Statehood, nationhood need to be unbundled

Nationality and citizenship are central issues in the endgame of the Northern Ireland peace process

Nationality and citizenship are central issues in the endgame of the Northern Ireland peace process. Contested between nationalists and unionists as to whether they derive from identification with Ireland or Britain, nationality and citizen ship are thereby assumed to be not only interchangeable but indivisible as well.

So long as this is so a settlement will be more difficult to reach and if it is achieved more difficult to sustain. Irrespective of what is built in concerning parity of esteem or recognition of diversity, this would remain the case, because both nationality and citizenship are assumed to be based on exclusivist, zero-sum premisses.

Thus you can be Irish or British, not both, and avail of citizenship from either but not both; alternatively, a joint sovereignty arrangement so conceived would have the same flaws, since it would be subject to perpetual pulling in either direction.

The consent principle is predicated on a majoritarianism that could at some stage shift sovereignty away from Britain and towards Irish unity. Far too little consideration has been given to what would happen at that point, as Joe Lee has observed (Sunday Tribune, 22nd, 29th March).


He says the consent principle "is therefore fundamentally flawed as a guarantee of a unionist right to self-determination", because one side's gain is the other's loss in a negative numbers game.

Lee goes on to suggest that the conflict could be resolved if both the British and Irish governments were to affirm their commitment to a settlement that puts people before territory, by accepting the principle that no human being has a right to rule another against his or her will, and that the nation does not claim to rule over any person in Ireland who does not wish to belong to it. He calls for more creative thinking, an escape from the paralysing thought processes of the territorial imperative, but offers only very tentative means of going beyond it.

There is indeed an opportunity to do so, based on recent changes in international relations and the new mental maps associated with them. It is necessary to re-examine many assumptions about nationality, citizenship and sovereignty as a result.

For at least the last three centuries nation and state-building have proceeded in line, combining to make these categories, along with cultural essentialism, the hallmarks of national identity.

Crucially, they created a singular model of allegiance to the territorial nation-state. It was normally orchestrated by the binding ties of nationalism, whether of the imperial top-down variety we are so familiar with in Britain and the North, or the separatist anti-imperialist nationalism driven by the need to escape from that power system but defined nevertheless in relationship with it - Ireland as "not-Britain".

During the classical period of nationalism leaders of these states sought to have their own way by demanding exclusive citizenship, border control, linguistic conformity, political obedience and loyalty. Nationality and citizenship became legally and conceptually conflated and inseparably identified with territory. They are used interchangeably, for example, in Article 9 of Bunreacht na hEireann, where it is laid down that "fidelity to the nation and loyalty to the State are fundamental duties of all citizens".

But these categories, which we take so much for granted in nation-state parlance, are becoming increasingly unbundled in line with greater economic and political interdependence among the most developed states, especially in Europe, and by the effects of economic globalisation in a worldwide setting.

These changes are eroding received foundations of political order, their territorial boundaries and moral imperatives. They open up space for multiple allegiances and affiliations outside and beyond the nation-state, giving way to a more contingent set of identities ranging through local, regional, national to supranational and even global dimensions.

This is not to say such changes are uncontested - on the contrary, some of the most profound conflicts in today's world pit defenders of singular identities against proponents of multiple ones. It is to say, though, that international trends favour the emergence of new forms of thought and behaviour - and therefore new forms of political community.

In the European setting, for example, multiple identities can be arranged in a hierarchy or circle, some weaker, some stronger, but complementary, not antagonistic. The same can apply to a new kind of citizenship that is neither national nor cosmopolitan but multiple, expressed through pan-national institutions and protected by international rights and courts.

Thus it is quite possible to imagine a separation of nationality and citizenship and of both from an exclusively territorial definition. It cannot be assumed any more that the national encompasses total identity and belonging.

Likewise, citizenship has been extended within the European setting by a new political practice endorsed in the Maastricht Treaty - though only by way of a reference to member-state nationality.

In the Northern Ireland setting, multiple identities offer a way out of the zero-sum numbers game of territorial politics that is worth exploring further. People can feel "at home" in many different ways within this new international setting.

The more far-seeing unionists have come to recognise that public opinion in the Republic has come to accept the consent principle as part and parcel of wider changes in identity that go well beyond classical essentialist Catholic nationalism. It now incorporates European and Atlantic elements and a more secular framework, while drawing more thoroughly on civic republicanism for its own legitimacy.

More far-seeing nationalists recognise that Britain's own identity is changing fast, as devolution and European integration raise profound questions about its future. This makes it easier to contemplate an agreement with an inherent political dynamic.

That which would arise from the interaction of Irish, Scottish and Welsh views of European integration, as against the more hesitant or hostile pace of emerging English nationalism, for example, could have fascinating consequences in the East/West setting.

Dual loyalty, nationality, citizenship - even dual sovereignty - take on a new meaning in this multiple context. It should enable a framework of rights to be built up that would offer a more enduring guarantee than a simple consent principle which periodically reproduces the basic, and arguably increasingly redundant, national/sovereign elements of the conflict.

Paul Gillespie

Paul Gillespie

Dr Paul Gillespie is a columnist with and former foreign-policy editor of The Irish Times