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‘Nationalism and unionism risk destroying ground on which they stand’

Consensus-based, powersharing arrangements only work if there is deep compromise. Pro-Brexit unionism and British nationalism are on a very different path

Men dressed as customs officers take part in a protest outside Stormont against Brexit and its possible effect on the Irish border. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The assumption that the relationship between the two jurisdictions in Ireland had reached some kind of stable equilibrium was shaken when the UK electorate voted last year to leave the EU. The fact that a majority in England and Wales voted to leave but that the opposite was true in Scotland and Northern Ireland has ensured that a crisis over the EU has also become a crisis over the future of the United Kingdom and, by extension, an acute challenge to the political settlement in Ireland.

It provides a sharp reminder that political structures are neither permanent nor natural: they are created and sustained through human action and can always be transformed by human agency. In particular, it throws the future of cross-border relations in Ireland into the melting pot again, raising questions that we thought had been parked for the foreseeable future. The ending of the unionist majority in this year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election has further intensified the sense of uncertainty surrounding relations across the Irish border and the Irish Sea.

Power is a process, not a permanent fixture, territorial arrangements are mutable, political institutions are temporary, and nations can be broken as well as made

The powersharing arrangements of the 1998 Agreement are premised on the belief that sovereignty can be shared, it is divisible: national power is enhanced through transnational co-operation. This very concept is anathema to Brexit Britishness. As such, pro-Brexit unionism has been propelled towards a version of British nationalism that is fundamentally incompatible with European integration and with compromise more broadly. Yet any consensus-based, powersharing arrangements only work if there are deep compromises on the part of all concerned, based on the acceptance that bolstering the positions of other parties can sometimes be the only means of securing one’s own. British nationalism is on a very different path, in which compromise is associated with weakness, openness with vulnerability, negotiations with risk.

The British Conservative Party has propelled itself to this position in a very short space of time, and it appears to have brought much of the palace of Westminster with it. The logic of any fundamentalist, literalist version of nationalism is quite compelling and carries with it a certain rationale that repels nuance and snarls at complexity. This type of political behaviour and ideology (of all hues) is extremely familiar in Northern Ireland; indeed, it has characterised the modern history of relations across these islands.

The partition of Ireland resulted from the failure of two competing nation-building projects: those of Irish nationalism and the British state, neither of them capable of securing sovereign control over the whole island. The subsequent political development of the two jurisdictions transformed a shared island into a divided space. As a consequence, the island of Ireland has been characterised variously as “one country, two nations”, “one nation, two states” or simply “two different countries”. Precisely because of this awkwardness and ambiguity, the interrelated politics of the two jurisdictions in Ireland provides a site at which the fluidity and complexity of the relationship between nation and state is much more exposed than in many other liberal democratic states. Ireland is a particularly useful case study, then, for understanding the process that UCD/Queen’s University Professor of Politics John Coakley calls the “making and breaking” of nations.

Securing acceptance of the nation-state as the superordinate political form requires a process of constant renewal and adaptation. The Irish nation-state has been a curiously paradoxical success in this regard: a deeply embedded, widely dispersed notion of its own incompleteness has provided a vital focus for processes of “othering” and distinction that proved central to the creation of twentieth-century Ireland.

North of the border, by contrast, attempts to naturalise the jurisdiction and legitimise its institutions collapsed within 50 years under the weight of competing visions of political legitimacy. The painstaking efforts to provide a way out of conflict and a new foundation for legitimacy in the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement involved several processes of “remaking” nation-statehood: stretching competences beyond the boundaries of the state, building new relationships between Britain and Ireland, and forging parity for British and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.

Now, as the UK faces an existential crisis, and the EU itself seems similarly vulnerable, relationships on the island are subject to a new external upheaval. Amid such profound uncertainty both Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism risk destroying the ground on which they stand. If a narrow British nationalism might destroy British unionism, so a narrow Irish nationalism might destroy the prospects of Irish unity. In this new context its important for us to keep in mind that power is a process rather than a permanent fixture, territorial arrangements are mutable, political institutions are but temporary agreements, and nations can be broken as well as made.
Niall Ó Dochartaigh (NUI Galway) and Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast) are co-editors with Elizabeth Meehan of Dynamics of Political Change in Ireland: Making and Breaking a Divided Island (Routledge, 2017)