Irish nationalisms in perspective
Second Torkel Opsahl Memorial Lecture
This, the second Torkel Opsahl
Memorial Lecture, was delivered by Fred Halliday, professor of international
relations at the London School of Economics, on December 10th 1997 in
© Democratic Dialogue 1998
intellectual and personal perspectives
I would like to begin by thanking
Democratic Dialogue for the honour and opportunity of addressing you tonight.
No one in this room needs reminding of the importance, at any time, of
what Democratic Dialogue has enjoined me to do, which is to engage in
'reflective debate on the future of Northern Ireland'. But we are meeting
here at a time that is for two reasons of special relevance to such reflective
We are commemorating UN Human
Rights Day, the occasion when, in 1948, the states of the world—for the
first time, and with many imperfections—sought to lay down a set of universally
applicable principles for the definition and protection of rights, in
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since that day in 1948 a larger
body of codes, and some would say, law pertinent to this topic has been
passed: there are now more than 90 such instruments within the UN corpus
of resolutions. We can all talk, from our different perspectives and experiences,
of what is deficient in the l948 code and the subsequent body of resolutions.
Closely related to this body
of universal humanitarian law are conventions, those of Geneva in 1949
and its subsequent protocols, regulating the conduct of war, by official
and unofficial groups—a point to which I shall later return. Much is now
made of the selective application, and abuse, by great powers of this
legislation, and much can also be said about the selective application
of it by governments, and non-governmental actors, elsewhere. Yet, for
all the criticisms and the lack of political will to implement universal
codes universally, this 1948 code represents a major achievement, to be
defended and amplified.
I have argued this for many
years with regard to the part of the world that I have studied the most-the
middle east. If you are in the jails of the Iranian mullahs, the Israeli
Shin Bet, Saddam's republican guard, or the Saudi religious police—'the
department for upholding good and forbidding evil'—you would not want
to be told that you are suffering from ethnocentric delusions or are alien
to your culture if you object to torture, arbitrary detention and cruel
The arguments against universal
codes are too often used by states, or non-state actors, which have their
own sinister, and cruel, agendas. The references used to deny universality—be
they culture, tradition, or (a word I am particularly suspicious of) community—enhance
not freedom or rights, but other, more limited and often self-serving,
forms of domination. I therefore come to this subject with a strong presumption
in favour of universalism of a legal and moral kind.
This is also a special time,
for the reason I need least underline, because of the negotiations taking
place on the future of Northern Ireland. As it happens, we are meeting
on the eve of a significant encounter in Whitehall (between Tony Blair
and Gerry Adams), the first such since Griffiths and Collins entered Downing
Street in 1921.
Like everyone else who follows
this story I allowed myself a certain optimism when in August 1994 a ceasefire
was declared. I also engaged in what may be the professional deformation
of my academic discipline, international relations, and saw the Irish
case as part of a broader international trend: the early 90s had brought
peace agreements to a range of countries—Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala,
Namibia, Cambodia, Israel and Palestine—so perhaps too this could be the
place in Ireland.
A friend by no means given
to the naïf or the trusting, Mick Cox, has argued, persuasively, that
politics in this part of Europe is not as immune to broader trends as
might appear on the ground. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it might
just be that after the deluge of 40 years of cold war, after Vietnam,
Afghanistan, Cuba and the Berlin wall, the 'dreary steeples' of Fermanagh
and Tyrone will not rise again above the ruins.
For all its national specifics,
the 1994 ceasefire had something to do with the end of the cold war. It
reflected strong international currents of change. I would argue that
whatever its final outcome that ceasefire was not, and is not, a sham.
It may have been conditional, it was certainly calculated, and I am not
sure what the calculations were, but it was not simply a fraud.
But if optimism is one professional
deformation of my subject, so too is caution. I begin my annual lectures
by reminding students of Machiavelli's golden rule—not to confuse one's
wishes with reality. And there is another rule, of which the very end
of the cold war and of Soviet communism has also reminded us: that history
is as much as anything a matter of surprises.
Not only can we not predict
the future, but what may appear as stable, and durable, an unchanging
feature of the political landscape, may itself change. We thought that
communism would last for the foreseeable future. We thought that the British
monarchy was unassailable. All the more so for ceasefires.
I offer these two arguments,
on the universality of rights and morality, and on the comparative assessment
of peace processes, by way of introduction to the discussion of the future
of Northern Ireland. They say something about a question that is quite
unavoidable, and quite proper, in such a context about where is one coming
from, in what perspective one is trying to assess developments.
I teach international relations,
included in which is discussion of both moral issues and analysis of how
the world works. I have devoted much of my life to analysing and writing
about the third world, most particularly the middle east. But my view
of all of these issues, as of Northern Ireland, is influenced, in a way
that I have found fruitful, by my own background in this island and the
particular place in which I grew up—Dundalk.
I make no great claims to analytic
insight by dint of having been born and brought up in Ireland, all the
more so since I was at a young age sent off to school in England. Some
of those who I was at school with were to return to Northern Ireland in
official functions: some, like Michael Ancram, doing their bit for peace;
others, like Capt Nairac, with less fortunate conclusions to their tour
A son of an Irish Catholic
mother and an English Quaker father, with a Protestant mother-in-law from
Co Antrim, I feel both personally and morally involved in the story of
Ireland, even as I must be considered not really part of the major groups
involved in this conflict. My own parents crossed the divide in a mixed
marriage. In keeping with the traditions of this island, no relative came
to the wedding, and the witnesses were the gravediggers from the church.
Being brought up in Dundalk
one could not be unaware of the IRA—one of my aunts had been taken off
to the Crumlin Road after 1916. As part of our family insurance policy,
my father ensured that all the men who worked in our garden were ex-IRA
and had done time in the Curragh in the 20s. In the custom of those times,
these IRA men were also my baby-sitters. We all believed that my father's
secretary was the local treasurer of the IRA, concealing its funds in
her wooden leg.
We were, however, on both sides
of our family, of constitutionalist orientation. Parnell was and remained
the great inspiration—my grandmother had indeed been presented to him
as a child. We were pro-treaty, of an ecumenical Fine Gael orientation.
Kevin O'Higgins, murdered by the IRA in 1927, was a special hero, and
his son, a minister in the Fine Gael-led cabinet of the 50s, a family
My father was one of the officers
of the Dundalk fire brigade who, in April 1942, came north to Belfast
to help deal with the results of a particularly terrible German raid—an
event which, we now believe through the researches of Le Sheridan, provoked
the Luftwaffe attack on Dublin the following month in which 34 people
died and 90 were seriously injured.
