“There was never any moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Owing to the cotton gin it was more than half awake. Thereafter, it was on everyone’s mind though not always on his tongue.” – John Jay Chapman.
The ‘national question is insolvable’, according to Fintan O’Toole.
What O’Toole is referring to is the prevalence of irritants and grievances, imagined or otherwise, which transfix a polity rendering it incapable of thinking beyond ‘national question’ parameters.
There is evidence of this in all societies and throughout all of history. The ‘national question’ exists as the apex predator in the hierarchy of political and social controversies. When it moves from merely inhabiting one’s mind, towards also inhabiting one’s tongue, it moves from being repressive and irksome, towards being systematic and existential.
Few societies and political systems can tolerate sustained compression. This is particularly true of constitutional and social controversies. Something, somewhere, at sometime, must invariably give.
However, there are many frames to look through. Whilst the national question cannot be ignored, it can be narratively reframed. In other-words, we can tell a different story.
Stories can diffuse or enflame, and, in the current moment, we must take care how we tell ours. Thankfully, there are lessons we can learn from other times and places.
What is most striking about America’s ‘national question’ is how long it took to turn white hot. It simmered various shades of red for the best part of a century, before exploding into furnaces of white hot hate all across the continent in 1861.
This stay of execution was created from birth, by constitutional engineering (the Electoral College and Senate), to the political deals and compromises of the 19th century, which worked as remedial sticking plasters to be honoured as best either side of the 36th parallel (the Missouri Compromise). This complex and ultimately unwieldy arrangement kept the ‘national question’ at abeyance for more than 70 years.
But whilst it was at abeyance, as the essayist John Jay Chapman alluded, it nonetheless was always ‘on everyone’s mind’.
After the immediate remedies offered by the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, came the counter revolution of Jim Crow and Segregation. Conditions which were challenged, in turn, during the 1950’s and 60’s by the civil rights movement. In contemporary America, police and judicial practices are accused of racial bias, the rate of fatal police shootings of African Americans, as well as the seemingly disproportionate incarceration rate, are pointed to as evidence of institutional and racial discrimination.
Race rivalry has had a significant retarding effect on the development of a genuinely cohesive and shared society in the United States. The result is a patchwork social security and healthcare system, accompanied by segregated housing and education. Segregation in areas not too dissimilar from Northern Ireland, especially housing and education. Where a city street that bisects Kansas City forms the entrenched racial divide, so Belfast is a city crisscrossed with ‘peace walls’, the physical declaration of division and failure.
In America the ‘national question’ still has the power to burn various shades of red, to expose division and alienation. It still has the power to ask questions of the depth of reconciliation and the sincerity of equal citizenship.
However, the ‘national question’ as storytelling, rather than dry historiographical chronology, is where scholarship gives way to the social arch. Where we see narrative as lived experience. History offers moments of introspection, which often give us the license and language to ponder the present, while sign posting the possibilities of a better future.
On the 4th of April 1968, in the midst of still raging racial and social tensions, Martin Luther King Jr was killed by an assassin’s bullet. At the time Senator Robert Kennedy was touring US cities in support of his presidential bid, that April day, he made a stop at Indianapolis.
What followed next was a powerful illustration of the ‘national question’ as storytelling.
Kennedy, en-route to a city park rally, was informed of King’s murder. He had but minutes to gather his thoughts and communicate to the large assembled mixed race crowd the tragedy of King’s death.
When Kennedy broke the news, audible gasps from the crowd could be heard. But what Kennedy did next was to envelop them with his own experience of tragic loss. He reached into the raw experience of his own loss and suffering and gave open and sincere expression to it.
Immediately the tenor and mood changed, the dynamic of the ‘them and us’ gave way to contemplation of, even hope for, a future that seemed ever more distant.
Of all major urban centres across the US that burned in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s death, Indianapolis was spared. Robert Kennedy’s intervention is just one of many in the saga of America’s tortured race relations story, but it highlights that which has always been true. Narrative is as powerful an adhesive, or as destructive a hammer, in framing systematic political and social controversies, than is the policy or the status quo one seeks to redress or reform.
What we tell of ourselves, indeed, what we tell about others, is as important as what material objectives we seek to achieve.
Similarly, the ‘national question’ in Ireland remains the disparity between the divided loyalties and identities of the inhabitants of Ireland.
Regardless of the constitutional configurations – past or present, or the voluntary and involuntary structural segregation – the desire for ‘unity’, even its imprecise and effusive conceptualisation, nonetheless looms large in the mind – whether in the back recess or the front lobe.
Any vox pop on any street querying the question of unity, will elicit from almost everyone an opinion one way or the other, though invariably the connotation is territorial unity, rather than perhaps ‘national’ reconciliation. This at least has been the experience, until very recently.
There are now tentative signs of an emerging political and social community on the island of Ireland. Growing and deepening mutual awareness has begun to breed familiarity and collaboration across the geo-political divide, as well as the identity divide. Polling of attitudes conducted over the past decade, has shown remarkably similar levels of evolving support on the great social contests of the age – marriage equality and legal abortion.
There are near identical constituencies of the electorates in both the north and south that either support or oppose changing and liberalising the conservative status quo.
