Monday, February 23, 2015

Nationalism in Ireland in 2015

A debate has begun in Ireland on how the country should celebrate Easter 2016, one hundred years after the Easter Rising.  Thus far it has taken the shape of an external-relativist debate, particularly in relation to the UK; and a peace-violence debate, and whether violent uprising should be celebrated, especially given the question about what it actually achieved.  The official launch video in November was almost universally panned for seeking to look to the future (with the British Queen's visit seemingly the starting point) and almost completely ignoring the Rising itself, and the proclamation of independence.  I have some sympathy with the designers of the video; if we look deep enough into the dark past of history, there is some danger that the country may fall back into it.

Ernest Renan, in his essay 'What is a Nation?' noted the importance of forgetfulness in the building of the concept of a nation.  As he put it, "Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality."  An old friend of mine from the Unionist tradition in the North used to goad me, by highlighting the absence of any national integrity before the British came. "It was the Brits who unified Ireland," he'd say. Hard to disagree with that, technically, however we in the South of the Island may have come to see ourselves today. Francis Fukuyama on the subject of Nation Building argued that "[a]ny idea of a nation inevitably implies the conversion or exclusion of individuals deemed to be outside its boundaries." And so, in essence, the definition of the nation is as much about what it is not.  Ireland was Catholic, not Protestant; it was Gaelic, not Saxon; and it was on this island, not that island.  For a brief, almost clamitous time during World War II, it was more Axis than Allied, a foolish and hubristic step too far on the road to Nationhood.  Michael Laffan put it thus "just as the appeal of the Irish language was enhanced by the fact that the British people spoke English, so Ireland must be a Republic because Britain was a Monarchy." (The Resurrection of Ireland, Cambridge UP, 2004; p.241)

A string of economic, social and political deprivations through the nineteenth century (and many would argue long before) drove various interest groups to conclude that the Union was no longer good for the Irish, and that secession had become imperative. The Gaelic League, formed in 1893, along with the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884, formalized and organised the mythologizing of the nation.  They, and similar organisations like them, facilitated wider participation in the development of the concept of the Nation, extending the discussion beyond the drawing rooms of the nouveau riche Catholics and disenchanted protestants of the Dublin elite.   It was perhaps through impatience, opportunism, and no small degree of frustration that led to a smaller group within that cabal to rise up in 1916, and give birth to Yeats' 'terrible beauty'.

We forget, of course, the terrible, and remember the beauty.  The men and women who died, those that were shot; the businesses ruined, the maimed and the disfigured by the fire and the shelling in Dublin in 1916, all of that is left for the footnotes of academia, airbrushed in the national interest.  The Irishmen who tortured and killed Irishmen in the Civil War, the burning of Cork and other atrocities in the War of Independence, and the anguished, incompetent fumbling to assert administrative control in the 1920s not discussed either. The sovereign default of 1932 - upon the accession of Fianna Fáil to power - is little discussed, in favour of the Eucharistic Congress as the defining event of that year.  And so it goes on. Sure, there may have been some successes, but the growing up of the Nation was a painful thing.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 included the Governments of Britain and Ireland, and included a reference to removing the Southern claim on the six counties of Northern Ireland from its Constitution.  It certainly had the effect of solidifying the political geography, and it also had a chastening effect on the extreme tendencies of Northern nationalism, which had by this stage long divorced itself from rational national self-interest.  The subsequent boom of the next decade, along with the adoption of the Euro and the accession of ten Eastern European states (Poland in particular) to the EU saw dramatic shifts in demographics and economics.  Commutes got longer, the quality of the service industry improved dramatically, and tribunals dragged on.  Bertie Ahern's populist leadership was successful by the numbers, but his strained relationship with the truth when it came to graft and favour did little for people's faith in politics. Clinging to power, and serving vested interests over higher national objectives resulted in too-loose regulation, and an economic catastrophe which decimated the banking sector and plunged the country into extreme debt. Today, while the economy is stabilising, taxes are high, services are poor, and emigration rates are at record levels.

With that whirlwind tour of Irish History, we find ourselves on the brink of 2016, unsure of ourselves and uncomfortable with the prospect of a forced recollection, yet certain that it cannot be overlooked.  Our forefathers insisted that we drink from the cup of deValera, though we ourselves - most of us anyway - have changed.  We are no longer Catholic, at least not in the deferential, submissive construct of McQuaid's insistence.  We are no longer islanders, or fishermen, lured as we have been by fast German cars, flash American television, as we have become Twitterers and Facebookers and Googlers, and world travellers.  We do not recognise those men and women of 1916. None of us would do as they did; we barely raised a whimper when our nation was attacked in 2008 by the failure of our own bankers and politicians, then again in 2010 by the Generals of Globalized Finance. Our attachment to the nation has failed, because the things that define the nation are no longer relevant to us.  

Which brings us back to the video, and the anachronism that is Easter 2016. The designers of the video thought about what we might want to celebrate. And so they thought about Ireland as a physically beautiful place. As a tech hub. As a symbol of peace and reconciliation.  As the best small country in the world to do business.  Which is - generally speaking - probably correct.  Most Irish people who list great things about Ireland would probably list one or two of those things.  They wouldn't list patriotism, and Brit bashing, which is in essence what 1916 was about. 

The truth of the matter - sad or otherwise - is that no one is really interested in celebrating or remembering 1916.  If it is to be remembered, it might be remembered for the people who died, but it's awkward because we know the people who killed them. This was no great war prosecuted for some abstract geo-political ends. It's personal. We could celebrate the treaty that ended the war of independence, except that it precipitated another more brutal civil war. When exactly was the point that we became a free people? Was it in 1937 with the constitution, or 1949 with the Government of Ireland Act? Was it even in 1973 when we joined the EEC, or in 2000 when we joined the Euro? Perhaps those last two made us less free, with a change in landlord. 

Irish Nationalism in 2015, and in 2016, might extend to the rugby team, the soccer team, and pub arguments about how Irish Rory McIlroy really is, or maybe even Eoin Morgan. In the alcohol inspired, teary-eyed mists of the ex-pat Irish pubs of New York and Sydney, Bangkok and Lagos, it means a lot, but not so much when they come home, if they come home. It means a lot to not be English, or American, if caught on the wrong side of a road block in Damascus or Kabul, there again defining ourselves in the negative. The Gathering was a brave attempt to positively define Ireland. The launch video for Easter 2016 was another extension of that.  The Irish Nation as we have known it is for all intents and purposes dead. The Irish Nation has no future then, unless we build it. Easter 2016 may be a hard place to start - but the quicker we banish the ghosts, the quicker we can move on.

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