Another relative on my father's
side, Sam Kyle, was a trade unionist who had the distinction of sitting
in both the Stormont parliament and the Dáil, I believe the only person
to do so. As a representative of the socialist tradition he, at least,
saw himself as able to put to good use the Government of Ireland Act of
My own outlook on the world
was certainly formed by this context. It always struck me as comic when
English relatives and friends of my parents would express surprise that
I was as a child 'interested in politics'. I vividly recall, at the age
of 10, the outbreak of the l956-62 bombing campaign, which, at the time,
appeared an aberrant return to the past.
Growing up in Co Louth in the
late 40s and early 50s, the north was ever present: there was smuggling
to and fro, and the north, particularly Newry and Crossmaglen, were places
which had goods—notably Mars bars—not available in the south. When I later
came to work on the cold war and developed something called two systems
theory, involving a contrast in living standards between two adjacent
societies, this model was ever present: Dundalk was east Berlin, Newry
As the 50s and 60s wore on,
it appeared indeed as if the barriers were coming down: I can well recall
the relief, and optimism, of the Lemass-O'Neill talks of the mid-60s and
I even retain a lingering affection for Major Chichester-Clark. I spent
some time in Ireland in the early 70s reporting on the early stages of
the conflict. My mother-in-law, who has lost none of her touch or sharpness
of tongue, keeps me sensitive to her views, not least on the trustworthiness
of John Hume. One of her favourite sayings, of considerable relevance
today as it was on the day Ian Paisley used it of the Sunningdale agreement,
is 'Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly'.
Having a Catholic mother and
a Protestant mother-in-law is a fascinating opportunity for comparison:
some things differ, such as the attitude to money, but others do not:
the word 'eejit' seems to know no confessional boundary and in the manner
of dealing with inflated male egos I can, on the basis of 51 years of
observation, detect no difference at all.
But I am equally aware that
I do not in an orthodox sense 'belong', nor, and this is far more important,
have the authority of those who have lived, suffered, struggled and endured
here for the past quarter century and more. I do claim that an Irish background
is a very formative one for understanding the rest of the world. Spending
time in the post-revolutionary Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini I could not
help but draw many a comparison, as I did when spending time with Palestinian
guerrillas in the 60s or visiting Israeli settlements on the west bank
three years ago. If there is any relevance in my Irish background to the
subject of this lecture it is, beyond a very strong—and, as the years
go by, stronger—interest in the future of Ireland, via what insights and
concerns the study of the rest of the world, through Irish perspectives,
There is one further aspect
of the external perception, a paradox of the Irish case, that remains
offensive and baffling. This is that while the rest of the world is aware
of Ireland, and exhibits a certain misty-eyed affection for it—usually
associated with stereotypical views of alcohol consumption—this affection
coexists with an extraordinary ignorance of what is happening in this
island. This is as true of the changing nature of society in the south
as of the fact—of which 99 per cent of the world's population, including
many otherwise educated people, seem unaware—that the majority of the
population of the north do not, and for the foreseeable future will not,
wish to become integrated into the republic.
Ireland, and what is seen as
its struggle—always one struggle—then becomes a fetish by which widely
different groups of people claim to orientate their lives. Thus in the
Arab-Israeli context both Zionists and Palestinians have claimed to model
themselves on the IRA, whilst on other occasions Jews and Arabs—including
in the latter category Colonel Qaddafi—have expressed admiration for the
steadfastness of Ulster.
Leprechaunism for the south,
simplistic nationalism for the north seems to characterise what most of
the rest of the world knows about Ireland. If I redesigned hell, I would
include in it a section where Americans celebrated what they call 'St
Paddy's Day'. It is an insult to all Irish people, north and south, albeit
one which certain factions have an interest in perpetuating.
Nor is such a patronising attitude
confined only to those far removed from it. The former Austrian chancellor
Franz Vranitsky tells the story of a meeting in 1990 with Margaret Thatcher.
He was trying to get her to focus on the impending war in neighbouring
Yugoslavia and the need to do something about it. 'Don't worry', she said,
'you'll get used it, like we have with Ireland'. How wrong she was, on
Let me now come to a more specific
part of my talk, one in which I want to look at Northern Ireland, and
Ireland as a whole, in the perspectives of my own discipline—international
relations. Here I want to identify four themes of international relevance
which may help to throw some light, to reflect indeed, on northern Ireland.
These themes are: the international context in which Irish nationalisms
have developed; the modernity, and hence variability, of these nationalisms;
the issues of moral responsibility they raise; and the relationship of
Irish nationalisms to the broader political context of these islands.
The title of this lecture speaks
of 'Irish nationalisms' and I make no apology for this. I shall talk of
the two main forms of communal ideology found in this island, Catholic
Irish nationalism and Protestant unionism. There will be demurrings at
my terming both forms of nationalism but in a sociological sense that
is what they both are: they are political ideologies making claims about
community, history, land and entitlement.
To deny that unionism is a
form of nationalism, on the grounds that it terms itself British or does
not call for independence, is not valid. Unionist discourse itself talks
of a Protestant nation, and it is evident to all that the Britishness
proclaimed by unionists concerns an identity, and community, distinct
from the population of the rest of the UK—as not only the English but
also the Scots will insist. To deny unionism the quality of nationalism
is no more valid than to say that Catholic nationalism is not nationalism
because it is mixed up with an international value system tied to Rome.
Unionism defines a distinct
community. It chose to exercise its right to self-determination not by
demanding independence, but by choosing to adhere to the UK. There is
nothing peculiar about this, as plenty of nationalist movements, including
some within the British empire—such as the Maltese labour movement—made
the same choice. The point is that the choice is freely made. One might
assume that, in the event of a dire abandonment by Britain of its unionist
link, the option of independence would become more prominent.
Nor, of course, do these two
nationalisms exhaust the record of Irish identities: some have talked
of a 'third tradition', in reference to the now disappeared Anglo-Irish
identity, but there is another third tradition, to which I would subscribe.
This is of an Irishness sceptical of the two main traditions and of the
claims, the self-righteousness and the ever-complaining paranoia of each.
There has, in recent years been little space for this third tradition—more's
The first of the perspectives
I want to invoke is international context, meaning by this the degree
to which the politics of Ireland has been affected by events beyond its
shores. If we step aside from claims of transhistorical continuity—that
everything has been the same for the past three centuries—we can see that
the ebb and flow of nationalism, of conflict and conciliation, has much
to do with international processes: the Reformation and the English civil
war, the French revolution, the industrial revolution, the first world
war. There would be no 1798 without the French revolution, no 1916 without
the outbreak of World War I.
