Building an Ireland of Communities

This week, we’re featuring submissions from readers on the theme of ‘Future Ireland: Alternative Conversations about Unity and the Union’. Competition winners will be published on Saturday.

By T.R. Neill.

Nationalism is an increasingly confident movement on the island of Ireland. As a nationalist myself, I see this as a good thing. However, I have always viewed nationalism’s challenge in the terms elucidated by John Hume, that we must not just remove the physical borders on this island but also the borders within people’s heads.

On the first front, momentum seems to be building. On the second front, there is still much work to be done.

This matters – living in a unified Ireland means little to me if it does not entail a sense of shared purpose for all on this island.

So how does nationalism go about achieving the second of Hume’s aims? A distinction often drawn when studying nationalism, and alluded to in a number of essays in this series, has been between “ethnic nationalism”, where the nation is brought together by emphasising shared history and cultural background, and “civic nationalism”, where the nation is united around shared values and ideas.

The most successful example of the latter is the USA, whose inhabitants are infinitely more diverse in their backgrounds and cultures than those of us on this island, yet are held together by the concept of the “American Dream”.

To succeed, Irish nationalism must root itself in a sense of shared values, rather than shared history. For I believe that on this island, we have little of the latter but much of the former.

What values can all on this island unite around? No doubt there would be many suggestions for this, but I propose to highlight one in particular: the importance of our communities.

Communities may seem like a tired soundbite within the political lexicon, but I believe that if recognised as a founding value of a new Ireland, and placed at the heart of policy-making, they can provide the basis for a diverse, dynamic and thriving nation.

Moreover, in Ireland this should be easier than many other countries. The Irish love of place is legendary, expressed in the poetry of Heaney, the plays of Friel, and many wistful country and western songs.

It is not just the landscapes of these places which draws writers in, but the vivid communities which inhabit them. If we can harness this deep attachment to our communities as a policy tool, we can start to truly reshape Ireland for the better.

On a personal level, the value of strong communities was brought home to me five years ago, when my grandmother suffered a major stroke. It was her neighbours who quickly raised the alarm; long-time friends who took her out for day trips and eased the burden on her family; and the local church that fed her spiritual needs.

I don’t think this story is unique, nor do I think that those who helped my grandmother thought that they were doing anything out of the ordinary. But such simple yet important acts would not have happened if my grandmother was not already a part of a strong and well-established community. 

The twilight years of my grandmother’s life showed me the value of strong communities on an individual level. But what would a renewed emphasis on communities at a national level look like in practice? For me, three initial ideas come to mind.

Firstly, nothing drains the lifeblood of communities like emigration – both external and internal. Too many young people, myself included, who have left home for university face the cruel dilemma of whether to return and contribute to their hometown or to fulfil their potential elsewhere. Without the ideas and energy brought back by these young people, communities have little hope of renewal. Policies should be directed at addressing this dilemma, both by ensuring that young people have adequate opportunities available in their local area, and that they are not priced out of these areas by exorbitant rents or house prices.

Secondly, support for the growth of small indigenous businesses should not be treated as the poor relation of attracting foreign direct investment. While foreign investment is welcome and has brought many benefits to Ireland through the years, indigenous businesses are inevitably more connected to the local areas in which they have been established. Such business are also likely to be more evenly dispersed around the island, whereas foreign direct investment tends to cluster in large cities and towns, and are less likely to move away from an area with disastrous consequences for the communities they leave behind. 

Thirdly, the institutions that serve as pillars of communities should be supported – including sports clubs, libraries and voluntary organisations. These should be recognised as having a significant value beyond their purely financial worth, by providing spaces for people to come together and strengthen ties. Likewise, there should be support and open embrace of all community traditions on the island – this may also go some way to reassuring Protestant communities that unity is not an attempt to assert cultural supremacy, a fear that is unlikely to be allayed merely by platitudes from the mouths of nationalist politicians.

The above are just some thoughts as to what an Ireland of Communities may entail. But the essential point is this: if nationalists are ambitious about unity, we must begin the work of identifying the values around which all inhabitants of this island can unite. I suggest we start by looking close to home.