident. The stand alone state nowadays hasn’t the power to safeguard the needs of its people. Pooling of sovereignty, though often resisted on chauvinistic grounds, is a rational response to challenges that are beyond the capacity of any one country to handle. It’s that awareness which explains why a majority here voted to stay within the European Union. And it’s why the EU despite the stresses and strains being placed on it won’t break up.

Just like other institutions, states have evolved. Aside from some exceptions, Belgium being one, they’re now typically nation states. This transformation is explained by a form of political consciousness that emerged only two centuries ago. Nationalism, not to be confused with the simple pride Columbanus had in his identity, rests on the belief that the world’s population naturally, necessarily and neatly divides up into different peoples, each with a unique set of characteristics, whose needs can only be satisfied within separate states.

A number of mostly leftist writers have critiqued nationalism as an invention used by elites to fabricate cohesiveness among populations of otherwise atomised individuals. That’s probably a little harsh. In different countries, history and tradition have combined to create distinctive cultures. However converting the fact and fiction that make up a country’s story into a political weapon has been an act of genius. It has produced an ideology which because of its unprovable but also undeniable claims has been impervious to rational criticism.

A heady brew of reason and emotion has made nationalism a transformative force in world affairs. Early in the last century, its political power was amplified through the development of a brand new doctrine of national self determination. Essentially it was argued that if a people shared a culture within some definable area, they had a right to rule themselves. As such it has fuelled numerous independence movements.

Initially resisted by countries with colonial empires, self determination was eventually embraced by the wider international community. But nowadays exactly what is being endorsed is far from clear. The 1970 UN Declaration on Friendly Relations said peoples should be allowed to determine their political status but then went on to deny them approval to break away from sovereign states. You’d need to search far and wide to find more contradictory propositions.

National self determination is too incoherent a political concept to be reformed but too venerable a doctrine to be abandoned. It was ingeniously worked into the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement where it was used to endorse the right of Irish people to self determination but on terms that emptied it of any force. The Irish were entitled to a United Ireland but only if both parts of the island separately voted for it.

While nationalists and unionists remain wedded to the notion of self determination, others recognise that it has less and less meaning for them. As one piece of evidence I look to the 20% who described themselves as simply Northern Irish in the 2011 Census. The figure is almost 30% for those who did not apply the term exclusively. Significantly the designation proved attractive to roughly equal proportions of Protestants and Catholics. For many of these individuals, the Union or the Border has ceased to be an overriding political priority. Devolution offers sufficient autonomy and enough safeguards to protect their interests for the foreseeable future. In short they are in the process of transcending the conventional nationalist mindset.

Now, some of those who describe themselves as Northern Irish might struggle to define exactly what they mean by the term. It’s not exactly a well explored concept. They may not even have thought about it until they travel. But once away from these shores, with the sense of perspective that brings, they discover that no matter how maddening, infuriating and sometimes downright embarrassing this corner of the world is, it exerts a powerful emotional pull. When they step off a plane at a local airport, they know they’re back among their own.

That said, it’s legitimate to ask whether we have an awareness here of real substance? If you accept that political and economic forces shape consciousness, then it follows that almost 100 years of a unique tortured history will have left its mark. In particular just as endless conflict has converted many to the nationalist cause on both sides of the political divide, it has prompted others and not just those who call themselves Northern Irish, to question the almost mystical attachment here to constitutional issues. If we include all those who are left cold by endless debate on the border, who either don’t vote or are forced to take sides in elections if only to keep out a less attractive alternative, then we are talking about a sizeable proportion of the population.

The legacy of past political battles has left those who call themselves Northern Irish without a political champion. The four biggest parties are committed to either the notion of a British or Irish state. Protecting or securing that status is an absolute must for them. Alliance by contrast takes no stance on the border. That should make it an obvious choice for the Northern Irish but it clearly fails to pick up most of their votes. There may be an answer to this puzzle.