Of greatest relevance to Northern
Ireland is a subject on which we all have views but which remains to an
extraordinary degree unsystematised—the explanation for the outbreak of
violence in the late 60s. For nationalists of either side there is, of
course, no problem: for republicans, events since 1969 are just part of
a single struggle going back to the rebellions and land wars of the 19th
century and before; for loyalists, they are another example of Catholic
subversion and treachery. But there is something to explain here.
The claim of continuity is
itself ideological—an assertion disguised as fact, part of the language
of legitimation and mobilisation, not an historical reality. The very
term most used, the 'troubles', is itself a myth, an assumption of something
continuous that is very much not so. To make the most obvious point: the
central issue in the Irish question up to the beginning of this century
was the land question, but this ceased to be the case well before the
beginning of World War I, as a result of the successive reforms.
Before l968, the north had
been at peace for four decades and more; the IRA's 50s campaign had failed.
The south had, from 1958 onwards, under Lemass' leadership, begun to modernise.
People were more educated and better off than before. The Catholic church
was, in the form of John XXIII, relaxing its dogmatic grip, opening the
windows in the idiom of the time.
No one factor can explain this
shift, the descent into violence from l969. The fact that it played on
historic fears and loyalties, and that there were armed men and women
willing to take advantage of these, does not prove that it was inevitable.
It was not inevitable but a result, like the much bloodier descent of
Yugoslavia from 1991 onwards, of conscious acts by some, and mistakes
The international context for
the Yugoslav descent is obvious enough: the collapse of communism on one
side, and the disarray of the UN, the European powers and the USA on the
other. In the case of Northern Ireland several factors can be pointed
to: the heightened anxiety of some Catholic and some Protestant traditionalists
at reform in Rome; the celebration of the 50th anniversary of l916; the
US civil rights movement and the revolutionary atmosphere of the times;
and the impact of a very international trend, deindustrialisation.
The international atmosphere
of radicalism and optimism was not the only factor, but as in the two
other parts of western Europe where military activity began at this time—the
Basque country and Corsica—it provided a new language of legitimation
and encouragement. The old generation of nationalists, the conciliators,
the Eddie McAteers, had failed and some other lads were now in the offing.
Once each of these got going, of course, a dynamic of violence, revenge,
sectarian splits—within and between groups—and state mishandling followed.
There is, moreover, one other
lesson common to all three of these cases—to Belfast and Derry, Bilbao
and San Sebastian, Ajaccio and Bastia. It is that, once up and running,
an armed resistance of this kind can be sustained for long periods even
with only minority support.
A couple of years ago, I was
teaching in the Basque country and got a sense of the use to which ETA
was putting the Irish ceasefire: they had an investment in its failure,
and their paper Egin, the Bilbao equivalent of An Phoblacht, was running
stories on its imminent breakdown. The fact that they such movements operate
in broadly democratic contexts means, of course, that the ability of the
state to use its repressive potential to counter-attack is the weaker.
Events of the 90s offer two
other forms of comparison, of suggestions of common features of different
conflicts, both of which have some relevance to the Northern Ireland case.
On the one hand, the range of ceasefires and peace agreements signed reminds
us that such conflicts need not, and will not, go on for ever. But such
transitions do not come in the ways that either the combatants themselves,
or the more benign centre, would wish.
For the combatants, the goal
is clear—victory, the final crushing of the other side, a goal epitomised
in the well-worn slogan 'One last push'. One last push never comes, of
course, any more than does the socialist revolution in which proletarian
solidarity prevails over ethnic suspicion. Instead each side mobilises
all the more in response to the push by the other.
The liberal hope may also be
delusory: this is of a sweeping aside of the military and intransigent
leaderships in favour of a more conciliatory politics. This has been,
I would suppose, the hope of many in Northern Ireland as it has been elsewhere.
Such mobilisation against militarised
nationalism is, for example, very much the case in the European context
that is most akin to Ireland, namely the Basque country: here, and in
marked contrast to Northern Ireland, there have been enormous mass mobilisations
against violence, against ETA—five million people demonstrated on July
14th after the kidnapping and murder of Miguel Angel Blanco, a town councillor
in the Basque country. Similar groups were evident, and remain so, in
the Bosnian context.
But, faced with the determination
of armed groups, be they tiny minorities or not so small, such movements
do not prevail. The good do have conviction, and great heroism. The centre
does hold, in the sense of remaining committed to its independent and
anti-militarist position. But this on its own is not sufficient.
The shift comes neither with
victory nor with the effective marginalisation of the intransigents, but
with the decision by those very leaderships that they cannot attain their
maximalist goals. There is no victory, conventionally defined, and the
costs of war outweigh those of peace. This is what in the peace studies
literature is termed a 'hurting stalemate'.
A stalemate has to hurt for
it to work. This is, grosso modo, what happened in South Africa,
and in the Arab-Israeli context, and in many of the third-world conflicts
where peace was brokered in the early 90s—central America being a good
It appeared, in l994, as if
this might be the same here. But this was not to be, at least not then.
By chance I was in Dublin in February 1996 ,at a conference on the role
of moral factors in international relations. I had that afternoon had
the honour to meet in her residence the then president of the Republic,
Mary Robinson, and the conversation, which began in the middle east, ended
up with the eerie question 'Would it last?', the 'it' being peace in Ireland.
She talked of the enormous enthusiasm she had felt from groups from the
north—particular women's groups from both communities—who had come to
see her, but she felt the limits of what she could do.
Later we had been invited to
dinner by the chief of staff of the Irish army and were seated, at 7.00
in the officers' mess, with, over the mantelpiece, the famous portrait
by Leo Whelan of the first commander in chief of that body, Gen Michael
Collins. When the news came in of the resurgence in activity of that organisation
which, spuriously, calls itself Oglaigh na h-Eireann—and which the real
Irish army fought, and defeated, in the 20s—there was a sinking feeling,
akin only to what one feels at a serious medical relapse, or the news
that an alcoholic relative has gone on the bottle again.
After that time, if we were
a bit optimistic, we all became more cautious. For the other comparative
lesson from the peace agreements of the 90s is that of the unravelling
of such understandings, of the return to violence—slowly but inexorably—as
hopes raised by the breakthrough are dashed, as intransigents temporarily
silenced by a momentum of peace decide to strike back, as old fears return,
and once active international actors favouring peace find other things
to preoccupy their attention.
We may be seeing this in the
Arab-Israeli context, we are almost certainly seeing it in Bosnia. Elsewhere,
in Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia hopes for peace have indeed been dashed:
there are more than 40 wars going on in the world today, and it is estimated
that over 5 million people have died worldwide since the end of the cold
The optimistic comparative
judgement is that in Northern Ireland the main actors have, with many
a shudder and relapse, reached that hurting stalemate that can lead to
a more lasting peace. If the government and guerrilla armies of El Salvador,
Nicaragua and Guatemala who massacred and fought to the tune of many tens
of thousands could do a deal, if Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk could
break the logjam, why not here?
