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.