The unionist and nationalist parties are proud to call themselves British or Irish. They and their supporters take a delight in celebrating their respective identities. That’s not an option for Alliance which doesn’t do labels. It treats nationhood as a private matter. But it may well be the Northern Irish are just like everyone else and want the party they support to give expression to their identity. If so, Alliance’s approach may, in the round, be costing them support.

As it stands the Northern Irish are a people in search of a political home. There is an opportunity here. If some grouping changes its message to tap into the emerging consciousness of the Northern Irish, it will be able to attract substantial support from both sides of the religious divide and especially among young people. Such a party should in fact have the potential to create an entirely new dynamic to challenge entrenched positions. It is not too fanciful that to suggest it could reshape the political landscape to allow progress to take root again. On a practical level its main priority will be the unfinished business of making Northern Ireland work.

However while a party on those lines may not be fixated on national boundaries, recognising that the power of the state is being diluted by the growing influence of international bodies, it has to take a view on the future of the border. In my next article I will propose a solution to that issue which in theory could command the support of a majority of both nationalists and unionists.

  • Nevin

    “Pooling of sovereignty, though often resisted on chauvinistic grounds, is a rational response to challenges that are beyond the capacity of any one country to handle. It’s that awareness which explains why a majority here voted to stay within the European Union. And it’s why the EU despite the stresses and strains being placed on it won’t break up.”

    The EU is an evolving institution of very unequal relationships in an ever-changing political environment so its future is highly unpredictable.

    We don’t really know why people voted remain, leave or not at all:

    The differences are even starker when one considers how the respondents described their own ideological position and identity. Of those who identified as nationalists, 88% voted Remain, compared to only 34% of those who described themselves as unionists. And 87% of “Irish” respondents voted Remain compared to only 37% of “British” respondents. That said, voting was not only ethnonational. Both Protestants and Catholics were split – though Protestants were much more polarised. .. source

    Nationalists in various parts of the UK may easily have been voting anti-UK as pro-EU.

  • DaptoDogs

    “For many of these individuals, the Union or the Border has ceased to be an overriding political priority. Devolution offers sufficient autonomy and enough safeguards to protect their interests for the foreseeable future.”
    Unfortunately, Brexit changed this.

  • Brexit threatens to change this but it depends on the deal we eventually get. There’s a lot to play for. In any case those who have an Irish passport will continue to retain a stake in the EU

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    “whose consciousness of himself might in theory have been entirely shaped and dictated by his membership of a powerful, universal Church” The Irish church was not universal at this time. It was distinct and separate from the universal, i.e. Catholic, Church of Rome which led to conflict with European theology & doctrine. Irish tonsures were different & Easter was celebrated at a different time: the latter only being resolved at the Synod of Whitby where mainstream European Christianity won.
    If he set himself apart it might have had nothing to do with his sense of Irishness but instead due to his theology.

  • DP Moran

    “A number of mostly leftist writers have critiqued nationalism as an
    invention used by elites to fabricate cohesiveness among populations of
    otherwise atomised individuals.”

    The left whose ultimate goal is a one world Marxist government know that good ordinary people with their ties to tradtion, their religion and nationality would never accept either globalism or genocidal communism and so attack the structures and bonds which tie people to their faith and nation.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It’s interesting that the (supposedly) left wing Sinn Fein positions itself outside that leftist orthodoxy.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    “Nationalists in various parts of the UK may just as easily have been voting anti-UK as pro-EU.” By “Nationalists” do you mean separatists in Scotland, Wales & NI? There are many English “Nationalists” whose vote we would assume to be more pro England and … possibly anti-EU?

  • Nevin

    Some of the English nats could be anti-UK as well as anti-EU ie little Englanders.

  • When Columbanus is referring to his Irishness, he is not making a theological point. The context suggests he is just talking about non-religious identity. And while it is true he was much exercised about the appropriate time to celebrate Easter, he absolutely would not have thought of himself as being part of some Celtic Church sect separate from Rome.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Very true.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Very interesting piece, enjoyed it. Just to pick on one observation though, I think it may be an error to assume identifying as ‘Northern Irish’ means a rejection of British and/or Irish identities. What a lot of surveys are too blunt an instrument to capture is the extent of overlap and interweave between identities. For example, in terms of people from a unionist background, I don’t know any that would not describe themselves as Northern Irish / from Northern Ireland.