The pessimistic scenario is
quite simply that the leaderships have not given up their maximalist goals,
that they think of negotiation as wearing down the other side or that—in
contrast to the wars of central America—the leaderships inclined to talk
cannot bring enough of their people with them. Only time will tell.
This brings me to another aspect
of the international perspective, one in which I think the international
is potentially misleading. The whole issue of what is a state, and what
is a nation, and what the relation between them should be is a matter
of energetic debate in contemporary politics and sociology. This is as
it should be. None of these terms, or the relationship between them, is
This discussion is given added
impetus by two processes: on the one hand, globalisation and the ways
in which it weakens traditional powers of states; on the other, European
integration. These issues, academic and political, are real enough. But
there is a tendency to use them in regard to Ireland in a way that tries
to sweep the divide between parties and communities under the table.
We now live, it is suggested,
in a post-national world; old ideas of sovereignty and independence are
no longer, it is said, relevant. The practical import of this is, of course,
that unionists should drop their opposition to a united Ireland. But we
do not live in a post-partition world., any more than we live in a post-republican
or a post-unionist world.
What this discussion ignores
is that such a lessening of concern with sovereignty can only take place
once the self-confidence and security of the respective communities is
guaranteed. You will only get people to open their doors when they trust
each other, and know that lots of strangers are not going to come and
occupy their house.
Moreover, the briefest of glances
around the contemporary world will show that the very process of globalisation
is accompanied by growing tensions between social classes and ethnic groups:
the collapse of communism in Yugoslavia unleashed greater hatred between
ethnic groups, the opening of markets has prompted reaction from organised
We talk of the globalisation
of money, ideas, technology but there is another side: never in the history
of humanity has movement of people across frontiers been so difficult,
so controlled by states. To talk of 'post-nationalist' Ireland is not
only confused, but sinister—naïve when not a cover for the old, definitely
not post-nationalist, republican agenda.
This argument on post-nationalism
is closely related to another aspect of the debate on nationalism, namely
modernity. The term modernity is much debated but its core meaning is
clear: in any study of society, and that would include nationalism, we
must recognise that in the early 19th century the western world underwent
a profound change, associated with the political, specifically French,
revolution and the industrial revolution.
Politics and society are fundamentally
altered by this shift, and everything we look at in the modern period—be
it nationalism, or the family or state forms—is shaped by this modern
context, of political and economic change. Nationalism is, in this perspective,
not a simple continuation of ancestral or ancient forces, but a product
of modernity—a turning to contemporary uses of elements of history, culture,
symbolism and, equally, an invention of such elements where they are lacking.
For the Irish case this argument,
accompanying the international argument above, would establish a very
different context for looking at nationalisms than that which historians
of either tradition would allow. It would stress what is common, as distinct
from that which divides. It would show how what we take today to be continuous
struggles are in fact new creations, masquerading as ancient ones. And
it would direct us to look at how what we see today as the ancient symbols
of nationhood are themselves selections, or inventions, of modernity.
It is the claim, indeed the
conceit, of each nationalism that it is unique—the product of a particular
soil, people, struggle. It is as such that it is justified and felt. In
this view, the national struggle is neither analysable in comparative
terms—for it is unlike any other and has nothing to learn from it—nor
is it to be seen as subject to international forces. It is unique and
Such indeed is the meaning
of both major forms of nationalism in Ireland—Catholic nationalism and
that of Protestant unionism. And one does not have to search far for invocations
of this. In his insightful but perniciously indulgent book on the IRA,
Rebel Hearts, Kevin Toolis writes:
People often tried
to explain the Troubles in terms of other conflicts, but this was
not Cuba, nor Algeria, nor South Africa nor Vietnam. It was Ireland
and the tenacity of the struggle between the rebels and the Crown
was older than all the 'isms' of the twentieth century ... It was
the longest war the world has ever known.
On the other side of the fence,
we have the valiant Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, claiming in his Ancestral
Voices that Irish nationalism is somehow unique for its oddity, its 'rumness'
as he calls it. I well recall interviewing Ruairi O Bradaigh, then a leader
of the Provisional IRA, in 1971 and asking him about the influence on
his movement of other radical movements in the world at that time. He
was not happy with the question: 'We have no need of your Che Guevaras
and your Ho Chi Minhs' he told me, before reeling off a list of Irish
revolutionary heroes from Wolfe Tone onwards.
On the Protestant side the
same applies. The symbolic hero of the Protestants may be an Orangeman—in
the literal sense of the word, someone from Holland—but the terms of reference
of unionism are strictly particular. Protestant people attached to their
land, faced it is true with an international conspiracy coming from central
Italy, but unique in their steadfastness and commitment.
Yet the briefest glance at
the history of these islands, and of this region, over the past centuries
will show both this uniqueness and the appearance of insularity to be
untrue. The great conceit of nationalism is that, for all its pretensions
to peculiarity, it asserts a general set of claims: that a nation exists,
that history vindicates it, that it has its land, that it is threatened
by alien forces, that it is entitled to fight. The moral claims are common
to all nationalisms. And Irish nationalism, in both varieties, is not
so unique or insulated.
The very formulations of Irish
Catholic nationalism in the 1840s were inspired by the romantic English
writer Thomas Carlyle, the utopian socialist excoriated by Karl Marx for
his glorification of peasant, feudal life and of the clergy. The economic
philosophy of that nationalism, and later of Fianna Fáil, was based on
the propositions of Friedrich List, also first articulated in the l840s.
If you read the historic programmes of the republican movement, they are
a collage of romantic, autarchic, militaristic ideas—common currency of
European nationalism and radicalism of the early 19th and 20th centuries.
All the symbols of nationalism
in Ireland today—the shamrock and the harp, the red hand and the sash,
the songs and the marches—are products of recent history, turned to transhistorical
legitimation. The word Eire, now a political term, has only come to have
this connotation in modern times. The reason why certain events—1798,
the famine, 1914, 1916, the civil war and more recent episodes—are so
ferociously defended is that to lose control of the definition of these
events would be to lose political control itself.
Yet the history of Ireland
is full of things that sit uncomfortably with both dominant interpretations.
The very claim of a united Ireland has an apparent natural, mystical,
perhaps God-given character: this is the import of article 2 of the 1937
constitution. But it is, of course, just an arbitrary assertion by one
group of people, an ideological not a factual statement. Ironically, in
a context where history is often invoked for purposes of legitimation,
it is no use here: Ireland was, famously, not united at all before the
coming of the English. Indeed on the logic of nationalism and unity the
real hero of republicanism should be the first monarch of all Ireland,
Equally, on the Protestant
side the paraphernalia of drumming and marching, and the deployment of
symbols, reflects the growth of a unionist working-class culture from
the l860s. There were no men in bowler hats at the Battle of the Boyne.
