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Fintan O’Toole: In many ways the Irish State has still to create itself

For the first 50 years after independence there were good arguments against the utility of the State; but then came two transformative moments

The State came into existence 100 years ago today. And for at least half of its life, it was not obviously a good idea.

I don’t mean, of course, that most Irish people did not want to have their own country, or that, even in the worst times, they would have voted to go back into the United Kingdom.

The desire for national independence is not driven by cold reckonings of costs and benefits. Its power is primarily psychological and symbolic.

Bernard Shaw described Irish nationalism in 1913 as “a burning fire shut up in the bones, a pain, a protest against shame and defeat, a morbid condition which a healthy man must shake off if he is to keep sane.” The only cure, he rightly suggested, was national independence.


But if we could apply rationality to a question that is so far beyond reason, we might well conclude that, for the first fifty years of the life of the State, the price paid for it was too high. The cure came with side effects as bad as the disease.

The State came with a very hefty price tag: partition and civil war. Between them, they made for an arguably bad bargain.

James Connolly, writing in 1914, warned that partition “would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.”

He was not wrong. We got two sectarian polities, each dominated by a large religious majority that had no need to create a pluralist democracy.

In the South, it took a while for a fixed ruling elite to emerge but, when it did, it was cemented by a fusion of nationalism and Catholicism, a common adherence to a fundamentally religious idea of belonging.

The cost of upholding this Catholic exceptionalism was paid behind high walls, by children in industrial schools, by women and girls in Magdalene laundries and Mother and Baby homes, by the staggeringly high number of people who were shut away in mental hospitals – more even than in Stalin’s Russia.

The Civil War, meanwhile, may have been a relatively minor affair by comparison with, say, that in Finland. But it broke something that could never be fixed. It shattered the sense of idealism, the belief that Ireland’s nation-building could be infused with a spirit of creativity and innovation.

For one side, the one that became Fine Gael, the State was something to be grimly defended. For the other, Fianna Fáil, it became something to be occupied, a machine for producing power and patronage.

Between them, the effects of partition and civil war created a culture of grandiose hypocrisy.

Partition was to be ritually decried – but secretly enjoyed for its creation of a Catholic monolith. Mass emigration, much of it to the very UK we had left, was also to be deplored – but secretly enjoyed for its export of misfits and malcontents.

Thus, in 1972, if a rational accounting had been possible, it would not have been at all obvious that the satisfactions of having our own State were adequate compensations for partition, poverty, underdevelopment and misogyny.

And yet, in that same year, as though history were working to some 50th anniversary schedule, two huge things – one negative, one positive – changed these pragmatic calculations.

One was what would turn out to be the most hideous year of the Troubles. The violence had a paradoxical pair of effects.

It showed, most grotesquely on Bloody Sunday in Derry and the official cover-up of the massacre, that any nostalgia about British rule in Ireland was misplaced. London was as bad at governing Ireland as it had ever been.

Contrarily, though, it also showed that most people in the South had good reasons to stick with their State. The alternative offered by militant nationalism was a sectarian civil war of open-ended duration. A tacit shrinking away from the romance of revolution shaped the psychology of the State.

The other transformative moment of 1972 was agreement that Ireland could join the European Community. This tipped the scales of calculation in the most dramatic way. Before it, there were good arguments against the utility of the State. After it, there were none.

The rationale was simple: without an independent State, we could not have joined the EU as an equal member with a full seat at the table. We would have been a marginal region within a recalcitrant UK.

And we could, of course, have been taken out against our will. People in Northern Ireland and Scotland know how that feels, not just as a collective psychological humiliation, but as a highly practical economic reality.

There’s a sense, then, that if we think of the State in practical rather than in emotional terms, it is much younger than a hundred. Even in those second 50 years, there have been periods – the bankrupt 1980s, the surrender of sovereignty after the banking disaster of 2008 – when it has seemed fragile and tenuous.

Thinking about the State as being so young reminds us that nation-building is still a work in progress. In so many ways, the State still has to create itself.