    I always think identity is best seen as a multi-stranded fabric, in which some fibres are thicker and more prevalent than others. Everyone, in this analogy, creates a bespoke garment for themselves, based on our upbringing and on our own feelings / tastes / preferred self-image. The vast majority of people in N Ireland have more than one identity going on, in terms of places, regions, nations past and present, islands, archipelagos, continents or simply as belonging to the planet (in some cases, I suspect it might be Vulcan).

    The group Mr Delargy talks about and places hope in is perhaps really those who choose N Irish but not at all either British or Irish identities. The thinking seems to be that these are the people who are breaking the chains of history. I can see why; but I think it doesn’t quite work, because actually having a Northern Irish only identity is no more (and no less) valid than any other decision one may take on one’s hierarchy of affinities or loyalties.

    I live in a different part of the UK now but in my Ulster days, I was (and remain now) equally comfortable being described as Northern Irish or British; and while I wouldn’t self-describe as Irish, a term that turned very sour for many of us during the Troubles in particular, probably for good in my case any way, I am very comfortable being recognised as an Ulster Briton as part of the island of Ireland’s divided cultural topography, with interconnections with the rest of the island that are worth cherishing. This becomes easier the more Irish nationalism chills out and fully accepts who I am. In the Republic it’s much easier for that to happen than in N Ireland, where cultural denigration of local British people is still unfortunately characteristic of a lot of nationalist discourse, even among some of the more intelligent and cultured nationalists. The problem there is a narrative of Irishness which has seen it and Britishness as mutually exclusive, and made Britishness into something alien to Ireland.

    So I think instead of building identities that reject ‘outside’ contamination – and people holding fast to an exclusive Northern Irish identity can be as guilty of that as any other – I would argue the public good is best served by an embracing of a different model of identity. That is, one where the complexity of identity is embraced, where differences in identity are accepted and where individual choice is paramount. There is no future in imagining we will be saved by a common identity, whether British, Irish, or Northern Irish. It is a pipe dream. The future surely is in finally accepting and respecting our differences and respecting each other’s choices in that regard as as valid as our own.

    That said, Northern Irish identity is something I think it would be beneficial for people to embrace as one of their strands – to have one strand of identity that is shared across the communities (which neither Irish or British can really do) has got to be a good thing. Just don’t expect it to get you off the real job of understanding people of identities you don’t have. If we can all do that a bit better, we’re getting somewhere.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    The case for an independent Ireland is only based to a small extent on identity/religion/culture. Historically, its based far more on the fact that England has proved completely useless at running Ireland and nationalists have always had as their main argument that an Ireland ruled by the Irish would be more successful than an Ireland ruled by the English. This was the case even for those nationalists who were lukewarm about identity and culture issues, who didn’t speak Irish and who played rugby/soccer rather than GAA (e.g. de Valera). Even if we are charitable and acquit them of the charge of malevolence, England’s record in ruling Ireland is truly abysmal. Compare the economic and social development of Ireland 1801-1922 with that of other small north-western European countries. While other countries developed economically and saw their populations rise during that period. the only things that Ireland got from rule by England were famines, depopulation (population down 65%), mass emigration, land seizures, economic backwardness, destruction of culture etc. I’ve never heard a unionist argue that England’s rule over Ireland was actually a success (whether unionists in the pre-1922 all-Ireland context or post-1922 in the Northern Ireland context). From Sir Edward Carson to Arlene Foster, their only argument for continuing with the failed Union has been, not that it was a success or that Ireland/N. Ireland was prospering under that Union, but that independence from England would be even worse. This argument was always absurd, but Ireland’s record since its economy took off in the late 1950s has blown it sky high.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    supposedly is the word. They are above all, ultra-nationalist. Internationalism for them is window dressing and largely about (1) positioning themselves as part of some global “freedom” struggle, and (2) hooking up with similar loons elsewhere e.g. Basque separatists, violent Palestinian groups. They don’t really believe in class struggle, they are all about keeping the Brits out and little else.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Your argument seems to be based on ‘England’ though and ‘the English’. It ignores the fact that the country is the UK and it includes us – we are part of it. We have, should we choose to exercise it, devolution on all but a few national areas of policy. If N Ireland isn’t a harmonious place, it could be that the issue is a N Ireland one and people there need to own it.