In both referendum campaigns held in the south since 2015, there has been noticeable engagement and participation from those in north, from both nationalist and unionist backgrounds. There has also been wider coverage in the traditional media in the north on the changing social and economic landscape taking place in the south of the island, with social interaction on social media platforms even more widespread.
While greater awareness and exposure of these all-island developments is registering with older generations, who are more inclined to digest their news intake from traditional media, it is younger generations were the impact is most visible and profound.
Even traditional evangelical unionism has had to grapple with the rising tide of this emerging island polity. That, in-and-of-itself, is evidence of a political community on the island. It has only been in the shadow and aftermath of the social changes in the south, that evangelical unionism has been forced into a rear-guard defence. Its recent reaction to changes on this island sits juxtaposed to the lack of any exertions it has ever been required to undertake over recent decades, in the social dichotomy between the Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Slowly but surely an island wide polity is taking form. Opinion polling and social surveys all point to an existing political and social community, insofar as social and economic preferences of the populations indicate.
Again, this is the powerful and attractive narrative we have begun in the past few years to tell of ourselves. Even if reality registers a sceptical note as to how distant an inclusive and progressive society still remains. Despite this, many of us continue to imperfectly stretch ourselves over the comforting curvature of the arch of history, bending as it does (at least until recent times) towards tolerance and justice.
One sees and hears northern streets thronged with young and old, men and women, nationalist, unionist, and neither, many of whom are thirsty and impatient for change.
They have taken heart and inspiration from the transformation in the south. Many of them have campaigned, or have taken a deep interest in, the evolving narrative of the south, often seeing it as their story too.
The constitutional and political construct in the north has conspired, unlike in the south, to nullify the apparent settled popular support for social change.
This is the nix. People are sufficiently intelligent enough to know that those in the north of Ireland, are not hugely dissimilar to those in the south in their attitudes on these social issues. They know there is commonality of purpose across the island on the most just and sensible solutions. Not just on social issues, but through sharing common goals on energy, farming standards, issues that impact health and security on both sides of the border.
With Stormont in its current vestiges deemed an impediment, there are those thinking the once unthinkable, if progress is being stymied by design, then perhaps the design is flawed.
There are many studies that interrogate the economic case for unity. I am not going to belabour them here. Suffice to say, there are no insurmountable challenges to the economic and fiscal integration of the island. The economic question revolves around what amount of political elasticity exists to bear the necessary sacrifices that will have to be proposed and implemented to secure unity.
That sacrifice will be contemplated and borne more comfortably if there is a frank appraisal, and a roadmap of sufficient wide berth providing for all scenarios. Retaining confidence will be the greatest challenge and the most prized asset. Anything less will imperil the whole island.
What a New Ireland might look like post unity, is again something that has many imponderables. What I might deem possible or desirable, others might consider too tame or too adventurous. As with the economics of a united Ireland much exists in the predictive imaginative space. One could game theory the outcomes until the proverbial ‘cows come home’.
The ‘Story’ of Ireland and its people is the most compelling conversation in all the various debates around the possibility of unity. It’s the story of who we are, of where we are in our island journey, and how that relates to those beyond our shores.
That island story took a paradigm shift in 2015 with the marriage equality referendum, not necessarily anything to do with the campaign per se, or with the liberalising proposition, but with the reflective mirror it provided. The large and overwhelming vote to legalise same-sex marriage was an ‘earthquake’, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said in its aftermath.
Even though opinion polls had indicated a strong vote in favour, there was nevertheless still surprise and astonishment at the scale of victory, especially the majorities clocked up across all counties, bar one. The marriage equality vote was the first measure of progressive liberalisation of the constitution to have romped to victory, unlike divorce, which marginally squeaked to victory twenty years previously.
The vote has acted as a cathartic moment. The story has refracted, ‘who we are, ‘where we are’, and, ‘are relation to others’. Questions which are still being interrogated, as we saw in Michael D Higgins’ recent speech after winning the Presidential election, where he defined Irishness as open and inclusive.
The change has been as subtle as it has been profound. Commentators as well as social and political activists across print and digital have exuded this change, reflective of society at large. Politically progressive people no longer wrestle over taking an active ownership of the story of Ireland and Irishness. Where once the boat or plane awaited, now only the wind and current are at their back, propelling them forward.
This is the defining change of our immediate times. Set against the history of Ireland, its catholic conservatism – this is as head-turning as it comes.
So this is the story we are telling about ourselves, and it’s not limited north or south, or across the identity divide.
In the morning after Martin Luther King’s death, Robert Kennedy retuned to the subject at the heart of the American story. As the conscience of his nation at a time when it was ripping itself apart at the seams, Kennedy weaved a national narrative of struggle and tragedy. He was only too painfully aware that he was wrestling with a spectre that had long haunted American history and progress.
“We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers…”
“…Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”
The question and task before us here in Ireland, at this time, is can we find a common language, a common story – and make of those an Ireland united in common effort and purpose. I believe we can do that through unity. Not just territorial unity, which is merely the necessary propellant by which to crystallise the only unity that really counts – the turning of divided loyalties into shared and common ones.
A thirtyish Millennial mature student studying towards an undergraduate degree in History at the Open University. A keen purveyor on all things political, social, and historiographical. And more besides.