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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A History of Nationalism in Ireland

Book Review

Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland
by Richard English
London: Macmillan, 2006

Liam O Ruairc • Sovereign Nation, Jan/Feb 2007

This lengthy book written by a QUB academic sums up almost everything that is known and thought about nationalism in Ireland; all the way from the 11th to the 21st centuries. It sets the particular episodes and figures of 'Irish freedom' within the framework of the general theories of nationalism.

Although written by an academic, the book has the advantage of being accessible to the general reader. The book is very useful for its outline of the many polemics and controversies that have arisen in debates about particular periods (for example was 1916 legitimate etc). The author's erudition is remarkable, and his ability to thouroughly carry out such an ambitious task is impressive.

However there are some bizarre omissions in the book: O Donovan Rossa is not mentioned, but his wife is, The Strabane Weekly is quoted, but there are no references to significant publications such as The Catholic Bulletin or The Wolfe Tone Annual which had a critical impact. Burke, Marx and Mill's positions on Ireland are discussed, but Tocqueville is omitted.

The book creates a certain confusion in that it subsumes Republicanism and Nationalism under the category of 'Irish Nationalism'. However, both concepts have a different lineage, Republicanism being rooted in the people (demos) and nationalism in an ethnonational community (ethnos). Republicanism is based on universal principles, it is internationalist rather than nationalist; whereas nationalism is particular. Tone's Republicanism was not even Irish but imported from revolutionary France. It is the democratic element within Irish Republicanism that distinguishes it from Nationalism. Self-determination and sovereignty are articulated in the language of universal democracy.

The author is good on how Nationalism has often contaminated Republicanism with ambivalent results, for example when it has been mixed up with Catholicism (just think how hunger strikes were embedded within the culture of Catholic martyrology) and restrictive definitions of culture (as if supporting certain types of sports was intrinsically connected to the Republican project). He is understanding but not supportive of his subject matter; hence his frequent use of terms such as "zealotry" and "solipsism" to characterise it.

Richard English is generally critical of the Republican and Nationalist position on Unionism, partition and the British connection. He argues that they have "fundamentally misread" the phenomenon of Unionism (pp.249-251, 363). By focusing on a so-called 'external' actor (the British state), they failed to grasp that the real opposition was 'internal' (the Unionists).

However, what Republicans argue is that the people who consider themselves British subjects have no incentives to come to terms with the rest of the people of Ireland so long as the British government give them unconditional guarantees. It is not that they misjudge the strength of unionist opposition, but that unconditional British guarantees (such as the 'consent principle') give Unionism an artificial strength that allows it to prevent political change which it would not be able to prevent on its own. The British presence institutionalises internal divisions and make them harder to solve.

As 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume puts it:

"The whole trust of the guarantee is that it is a sectarian guarantee, a unilateral guarantee and an unconditional guarantee. When the state came into being it was set up on the basis of a sectarian head count. That having been done, the British government then said, 'We guarantee you can stay with us as long as the majority want to.' By doing that they trapped the unionist population into perpetual sectarianism because what in effect they were saying is, 'In order to maintain your power and your privilege you must behave as a sectarian bloc.' And that is exactly how unionism has behaved...If one is to break down sectarianism one has to remove that guarantee..." (Padraig O Malley, The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today; Belfast: Blackstaff 1983, p.100)

The British connection is the reason why Unionists have been so intransigent. Terms might be reached if British power is removed from Ireland, but not until then.

English also argues that Unionist opposition made some form of partition inevitable and that Nationalist and Republican were "notoriously feeble" in their stance on partition (pp.315ff). There was nothing 'artificial' about the creation of Northern Ireland. However, it was the British government which chose the way in which Ireland was divided and imposed this by force. It is inconceivable that face-to-face negotiations between Republicans, Nationalists and Unionists would have produced the same settlement, especially if the British state had been out of the equation. That is because the book generally underestimates the extent British responsability and interests. For example, quoting the Brooke speech, English presupposes that the British state has no selfish interest in the North (p.381).

However, referring to the famous Brooke speech in 1990 in which he declared that the British state had 'no selfish strategic or economic interest' in Ireland,

"'The Guardian' learned that Lady Thatcher only approved the controversial phrase which the Northern Ireland Office had been trying to use for years after the end of the cold war. It is understood she was reluctant to use such neutral language earlier because British nuclear submarines passed close to Ireland to patrol the Atlantic." (Nicholas Watt, Thatcher gave approval to talks with IRA, The Guardian, 16 October 1999)

Strategic interests were therefore not absent in British considerations during the Troubles. Has the end of the Cold War made the British state's strategic interests in Ireland redundant? In his book, The Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations in the Twentieth Century (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), G.R. Sloan, Deputy Head of Strategic Studies at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Darmouth argues that the end of the Cold War had not diminished Ireland's strategic importance; compelling the British state to pursue a strategic policy of 'geopolitical dualism': on one hand ensuring that part of Ireland remains within NATO, and on the other claim 'no slefish strategic interests' to further the peace process.

This is not of course to argue that strategic interests are the prime factor in shaping British state policy towards Ireland; but to emphasise that scholars often wrongly take as axiomatic that the British state has no longer any strategic interests in Ireland.

English concludes that the story of nationalism in Ireland is far from over. But one may ask whether the political space for it is getting restricted rather than enlarged. de Valera's piecemeal reforms gave the 26 counties a status that eventually reconciled the vast majority of its citizens to the state, and the Belfast Agreement adresses most of the material grievances which sustained Provisionalism, resulting in a growing social and political incorporation of the Catholic working class into the six counties. This sets limits upon and narrows the basis for Republicanism or Nationalism to develop. Partitionist institutions may suffer from legitimacy deficit, but whether it is significant enough to cause organic crises in the near future is another matter.










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18 March 2007

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