  • Conchúr

    Pseudo-historical nonsense. Whitby was nothing more than a working out of a power struggle between Iona and Canterbury over jurisdiction in northern England. It didn’t involve Ireland and this Irish Church didn’t regard itself either as separate from or in conflict with Rome. Practically every diocese in the Irish Church had adopted the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter some 60 years before Whitby and unbidden at that.

  • Granni Trixie

    We’re on the same page again, MU!

  • NotNowJohnny

    Is the country really the United Kingdom? If it is, when and how did it become the country?

  • Hugh Davison

    Some people may be tired of the nineteenth century nation-state paradigm, with it’s endless wars and destructive one-upmanship games, and see the EU as a possibility for peaceful and prosperous co-existence.

  • William Kinmont

    Really good article. Increasingly I too think that the squabling over the accepted norms of our politics is becoming irrelevant.Solutions are not really to be found in the current system.
    A solution to brexit and our problems could be weaved out of blurring the lines of what nationalism and the state means.
    Current unionist and republican politics are outdated . I didn’t vote for Brexit but I do hope that this is one virtue of it, that it wakes people up to how past it and irrelivant our current politics are.
    Unionists can hang on to their concept of Britishness , Republicans to their monoculture idea of Irishness neither have any relivance to the pragmatics of solving the problems Brexit throughs up.

  • DaptoDogs

    Sorry MU, you appear to have raised a semantic point in order to deal with empiricism, and then resettled on an empirical point to deal with your own semantic one. Does this not strike you as a confused methodology? The UK is not a federal system with equal senatorial powers designed to check the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in the same way that Canada, Australia or the US are. For example, to make a constitutive change of Brexit’s magnitude in any of the other Anglophone ‘countries’ a majority of states is required as well a majority of votes. That is not what happened with the Bexit plebiscite, and any time variations in the UK’s four constitutive ‘kingdoms’ are raised, they are typically opposed by responses that the plebiscite was a ‘nation wide vote’. That simply underlines the political asymmetries, in ways that support John the Optimist’s point that the political reality is: England and English voters have always ruled. Given that this is a structural problem with the composition of states commented upon since Aristotle’s time, semantic qualifiers aren’t really a way out of the problem. Given also that the tyranny of a majority was the underlying logic of partitionists, what would local ownership of NI’s disharmonies really entail?

  • DaptoDogs

    I genuinely appreciate the practical reasoning and farsightedness of this piece.

  • DaptoDogs

    While I endorse your closing observations on Andersonian identity construction, the GFA’s text:
    (4) “affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities;”
    And your text:
    “The problem in northern nationalism seems to be to hold to a narrative of Irishness which sees Irishness and Britishness as mutually exclusive, and which pretends Britishness is something alien to Ireland. The GFA is supposed to have ended that delusion about Britishness – nationalist leaders pledged to no longer think that way – but it often feels like they prefer to conveniently “forget” that part of the document.”
    ….appear to be working on different wavelengths here, and suggest that, even with the best will in the world, there’s an unconscious exclusivity to identity that Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ constructivism doesn’t wholly grasp: http://rebels-library.org/files/imagined_communities.pdf

  • MainlandUlsterman

    but wasn’t my point that nationalism is indeed working on a different wavelength to the wording it agreed in the GFA?