Indeed, not many of those who fought there, on either side, were Irish
The argument on modernity is,
in my view, overwhelming and would apply to any nationalism, Irish or
Chinese. It strips away some of the central illusion of nationalism and
makes it possible to write history in an objective, critical way.
It also strips away some forms
of legitimation—those which, in the manner all too common in this island,
prevail in romantic nationalists evocations of history (echoed with such
a lack of critical spirit in works like Rebel Hearts) which stress
continuity with the past. By showing that nationalism, identity, tradition
are not givens, but rather forms of association and culture that are constantly
redefined—and which, even where constant, have to be consciously reproduced—it
opens the possibility of change: those who wish to rewrite their history,
or alter their symbolism and attachments, are able to do so. To give two
examples: unionism insisted up to 1914 on keeping the whole of Ireland
inside the UK and only then accepted partition; republicanism accepted
for decades the idea of a separate, autarchic, Irish economy, yet no one
now, in the epoch of globalisation and Brussels grants, proposes such
But there are also dangers
here, as there are with the arguments on international context and globalisation.
For the argument that someone's nationalism is recent not ancient, selected
not fixed, artificial not given by history, can easily be used to argue
that the political claims—the contemporary political claims—of that group
are not valid. The invocation of modernity, like that of capitalism or
imperialism, is, all too often, a way of deploying some apparently critical
intellectual insight in the service of a sectarian argument.
This was indeed evident in
the use of Marxist language in inter-ethnic conflicts: when you point
out that the others are settlers, colonialists, fascists or whatever,
you validate your own argument. For the Palestinians in the period after
the l967 war it became fashionable to denigrate the Israelis as just capitalist
settlers, just as for Israeli Zionists a generation earlier their struggle
for a socialist Eretz Israel took precedence over the interests of the
Arab feudalists. 'Of course the Protestants have the right to self-determination
- provided they go and do it somewhere else', I remember a Marxist associate
of the republican movement telling me in 1970.
A similar risk arises with
the argument on modernity. You can make all the criticism, literary or
historical, of the myths of the other side without disqualifying the contemporary
political claims the other is making. Ian Paisley would not be concerned
to hear that Governor Lundy was, in fact, a courageous and wise military
leader. It is no answer to the Orange marchers of Drumcree to say that,
well actually, all this marching and drumming is a modern invention. It
is no answer to the claims of republicanism to show that some Irish farmers
profiteered from the famine, or that most Irish people opposed or were
indifferent to 1916.
Equally, it is no argument
against Irish cultural nationalism to point out how much of the symbolism
and heritage are imported—for instance, that the tricolour is just an
off-the-shelf, 19th-century radical form, or that the Celtic cross is
taken from eastern Christian symbolism, probably brought by Coptic refugees
from the Arab Muslim invasion of the seventh century. St Patrick may have
been a Welshman, King Billy a Dutchman, de Valera half Spanish, Randolph
Churchill English, James Connolly born in Edinburgh and Mr Paisley's ideas
derived from Scotland or the USA—but these and other points do not alter
the strength of contemporary feelings and claims.
We can use the modernity argument
to explain and write history, but we should be very careful about introducing
it, as a weapon, in arguments between competing, modernistically constituted
but contemporaneously antagonistic communities. It is the contemporary
antagonism, not the artificiality of identity, that counts. Both Catholic
nationalism and Protestant unionism are ideologies, created in modern
times, by writers and political leaders, to serve contemporary ends.
So far I have talked of analytic
dimensions of the nationalisms of Ireland, ways in which perspective derived
from comparative and international study may throw light on what is happening
here. But there is another dimension to the study of politics, domestic
and international, and that is the moral one. This may involve religion,
but that is not what I intend to address here. Rather, I intend to explore
how the nationalisms of Ireland, and the record of their recent conduct,
may be viewed through the perspective of contemporary discussions in political
philosophy about morality and in international law.
This is, of course, the way
in which issues once monopolised by religion have now been secularised
and made available for lay discussion. It is also the context in which
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written and subsequent codifications
have taken place. We are, to repeat what was said at the beginning, in
a world where some degree of general, universal, moral discourse is possible.
Here I want to look at three
aspects of political morality that pertain to the question of nationalisms,
in Ireland as elsewhere. The first concerns the issue most present in
the 1948 declaration, the rights of individuals. Nationalism may provide
a context for the realisation of individual rights, but it also makes
claims about individuals that are, in broad terms limiting of, or negative,
for individual rights. So indeed do religions, all of them.
Nationalism makes a claim to
the automatic loyalty of individuals. It seeks to prescribe an identity,
often clothes, languages, even food. It denies not only choice as between
different national possibilities but also, what is more important, about
the interpretation of that single national tradition. This has been evident
for minorities, for women, for dissidents of all kinds. Salman Rushdie
has trodden a path already familiar to J M Synge, William Butler Years,
James Joyce and many others.
It is here, unfortunately,
that I feel wary of the apparently helpful language we now have in Ireland
about the 'two traditions'. Such mutual recognition is welcome, especially
if it has a political payoff. But what of those who are of neither tradition,
or, equally, who wish to challenge interpretations while remaining within
one tradition? What of the Irish gays who tried to join the New York St
Patrick's Day march, and when will we see them marching on the Falls and
If talk of two traditions becomes—as
it is becoming, in the Arab-Israeli context and in former Yugoslavia—a
way of enforcing cultural homogeneity within blocs, the better for their
leaders to cut a deal between them, it is doubtful if it will achieve
much. As a child of a mixed marriage, I am well aware of the coercive,
punitive dimensions of community.
Talk of two traditions will,
I will be told, achieve peace. It may do, and that may be the supreme
desideratum. But that peace will be achieved, as was the independence
of the south and of so many other nations around the world, at the price
of other freedoms and rights, at a high moral cost. It would, moreover,
do violence to much of what is happening within the two main communities
today, where, at least to an outside observer, there seems to be as much
change and conflict as ever about how to define that tradition.
Parity of esteem between
traditions must extend to those who are not by birth or choice part of
either of the two main traditions, and must be matched by parity of critique
within. Hence my suggestion that we pay attention to the third
tradition, those who are part of neither of the other two, and whose Irishness
may be more critical, and individual, than either of the major communities
Which brings me to the second
ethical issue, national self-determination. This is very much part of
the package of nationalism, its major ethical component, linked not to
the rights of individuals but to the rights of groups. The problem with
it is, of course, that nations are not neatly distributed in homogeneous
geographic areas. The national and the territorial do not coincide, in
the Balkans, in India, in much of Africa as much as in Ireland.
