Friday, February 10, 2006


Irish nationalism in the 21st century

Is Irish nationalism relevant? Did any of you catch Hearts and Minds last night on BBC1? Well if you did then you will be aware of the very interesting debate that took place on Irish nationalism and its role, if any, within the 21st century.

The issue was discussed by Denis Kennedy of the Cadogan Group, and I must say I didn't like what he had to say. In the studio to challenge his views were Mark Durkan of the SDLP and Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Féin.

I figured it would be an interesting discussion so I took the liberty of taping the programme. I have transcribed Mr Kennedy's views for those of you who may have missed the programme (you know I spoil you lot). I have taken issue with certain aspects of Mr Kennedy's report which you can read below. He begins...

"For all 85 years of its existence, Northern Ireland's politics have been tribal. We have never been able to rise above the level of sectarian division between unionism and nationalism, never able to deliver really good government or stability. We could argue over who is to blame for this. Was the 1921 settlement legitimate? Did unionists mistreat the nationalist minority? Did nationalists exclude themselves from the maisntream of public life?

"But all those arguments are irrelevant now. Since the Belfast Agreement all parties, unionist and nationalist, accept the principle of consent. That Northern Ireland exists because a majority of its citizens want it to.

"But today, our politics are more tribal than ever and I fear they will remain so as long as Irish Unification is the defining issue. Inter-party talks won't help. What is needed is a real internal debate within the nationalist community."

Here's where I'll interject. Why is Mr Kennedy lumping all the blame for tribal politics squarely on the nationalist community? That is out of order.

"No nationalist can be expected to deny his Irish identity and start waving the Union Jack but what exactly is the point of political nationalism in 21st century Northern Ireland?

The point is to reunite the island of Ireland. I would have thought that was pretty obvious.

"Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP rate Irish unification their primary goal but they also admit that they can't get it without majority consent. As there's no indication that majority consent is remotely possible, this is politics in pursuit of the impossible."

Impossible? Hardly. Anything's possible in Irish politics. I'm sure that ten years ago if someone said Ian Paisley would be the leader of unionism and that he would be engaged in talks with the Irish Government on the North, people would have said that this was impossible. Yet it has happened. I'm sure that ten years ago if someone said that the IRA would call for an end to their armed campaign and would decommission their weapons in the hope of seeing Sinn Féin share power with Ian Paisley, people would have said that was impossible. Yet it has happened. In Irish politics, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

"Some cling to the hope that one day Catholics will outnumber protestants, but there is no short or medium-term prospect of that and even if it did happen, it might not mean a majority for unification. Opinion polls tell us a significant minority of Catholics prefer the status quo."

I for one don't cling to that hope. That hope is a sectarian pipe dream that would probably do more damage than good. Anyway this issue isn't about religion in my opinion.

"So is the commitment to Irish unification nothing more than an ingrained mindset? An article of faith that no nationalist can contemplate abandoning even though he knows it's unobtainable and that continuing to pursue it is perpetuating the sectarian divide?"

This is a ridiculous statement. Since when do nationalists know it is 'unobtainable'? I for one think it's certainly obtainable. And how dare he make the claim that it is nationalism that is perpetuating the sectarian divide! That's like me suggesting that unionists are perpetuating the sectarian divide by resisting a United Ireland. I wouldn't dare make that claim though because I respect the right of unionists to want to remain part of the UK, even though I disagree with that view.

"Today, almost every European country lives with national minorities within its boundaries and no one expects their boundaries to change."

You can see where he's going with this but it's a very flawed argument he is making. Namely because nationalists see themselves as a national majority within the island of Ireland. Indeed if you look again at Mr Kennedy's statement above, you could almost use that as an argument against the very foundation of the Northern Ireland statelet which was built upon a national minority desiring the Irish nation's boundaries to change!

"Detached minorities retain their identity while living as full participants in another state."

Again this is a flawed argument and his use of the word 'detached' is significant. Irish nationalists in the North are NOT detached. On the contrary, they are very much attached to the south of Ireland. The Irish constitution entitles them to be part of the Irish nation and they are inextricably linked to the South in many ways culturally, such as through the GAA.

"Yet here, nationalists continue to insist that they have an absolute right to live within an independent Irish state, while they also acknowledge that that decision lies with the democratic majority."

Here we see the fulfilment of Mr Kennedy's flawed argument. It should be pointed out that for all Mr Kennedy's talk of Irish 'unification', it is actually Irish reunification. This island has been a united entity far longer than it has been a divided one.

"Nationalists need to ask themselves, and their political leaders, fundamental questions about the nature of nationalism and national identity. Is it not possible for someone living on the island but outside the Irish state to be fully Irish? In what way precisely is an Irishman living in this part of the island any less Irish than a citizen of the Republic?"

My take on that is that a person born in the North is just as Irish as me, however I am entitled to certain rights that people in the North are not entitled to. An Irishman living in the North is less Irish than someone like myself by virtue of the fact that I am a citizen of a Republic and have rights through this citizenship that someone in the North does not. Mitchell McLaughlin highlighted this in the debate which I will get to in a moment.

"So what makes a person Irish? Is it citizenship of an independent Irish state? If it is then lots of Chinese, Poles and Nigerians living in Dublin are more Irish than you or I, or is it involvement in the island of Ireland with its multi-stranded history and culture? If it is, then you or I can be as Irish as we like in an island where the border has practically disappeared."

I agree that people in the North can be as Irish as they like in an island where the border has 'practically disappeared', which makes me want to ask - why should nationalists settle for simply the 'practical disappearance' of the border? Aren't we entitled to seek to have it disappeared completely and totally? I think we are.

"Why then prolong tribal politics by clinging to a territorial nationalism that is meaningless in today's Europe?"

With respect to Mr Kennedy, perhaps the reason territorial nationalism is so 'meaningless' in today's Europe is down to the fact that the overwhelming majority of European countries have settled their territorial disputes? Ireland however has not. Again we see Mr Kennedy lay the blame of tribal politics squarely on nationalism. That is absurd. The tribal politics are the fault of both sides, not just Irish nationalism.

I don't believe Mr Kennedy set out to intentionally insult Irish nationalism but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't insulted by some of his comments!

As for the debate in the studio between Mr Kennedy and Mark Durkan and Mitchell McLaughlin, I thought the two nationalist politicians did quite well. McLaughlin was less vocal during the discussion but I thought he made a superb response to presenter Noel Thompson who asked him how he was less Irish coming from and living in Derry than someone who comes from and lives in Drogheda.

McLaughlin replied, "OK, I can't vote for the President. I could stand as President but I can't vote for myself. A very obvious example." He then explained that he did not wish to be a British subject. Overall I thought he came across very well.

Durkan made a great point too when discussing how unionists and nationalists shouldn't have to abandon their beliefs when he stated, "Denis is actually saying now that people have to decommission their Irish nationalism before we can have stability."

All in all, it was an interesting debate and I think the two nationalists showed Mr Kennedy's views up to be very flawed and quite insulting. As I said above I don't think Mr Kennedy was trying to insult Irish nationalists but that is the only thing his views will accomplish. Mr Kennedy needs to understand that the issues that plague the north of Ireland require compromise. That is what the Good Friday Agreement was about - compromise. Respecting both traditions and respecting the ideals of both traditions as legitimate aspirations.

Sadly, what Mr Kennedy spelt out in his piece was not a compromise but rather a request for Irish nationalists to surrender. Mr Kennedy needs to appreciate that Irish nationalism, just like its unionist counterpart, will never ever surrender.


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