    Also, for me, equally key wording that I think nationalism has tended to want to forget it agreed was the paragraph saying it is the birthright of anyone born in N Ireland to self-identify as British or Irish or both and *be accepted* for that.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Can you explain how you think I was making a semantic rather than the substantive point though? You seem to be suggesting John The Optimist was right to regard the UK as simply ‘England’. England is a place outside Northern Ireland; the UK includes Northern Ireland. In a national referendum in a country that is not federal, it’s one person one vote, regardless of where they live. We are a nation of 65 million people, by choice. We know that in national matters we are a small percentage, but so is every other group of 1.8 million people. In a big country like the UK, that’s how it is. But it’s a fallacy to say a N Irish person’s vote counts any less than anyone else’s. What John and your approach also misses is that ‘England’ is not really one place either and does not speak with one voice. This idea that ‘England’ somehow comes together to take the decisions that people in NI, Scotland and Wales follow, isn’t really how it works. It is divided regionally, politically, in terms of class, gender, race, you name it. We are all UK citizens who voted and all entitled to our say. Maybe a federal system would be better, I’m not convinced fully; but anyway that’s for the future.

    On your last point, not sure I accept the premise and I don’t follow what point you’re making. But to expand, N Irish people taking more ownership of their problems might involve things like forming an administration in good faith and treating each other with a lot more respect (e.g. no longer seeking to justify past murders of each other).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes.
    You need a proper history to answer the second question but the Union of Crowns in 1603 is one starting point, then parliamentary union between England and Scotland in 1707 and the Act of Union in 1801 that brought Ireland into it, with Free State secession in 1921 leaving us with the current shape of the UK. But you know all that.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    To some extent yes, but its main effect has been to re-awaken a group of people who were already nationalist-leaning but slumbering. Brexit does not seem to have converted non-nationalists to the nationalist cause to any significant degree. Unless that is Ipsos MORI, Lucid Talk and Life & Times are way out, which they could be.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’d be one of them. That said, I don’t think the EU can be really said to end the nation-state – we continue to live our lives in nation-state bubbles. This is how our laws work, how we get our benefits and our pensions, it produces our poilitical leaders, our sports teams, our money, most of our institutions and so on. Globalisation is real of course – I’m just back from Bangkok and it’s kind of inescapably obvious there – but the death of the nation-state is much exaggerated.

  • Gavin Crowley

    A few distinctions don’t make a separate church. They clearly irritated and caused conflict – but so does the Pope Francis/Cardinal Burke split.

  • Gavin Crowley

    For good or ill, the complex mess of history has left us with significant numbers of people who primarily define themselves as English, and who’s sympathies are attenuated for those outside that group. Their politics is distinct because their interests are distinct from the rest of the UK. And because of their very large numbers they cannot be gainsayed, the UK cannot take decisions in the common interest – the UK system has been captured. (I’m not blaming them – it’s an accident of geography and history)

    ‘We are all UK citizens’ is trumped by the limits citizens place in their hearts, by how far they stretch their care and concern for other citizens.
    UK-ish-ness is riding much higher than it was 100 or 200 years ago, but it hasn’t reached the levels of French-ness they have in France. France got there with crushing assimilation, and it’s to the UK’s credit that it didn’t crush differences to that extent.

    Until the common interest is the norm you either give the distinctive interests of the citizens a fair say on common policies, or the English interest wins.
    The only way I can see that the common interest might prevail is for English politics to be fractured by PR or regionalism, so that everone is in a minority – combined with some incremental reductions in the population balance.

    I do realise there an irony in someone from the Republic writing this, but any strengthening of Stand3/East-West rests on the same base. We need to be able to manoeuvre within a system with many shifting alliances rather than facing a monolith.