Therefore some balancing of
the self-determination of some and of others has to be found. The answers
are all familiar from the Irish case—partition, population exchanges,
guarantees of minority rights, consociationalism/power-sharing and so
forth. There is a vast literature on this, and much of it has been applied
in theory to Northern Ireland.
The 'where do you stop?' problem
with self-determination always recurs: if the Bosnians have the right
to secede, why not the Bosnian Serbs from Bosnia? In the Transcaucasus,
if the Georgians have the right to leave Russia, don't the minorities
in Georgia, the Abkhazians and Ossetians, have the right to leave Georgia?
The only answer can be pragmatic.
The claim that a particular territory is God- or history-given can not
be accorded contemporary political, or ethical, value. Similarly, the
claim of historic priority should carry diminishing weight the further
it goes back beyond living memory. We do not pay much attention to the
Croatian claim that the Serbs in Krajina were brought by the Ottomans
in the 15th century, and we should pay as little attention to the claim
that the Protestants were brought by the British in the early 17th. We
have to start with who is on the ground.
To be more precise: the fact
that Ireland is an island is a geographic statement, without ethical import.
There is an obligation to observe democratic norms within the north; there
is not, however, any ethical principle, based on generalisable norms,
for denying the right of the northern population to decide its own fate.
Within a states system arrived at by legal and democratic means, as the
l922 partition was, democracy can, and should, take precedence over claims
The Government of Ireland Act
of 1920 and the treaty of 1921 were legal agreements, democratically ratified.
The principle that such treaties should be respected, pacta sunt servanda,
is as universal as any other moral or legal principle: it does not cease
to apply when it crosses the Irish Sea.
The most contentious of all
ethical issues involved in nationalism is, of course, that of violence.
Discussion of the morality of violence has, traditionally, distinguished
between two issues: the right to use violence in principle, jus ad
bellum, and the morality of different forms of violence, jus in
bello. Although formulated by mediaeval Christianity, this argument,
and the distinction between ad bellum and in bello, is found in other
religions and is equally explicable in terms of secular, international
Nationalism has a clear ethic
of violence as far as ad bellum is concerned: those who represent
the nation, or who can be presumed to do so, have the right to take up
arms against the enemies of the nation, those who frustrate its self-determination.
As far as in bello is concerned, the situation is less clear: nationalisms
have been guilty of horrendous atrocities, both by nationalist states
and nationalist movements. Yet here too, given the high moral tone that
all nationalisms adopt, one can argue that moral considerations, and criteria,
can be applied.
Opposition organisations that
are not states, and not signatory to Geneva conventions, but which claim
the right to political authority should, at the least, be judged by applying
the standards relevant to the political status they claim for themselves.
Certainly, nationalists do not deny the validity of in bello concerns:
they are never reluctant to accuse their opponents of in bello
offences—be it killing innocent civilians, excessive use of force against
demonstrators, killing prisoners, torture, unfair detention and the rest.
Those who reject the authority of the British crown are often the first
to claim that its judicial processes do not accord with its own standards.
They cannot, therefore, on grounds of logic alone be exempted from discussion
of their in bello activities either.
In addition, such organisations
are not exempt from the provisions of international law, from article
3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention and protocol II which amplifies it. Amnesty
International has recently launched a major worldwide campaign to remind
all belligerent groups of their legal obligations in this field. We may
reject their ad bellum claims, but that does not mean they are
not subject to in bello considerations: a convention against the
torture, or killing, of civilians, or unlawful detention, applies as much
to paramilitaries as to regular armies.
The right of oppressed nations
to take up arms is widely recognised. But this wide recognition does not
constitute a carte blanche even as far as ad bellum is concerned.
For that right to be legitimately exercised, two criteria must apply.
On the one hand, the group using violence must plausibly be able to argue
that it represents the majority of its people: this was the claim which
the PLO made for decades and which most people, rightly in my view, took
as providing it with legitimation. Ditto for the ANC.
Secondly, the group using violence
has to be able to argue that other forms of protest are impossible—that
peaceful means, and whatever resources an imperfect legal and democratic
system might afford, are blocked. It is perfectly clear that, on these
criteria, the two other armed nationalist movements of western Europe,
ETA and the various Corsican fronts for liberation, fail, and on both
counts. Elections in their respective territories give minority votes
to the parties fronting them, while since the death of Franco in 1975
both operate in countries which, whatever the limits, are democratic.
The same applies in Northern
Ireland. The resort to violence by loyalists has, throughout the recent
phase of war, been unjustified. The military groups did not represent
a majority of the Protestant population. Even more so, they acted in the
first place in l969 and its aftermath to protect a system of sectarian
discrimination, later to engage in sectarian murder. There can be no ethical
argument for ad bellum here.
On the Catholic side, it might
appear more complex, but it is not. Even if one takes the framework of
Northern Ireland itself, Sinn Féin has not won a majority of the votes,
or even of the Catholic votes: half of the Catholic vote is not a legitimation
for ad bellum. If one takes the context implicit in Sinn Féin's
own programme, that of Ireland as a whole, the support is even less—a
few per cent.
Moreover, the political system
in Northern Ireland is not so oppressive that other forms of opposition
and struggle are ruled out. There is no law against proclaiming a wish
to have a united Ireland: this is what constitutional nationalists have
always done; it is worth recalling that George V, when he opened the Stormont
parliament in December 1921, expressed the same hope.
There was for 50 years institutionalised
sectarian discrimination, evident in four domains above all: housing,
employment, electoral administration and public order legislation. These
injustices were, belatedly but incrementally, addressed in the 70s and
80s. There was also, in the late 60s, real danger of murder by Protestant
paramilitaries, but the defence of the Catholic communities was, as we
recall, carried out by the British army, welcomed at the time, on August
14th and 15th 1969 to be precise.
Those who built up the armed
struggle did so by opportunism, exploiting real anger at discrimination
and at the attacks of l968-9, to provoke a broader crisis. It is obvious
enough but needs saying: peaceful means had not been exhausted. There
was no ethical mandate for violence. To compare the condition of northern
Catholics to blacks in South Africa is demagogic: a more telling comparison
is that, invoked by the very campaign for civil rights, with the southern
states of the USA. In the latter case, the black leadership, facing far
greater discrimination than anything experienced in Northern Ireland,
held to a non-violent path.
