Irish identity: Time to renew the Republic

In these discussions, the most meaningful dividing line is not right versus left but openness versus closedness, outward versus inward.

Captain Peter Kelleher from the 27th Infantry Battalion, reading the Proclamation at the GPO in Dublin last year. Photograph: Maxwells

Captain Peter Kelleher from the 27th Infantry Battalion, reading the Proclamation at the GPO in Dublin last year. Photograph: Maxwells

 

Ireland is hardly unique in struggling with its own identity. All advanced, post-industrial western states are, in their owns ways and with varying degrees of success, grappling with the questions that globalisation, secularisation, mobility and technology raise about how they organise their societies, their place in the world and, consequently, their view of themselves. Although circumstances differ from place to place, some of the defining political debates of the day, from Britain’s convulsions over Brexit to disputes over immigration in France or the United States, are ultimately over how states reconcile themselves with the modern world. In these discussions, the most meaningful dividing line is not right versus left but openness versus closedness, outward versus inward.

In Ireland, that debate was over before it began. Nostalgic appeals to an imagined past do not have the same purchase as they do in places such as the United Kingdom, coming to terms with their own relative decline. The fact that no anti-immigrant party has emerged in the Republic, despite a rapid influx of foreign-born residents, partly reflects the fact that centuries of emigration have forged a fluid, open-ended understanding of identity and belonging. As Fintan O’Toole writes in his four-part series, The State of Us, it’s hard to build an anti-immigrant platform on a clear distinction between Us and Them because, in a sense, “we” are all emigrants. More generally, the culture and the economy are profoundly, systematically outward-looking, while polls show that support for one dual identity in particular, Irish and European, remains not only steadfast but integral to how we see ourselves.

We cannot ask immigrants to integrate until we explain to ourselves what it is they’re integrating into

But while the State’s transformation into a multi-ethnic, secular society has happened with dizzying speed and remarkably little friction, it does, as O’Toole observes, invite us to fashion a new narrative frame for Irishness in the 21st century. That frame would sustain the idea of “us” while at the same time recognising that “us” is a complex and fluid collective rather than a single monolithic whole. After all, we cannot ask immigrants to integrate until we explain to ourselves what it is they’re integrating into.

The challenge, both conceptual and practical, is to renew our notion of the republic, to imbue it with real meaning by putting values such as solidarity, equality and democratic accountability at its heart. As a starting point, it requires a serious public policy focus on ensuring our planning, education and health systems can meet the challenges of social integration and avoid the mistakes other European states have made. It requires that our State institutions, schools and hospitals in particular, as well as our laws and Constitution, are fully separated from religious authority. To adapt an old phrase, it requires us to develop a pluralist state for a pluralist people.

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