  • DaptoDogs

    Because you first homogenise with: “Your argument seems to be based on ‘England’ though and ‘the English’. It ignores the fact that the country is the UK and it includes us – we are part of it.”, and then differentiate with your closing sentence on the local nature of the disharmony. John’s point about the historical nature was well made because the number of votes outside of England was not sufficient to make a dint at Westminster between 1801 and 1885/6. The Dublin parliament before 1801 had exclusive suffrage. Subsequently, partition created majoritarian states either side of the border such that the political reality of decision making is heavily tilted towards whatever the English voter and HM’s Treasury decides. So you’re having things both ways. You first claim the UK is a composite heterodox state (which is the historical and legal reality), then that it is a ‘nation of 65 million’ (when Wales is a nation, Scotland is a nation, and England is a nation etc) when in reality the UK is ‘not a nation-state, nor even a modern state at all. In fact, the term belongs to the formalism of early modern Continental jurisprudence, founded on the triply formalist basis (recognising only subjective rights and increasingly a merely positivist basis for law) of “politics, police and politesse”—as Carl Schmitt was right to argue’ (Pabst 2015), and no one claims otherwise if they understand the UK owes its legacy of mixed government (which, from the points about England’s regional it and class divisions, you seem to think is something John and I don’t know or haven’t factored for). Partition followed a majoritarian logic. And, no one is claiming that votes are unequal weights, but the Aristotelian point, which was always firstly an observation on equally weighted votes in among unequally weighted classes, maps directly onto the UK’s unequally weighted constitutive ‘kingdoms’ (nations). Wales has 2.9 million people, Scotland 5.405 million, and NI has 1.87 million, subtract those from the 65 million overall (or simply count Westminster seats) and the England’s population consistently ‘decides’ (and consistently pays) for whatever policies are enacted. Devolution is an attempt to deliver some subsidiarity to the composite nations, but it is not the sort of check on majoritarianism that equal numbers of senators for unequally populated composite states or provinces are in the Anglophone states mentioned in my original response. So at both the empirical and logical levels there are inconsistencies in your analysis, which you actually highlighted by your appeal for local ownership of the past. As someone who had family members killed by the Provos, I am dead keen for the conditions of ownership to become a reality, agree with you that little progress has been made but also see the sort of information that came to light about the Glennane gang as part of what’s blocking a full sense of ownership developing. Sorry to say it, but again here you are homogenising with ‘past murders of each other’, the sectarian paramilitaries killed ‘their own’ with equal recklessness. So again, what would the local ownership you seek entail? Given that my still living mother in law was born before partition, we’re not talking about ancient history when we consider the political conditions, drivers and nature of partition and England’s subsequent neglect of what was transpiring in a region they exercised sovereign power over and possessed sovereign responsibilities for. Hence, John is correct in his analysis, and homogenising the variety you seek elsewhere to highlight under the ‘U.K.’ umbrella was a ‘semantic’ way of disengaging with material, electoral and historical realities.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    With respect, that’s not the most direct of answers, but I’ll try to unpick it. Apologies for the length.

    You said: ” … you first homogenise with: “Your argument seems to be based on ‘England’ though and ‘the English’. It ignores the fact that the country is the UK and it includes us – we are part of it.”, and then differentiate with your closing sentence on the local nature of the disharmony.”
    You imply there is some contradiction there, but there isn’t. All I was doing was making one point about the UK not being the same as ‘England’ and then making another point about the specific local circumstances in N Ireland, which I argued people in N Ireland need to blame a lot less on others and a lot more on themselves. There is nothing inconsistent about those two positions.

    You went on: “John’s point about the historical nature was well made …”
    Let’s remind ourselves of the terms in which John was talking. He said: “… nationalists have always had as their main argument that an Ireland ruled by the Irish would be more successful than an Ireland ruled by the English.” I don’t think anyone wants either part of Ireland to be ‘ruled by the English’ as such, and neither part is. Northern Ireland has (and had from the start, albeit in non-consociational form) devolved government so that as much as possible can be decided locally; but non-devolved powers over foreign affairs etc are exercised by the UK government, which is elected in national UK elections, not ‘English’ elections. Of course England accounts for most of the country by population. But I’m not sure how meaningful it is to talk about ‘England’ doing x, y or z when it actually doesn’t operate as a distinct entity. What we mean is the UK, in which the bulk of the population lives in England. I hesitate to say ‘are English’ because not everyone in England is English (me for instance, but also lots of first and second generation immigrants who self-identify as British but not English). I think my overall point is, I don’t really buy this idea of ‘England’ operating as a single cohesive unit imposing its will on the rest of the UK.