The issue of democracy is relevant
to the issue of the British forces. According to Sinn Féin they have no
right to be here, no jus ad bellum. Much is made of the past actions
of the British army, and of the representatives of the crown. But this
is another example of spurious tranhistorical simplification. The British
army up to l922 was occupying a country against its national will; it
was illegitimate. But the situation since is quite different.
The act and treaty of 1920
and l921 were, it must be underlined, legitimate agreements accepted by
democratically elected representatives of the parties involved: the Dáil
ratified the treaty on January 7th 1922, and this was confirmed in the
southern general election of June 1922. It is that democratic and legal
character which gives to partition its legitimacy, and which altered the
character of British rule in the north. Moreover, contrary to tranhistorical
simplification, the state ruling the north today is not, except in a silly
and symbolic sense, the crown at all: modernity affects states as much
as communities. Britain has plenty of constitutional, and legal, imperfections,
but the British state is a democratic one and the British army the tool
of an elected parliament.
What of in bello? The
war has been fought according to some ground rules, usually applied: warnings
have been given for bombs, planes have not been hijacked and the British
army has, nearly all of the time, stopped at the border. The IRA leadership,
their families, lovers and associates walk openly on the streets of the
north. Here nonetheless we enter the arena of conventional polemic where
in bello violations are used to discredit a cause that may, on
political grounds, be legitimate if not persuasive.
The use of the word 'terrorist'
is frequently found here, as if violation of the rules of war disqualifies
a cause. This is not the case, as Dresden and Hiroshima show all too clearly.
Nationalists argue that, for them, anything is valid, but of course accuse,
and seek to delegitimate, their opponents by arguments about their atrocities.
The state plays the same game: if you call someone a terrorist you use
particular in bello actions to delegitimate the whole cause.
As far as the authorities are
concerned, the British state has, most of the time, pursued a legitimate
in bello campaign. It has not always done so: prisoners have been
tortured, prison conditions have been made inhumanely hard, crowds have
been fired on, surrendered or inoperative guerrillas shot in cold blood.
These do not discredit the overall claim of the British state, but nor
should that legitimacy be used to deny that such violations have occurred,
be it in Derry in 1972 or Castlereagh later on. To refuse to do so, as
is the wont of armies and states, only serves to confuse the in bello/ad
bellum distinction and so hand the in bello delegitimation to the
As for the paramilitaries,
even if one accepted that they had an ad bellum, there would still
be limits, in terms that would generally be accepted, on what it would
be legitimate to do, above all in regard to military targets. There is,
therefore, much, if not most, in their in bello which is indefensible,
and this needs saying, whatever the justice of cause. Bombs in civilian
areas, sectarian murders, torture and murder of kidnapped suspects, kneecapping
and the like are all, on any moral basis, criminal activities.
The claim, as with the issue
of representativeness, is that invocation of the national overrides such
moral concerns. It does not and cannot. That indeed is the central import
of the UN declaration which we commemorate: the principle of universality
applies across the board of humanitarian law and convention, including,
I repeat, the Geneva conventions on war.
This is, of course, not just
a matter of ethical or legal adjudication but also of direct relevance
to any process of reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland. Analogies
have been drawn with other cases: there has been talk of memorials to
all those killed, of apologies for Bloody Sunday, of truth commissions.
There should be an apology for Bloody Sunday and for other instances where
the British armed forces, the RUC and prison officers, have violated jus
in bello. Only discussion, full and informed, by a competent independent
tribunal can assess what this would cover. But the principle of it seems
to me possible and just.
Yet if the British army has
to apologise, so too should the paramilitary forces. Some have done so:
individuals on both sides have expressed regret and acted to make sense
of their lives. Some groups have stepped forward to renounce their past,
notably some of the Protestant paramilitaries. But I will surprise none
by saying that this does not apply to some of the other loyalist groups
nor, even more so, to the IRA.
On the loyalist side, there
are those who are not reconciled to compromise. There are also politicians
who must, in any reckoning of responsibility, bear responsibility for
what happened. Mr Paisley is not a murderer. His DUP is not a Sinn Féin
to the LVF's IRA. But he has, for close on 40 years, and with a frightening
and irresponsible consistency, done his bit to fan the flames of fear,
ignorance and bigotry. He has done so in a tone and content far beyond
any legitimate use of the democratic system, or the defence of the interests
of his community.
I recall seeing him speak in
1970 at an election rally in Ballycastle: 'Bring back the B Specials',
he intoned; Shirley Williams, the then Home Office minister of state,
was the 'whore of Rome'. This language has been a trifle muted in recent
years, but not much, as his conduct over the peace talks shows. Nor would
such toning down be enough, if he did not express some contrition; of
that, there has been none.
For his part, Martin McGuinness
spoke recently of 28 years of heroic struggle. Twenty-eight years of bombs
in shops and hotels, of lives lost and destroyed, of bodies and even more
minds twisted for ever, of families living in fear and grief, and anger.
We can count the numbers killed, and maybe those wounded. How many tens
of thousands have seen their lives blighted, how many children have seen
their childhoods stolen from them? And all of this in the course of unnecessary,
and illegitimate, campaigns by self-appointed armed élites.
So far, I have mentioned three
perspectives within which the nationalisms of this island may be viewed:
the international context, modernity and the ethical. I would like to
conclude by looking at Irish nationalisms through a fourth perspective,
one at once political, cultural and geographical, namely these isles as
The focal point of both main
currents in Irish nationalism, and indeed in the whole evolution of Irish
conflicts, is the relation of these currents to Britain. For one current
it involves rejection, in the name of a centuries-long struggle; for the
other it prescribes identification, epitomised in the term loyalism. But
the assumption in both cases is that the object being related to, in Westminster
or wherever, is the same.
In some respects, this continuity
may indeed apply. The British state has been in continuous existence for
more than 900 years, since 1066 indeed. The attitudes associated with
that continuity, and with the status of its ruling élite, show that not
everything has changed: English arrogance, be it in the statements of
Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher, has been alive and well in this
century. The explosion of Robert Kilroy-Silk only two or three years ago,
denigrating the Irish people as a whole, speaks to a much broader conceit.
'He must be thick or Irish', they say.
But continuity of attitudes,
and the continued presence of the British state in one part of the island
of Ireland, do not prove the point. For the reality is that over the years
and the centuries the British state has changed fundamentally. It is an
irony that the most notorious oppressor of the Irish was not a monarch
at all, but a man who cut off the head of a monarch—a republican indeed,
Oliver Cromwell. To identify the British state of the late 20th century
with the crown is a symbolic trick: the British state, for all its failings,
is now a broadly democratic one, and the army being stationed in these
counties is sent by, and composed of, citizens of a democratic country.
Equally, to see, in quasi-Leninist
manner, the domination of Britain over Northern Ireland as some form of
imperialism is to miss the point that whatever economic, strategic or
symbolic benefits London may have derived from controlling this region
have long since gone. To the contrary: the UK subsidies Northern Ireland
to the tune of up to £4 billion a year.
It is common, in the discourse
of republicans, to hear talk of Ireland as England's 'first and last colony'.
First colony it may have been, and remained so until the treaty of 1921;
but it was, thereafter, not a colony, since those who remained part of
the UK did so by a free choice. The discriminatory practices that continued
thereafter, and up to the 70s, did not derive from colonial status. If
the majority of this region voted to leave the UK, the overwhelming majority
of the population of Britain would acquiesce, to put it mildly.
This change in the nature of
the British state is not merely an analytic point, however, for it has
come about not through anything natural, or through benevolence, but as
a result of struggle. The British state did oppress Ireland in the past:
no one reading the history of centuries of persecution, discrimination,
arrogance and brutality can fail to recognise that. But this is a state,
we should recall, which has spread if domination far and wide—over the
other Celtic peoples of the British isles, over the dominated classes
of British society, indeed over much of the world through the colonial
The rolling back of that domination,
accompanied by the democratisation of the UK, has been a long process,
one in which the struggle for Irish independence, culminating in 1922,
played a part. It is, moreover, a process which is far from over, as recent
mobilisations for constitutional reform in Britain indicate.
What is the relation of all
this broader pattern of domination and resistance to the conflict in Northern
Ireland? There is not necessarily a direct connection. To take the most
obvious parallel, there has over the past century been remarkably little
common cause or common character between the three strands of Celtic nationalism
in the British isles: the Scots and the Welsh distrust each other, and
both have seemed keen to distance themselves from the troublesome Irish.
Yet the very fact of devolution to Scotland and Wales shows that no constitutional
system endures for ever, and the same will be true for the relation between
Northern Ireland and Britain.
One of the hallmarks, and one
of the tragedies, of the last quarter century is that the conflict in
Northern Ireland has been so insulated from this broader democratisation
of the British state. Some individuals and sections of the British left
have sympathised with the IRA, but in a craven and naïve way that speaks
more to far-left posturing and misconstrued guilt than to any critical
engagement with the issues at hand. There may, however, be more possibility
now for a fruitful renegotiation of the relationship between Northern
Ireland and Westminster, provided it is based on respect for the wishes
of the democratically constituted majority.
Such a renegotiation would
recognise what everyone knows, which is that the islands of Britain and
Ireland are—as they have been for a thousand years and more—inseparable,
economically, culturally and demographically. Over one million people
of Irish extraction live in Britain. The shared destiny of being English-speaking
states in a wider Europe creates further linkages, of affect and interest.
In this broader skein of interaction, traditional Irish nationalist Anglophobia,
and the idea of escaping from English rule, has less meaning than for
The other external player in
this story is, of course, the republic. Let us be clear: since 1922, the
majority in the republic has respected the partition of the island and
the implications thereof. The Irish army fought its first and only major
campaign against the IRA—you will not find much love for the IRA in the
Curragh or Portlaoise.
But this acceptance has been
accompanied by other features of the southern state that have helped to
freeze political change and confirm unionist anxieties: nationalism of
an irridentist kind, clear in articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, has
gone together with clericalism on the one hand and political corruption
on the other. The figure of Charles Haughey embodies all three in exemplary
fashion. It would be rash indeed to presume that all this is in the past.
The civil war remains the dividing line in southern politics, and recent
developments on the presidential front, with the collapse of Labour and
the triumph of a candidate of strong nationalist and clerical orientation,
should give us pause.
Equally the south continues
to affect a position, in international affairs, of moral superiority,
embodied in its policy of neutrality. Yet neutrality is not a moral stance,
only a legal one, and may be as much in conflict with morality as in accordance
with it. We have seen in other contexts how the apparently high-minded
neutrality of European states has concealed something else-self-serving
and hypocritical freeloading at the expense of others.
The Irish case may not be as
abhorrent as that of Switzerland or Sweden. But it bears critical scrutiny:
to have abstained from taking sides in World War I, as Irish nationalists
and English dissidents alike did, was defensible at least and, arguably,
legitimate. The neutral states played, equally, a positive role in the
cold war. To have been neutral in World War II, in the face of the greatest
challenge to human liberty seen in modern times, was not.
That said, there is, nonetheless,
much that is new about the south and which could help to foster compromise
in the north. The country is more prosperous, more confident, more open
to the world, and less obsessed about the north than it ever was. There
has, in recent years, been much talk of a 'new Ireland' and there are
many reasons to see the south as indeed different from what it as in the
40s and 50s. The process of overcoming its past is, however, not over,
any more than it is in Britain. Equivocation on partition, as hitherto
epitomised in the constitution, is one index of this, as is the continued
strength of clerical attachment.
There is much that is positive,
too, in the revival of Irish culture, including, in the language so brutally
crushed in the 18th and 19th centuries. But there is also a maudlin undertow
to all this—too often linked, in song and affect, to anti-democratic forces
in the north.
I have tried in this lecture
to set the conflict of Northern Ireland in some broader perspective, and
to avoid transhistorical generalisations and myths. There is no one Irish
nationalism, no one Irish question. We find ourselves today in a situation,
with a set of dangers and opportunities, distinct from those of one generation,
let alone three or ten generations ago. If there is one transhistorical
generalisation I would accept, however, it is that this not a forgiving
culture—on either side—and it would be foolish to pretend anything else.
Compromises, and peace, can
come, but they will only come by grasping the opportunities of the present
and the future-and we can only hope that they will then stick. The study
of the past cannot resolve the conflicts contained within it, but it may,
as I have tried to do in this lecture, reduce the sense in which we should
be seen as prisoners of it.
- 'Bringing in the "international":
the IRA ceasefire and the end of the cold war', International Affairs,
vol 73, n0 4, October 1997. A shorter version was published in Fortnight
- 'Nazis "bombed Dublin
to punish aid for Belfast"', Times, June 20th 1997
- The Maltese Labour Party
also thought it had to fend off Rome by adhering to Westminster; the
problem was Westminster did not want it.
- To digress for a moment,
if the British state had withdrawn from Northern Ireland without a settlement,
and we had entered the high stage of one-last-pushism, I would not have
put my money on a republican victory.
- "Being only yourself
is what ethnic nationalism will not allow. When people come, by terror
or exaltation, to think of themselves as patriots first, individuals
second, they have embarked on a path of ethical abdication."—Michael
Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging, BBC, London, 1993, p188
- "a country ruled by
peasants, priests and pixies"—Daily Express, November 16th