    You go on: “You first claim the UK is a composite heterodox state (which is the historical and legal reality), then that it is a ‘nation of 65 million’ (when Wales is a nation, Scotland is a nation, and England is a nation etc) when in reality the UK is ‘not a nation-state, nor even a modern state at all.” This begs the question, how do you describe a country with a seat at the UN, treaty-making powers, universal international recognition? Whatever you call it, you have to call it the same thing as other countries / states / nations, because it has the same status as any other. There are lots of different ways to organise internally, but so what? Germany isn’t less of a country because it was Laender vs the USA’s states, vs departments in France, etc. How far do you take your thesis that the UK is not a state? What can it not therefore do that other countries you designate as ‘states’ can do? The distinction I’m afraid is meaningless in international law, where the UK’s status is uncontroversial. If it’s just a question of nomenclature, of signifier rather than signified, fine, you can call it whatever you like. But in PIL terms the UK is a state / nation / country like any other.

    This you might need to explain further: “the term [‘state’?] belongs to the formalism of early modern Continental jurisprudence, founded on the triply formalist basis (recognising only subjective rights and increasingly a merely positivist basis for law) of “politics, police and politesse”—as Carl Schmitt was right to argue’ (Pabst 2015), and no one claims otherwise if they understand the UK owes its legacy of mixed government”. Well, I studied international law and that’s a new one on me. State formation is a complex thing but actually the status of most established nations isn’t particularly. It hinges largely on being recognised by other states (or whatever term you prefer for national units). Legal positivism doesn’t seem an especially relevant concept to that, but perhaps it’s just that I haven’t grasped what point you’re making there.

    “Partition followed a majoritarian logic.” What other logic would it follow? You need to decide the position of borders by minimising minorities stuck on the wrong side, so if it’s done well of course there will be majorities on either side in support of their area’s status. How could it be otherwise?

    You then refer to “the UK’s unequally weighted constitutive ‘kingdoms’ (nations).”
    You’re using ‘nation’ now in a very loose, colloquial sense, which is fine as long as you’re not bestowing some technical meaning on it at the same time. Also Wales is not a kingdom, actually; nor is Northern Ireland; and Scotland used to be a separate kingdom until James I became king of both then countries in the Union of the Crowns in 1603 (a happening which of course had huge consequences for what is now N Ireland). They are unequally weighted of course, England dwarfs the rest of the country in population terms; but that’s how it is. Most people in N Ireland, Scotland and Wales support the Union despite that and feel there are protections in place these days, with devolution, that make that unproblematic.
    “England’s population consistently ‘decides’ (and consistently pays) for whatever policies are enacted.”
    All parts of the country elect MPs and they all have an equal vote. If most of those MPs are from England, that is as it should be. It doesn’t mean other parts of the country don’t get an equal vote. The main problem there really has been N Ireland’s having local parties at Westminster and not the national parties, which I have long thought is far from ideal. If you’re arguing for mainland parties to set up properly in NI, I’m with you there.

    “Devolution is an attempt to deliver some subsidiarity to the composite nations, but it is not the sort of check on majoritarianism that equal numbers of senators for unequally populated composite states or provinces are in the Anglophone states mentioned in my original response.”
    If we do go for something more formally federal, which I could be persuaded towards, I think it would need England to be broken down into regions also as part of that. I’m not sure the appetite is there though. The devolution we have does the job for now it devolves where people want it; but of course it throws up anomalies in funding, representation and so on. It is messy for sure. But I don’t think the unfairnesses are particularly glaring tbh.

    “So at both the empirical and logical levels there are inconsistencies in your analysis, which you actually highlighted by your appeal for local ownership of the past.”
    What are the inconsistencies then? The fact we did the Brexit vote, a national matter, as a nation of 65 million does not mean that everything is a national matters. We are still a disparate and heterogenous nation; but disparate and heterogenous nations still make big decisions together as a nation from time to time. Brexit was one such instance – a dreadful result but not for that reason.

    My sympathies for the loss of your family to paramilitary violence. I know paramilitaries killed ‘their own’ with equal recklessness and I wasn’t seeking to summarise the entire deluded campaigns, just refer to them loosely.

    You ask, what would the local ownership entail? Like I said, actually attributing blame where it belongs would be a start and recognising that in our Troubles, the vast majority of it was Northern Irish people killing Northern Irish people. I sense you’re keen to blame “the political conditions, drivers and nature of partition and England’s subsequent neglect of what was transpiring” and here you’re simply wrong. Partition was of course what the IRA wanted to end, but they were wrong. Partition has always represented the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland; and the people of the Republic have accepted it too now.

    Recognising that the UK is a state in itself, as well as a collection of its various parts, is a simple statement of legal and political reality. Saying this is not disengaging from anything, far from it. It seems to me your rejection of the UK on a personal level might be colouring your take on its legal and political status as a nation.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think our disagreement hinges on this: “Their politics is distinct because their interests are distinct from the rest of the UK.” Are they really? “Their interests”? Meaning everyone residing in England? I don’t think any of the three main parties see it that way. Labour, to whom I’m closest, see the issues faced by people in Renfrewshire as not that different from the issues faced by people in Flintshire or Hampshire or indeed Co Fermanagh – jobs, schools, health, fairness at work, affordable housing and so on. Of the undoubted divisions there will always be in a country of our size, regionality is an important one, but only one of many – think also of class for starters. Then there is David Goodhart’s divide between the Somewheres and the Anywheres. There is gender, there is race and there is politics, progressives vs conservatives and so on. To think the only dynamic that matters is English vs non-English is to miss a lot of what’s going on inside the UK as a whole. Writing from the middle of England, this does not feel like a unitary whole. Just look at London for starters – a place that looks, feels and acts like a separate country at times. To really travel in these islands is to be struck by how diverse we are but also to realise that we somehow hang in together, loosely, but still we do.

    You also suggest English politics is distinct from politics elsewhere in the UK. Yet Labour long dominated Scotland and its collapse there has been disastrous for its chances nationally – it needs more seats in Scotland and Corbyn has just been pressing the flesh there for that reason. Wales still has a Labour administration. The Lib Dems and Tories pick up seats in both those parts of the UK. I wish they would all come to N Ireland too, it would be much better served than by its parochial local parties.

  • Gavin Crowley

    English politics is distinct as and of today. It was different in the past and the future is an open book. It’s not irretrievable.

    Agricultural prosperity is a major issue for Northern Ireland and many parts of the other countries. It’s a minor issue for big city folk. A well functioning system would find a way for the majority to concede on points that are minor to them but of existential importance to a minority. Two party politics doesn’t do that. Coalitions can on the occasion that a minority’s support is needed.

    What might soften hearts is a feeling of being connected to the people most affected. The diversity of England provides opportunities to make a connection between your issue and the English voter, if not directly then through someone they know.

    But it has to formalise into something like a small English party that puts Agriculture high on its agenda, and can win seats through a PR system, and has its own whip. Informal alliances with groups of interested MPs within the big parties eventually get trumped by the whip.

    If you take PR too far in England then you could get a morass of sectarian ethnic parties. Far better to have a few broad-church parties in regions. e.g. ‘Yorkshire Labour’ with its own separate whip at Westminster, sitting in the Red group of parties, with a soft whip within the Red group. Kind of like the EU Parliament. But ‘Yorkshire Labour’ might take sheep farming more seriously than other flavours of Labour.

    Regionality can act as a proxy for issues that are not strictly regional by stressing a different order of priority. That region can then be a champion for an issue that chimes with a much wider audience.

  • Gerard Green

    “The left whose ultimate goal is a one world Marxist government…”
    I found this funny because it makes the left sound like an Austin Powers villain. I think globalism is more about moving away from separate mono-cultural states and actually moving towards a worldwide sense of humanity. To make it through the next few centuries with the threat of global warming and mass population shifts we will need to work together.

    I also think you’re confusing communism with Stalinism. There is an alternative to capitalism which has to be endorsed soon if we are to stop ourselves consuming and destroying the world. That may not be communism but certainly a more socialist type approach.