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The State of Us, Part 3: Irish nationalism needs a revolution

We have moved beyond the shame and glory of the past, but have yet to invent our future nation

Hovering around the very successful 1916 centenary commemorations last year was a silent paradox. The celebration of Irish sovereignty was fuelled in part by a painful awareness of how fragile it is.

At the start of 2016 it was only two years since the troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank had relinquished effective control over the most important part of self-government: the budgetary process. The expressions of national pride were a binding-up of very raw wounds.

As Michael Somers, former head of the National Treasury Management Agency, put it, "I felt it was the ultimate humiliation actually for us, as a country, to have the IMF come in to run the show for us".

In some respects, though, these mixed feelings were curiously appropriate: Irish national self-assertion has long been a defence against a fear of national humiliation. The shame of conquest, defeat and subjugation created an equal and opposite reaction of exaggerated patriotism. Irish nationalism developed a habit of making saintly virtues out of grim necessities. Economic underdevelopment was a preservation of our primal, rustic anti-materialist innocence. Mass emigration was the creation of a spiritual empire. Sectarian laws and institutions were proof of unique adherence to the faith.


And perhaps the reason we ended up losing our sovereignty between 2010 and 2013 in the first place was because we had no collective means of sustaining a national pride that was rooted in contemporary realities rather than in neurotic hyperbole. It was not enough to be normal – we had to be the heroes of a phenomenal rags-to-riches epic.

The central question

Now that we’ve endured a return to national humiliation and salved it with a year of national pride, we can perhaps ask the central question: is there an Irish nationalism that does not depend either on shame or on glory?

If there is, it can’t be based on either of the two forces that emerged most strongly from 1916. One of those forces was a poorly articulated but immensely potent identification of Irish identity with Catholicism. This was always deeply problematic for a political movement that claimed at the same time to command the allegiance of a very substantial Protestant minority. But in any case, it is no longer feasible. Catholicism retains a very important place in Irish society and culture, but even the church hierarchy increasingly accepts that it is one strand in an ever more complex weave of spiritual beliefs.

The stark fact is that an Irish person today is twice as likely to use Polish as Irish

And Irish nationalism cannot be Gaelic, either. The burning desire to be "not merely free but Gaelic as well" sputtered out when it became official policy. The Irish language remains a crucial touchstone of Irish identity and it should be supported and embraced. But it exists now in a linguistic environment unimaginable to the founders of the Gaelic League in the late 19th century.

The 2016 census found that 612,018 Irish residents spoke a foreign language at home (Polish, French, Romanian and Lithuanian being the most common). Many of these speakers are Irish-born. By contrast, only 73,803 spoke Irish daily outside of the education system. When it comes to our private speech – what Brian Friel called interpreting between intimacies – the stark fact is that an Irish person today is twice as likely to use Polish as Irish.

EU’s English-speaking centre

Paradoxically, the staggering linguistic diversity of today's Ireland actually strengthens the dominance of English – it is ever more necessary as a common tongue. And we may actually be fortunate that we do have English as our primary language: after Brexit, Dublin will be by far the largest English-speaking city in the EU.

In effect, of course, Irish nationalism came to be expressed in a single demand: a United Ireland. For some nationalists, it still is. (And not just in Sinn Féin: Fine Gael has refurbished its official name tag of "the United Ireland Party".) But while an end to partition remains an entirely legitimate aspiration, the vast majority even of Irish nationalists understand it to be a uniting not of territories but of people.

It should not be forgotten that 94 per cent of voters in the State agreed in a 1998 referendum to replace the old territorial claim with an expression of a desire to see Ireland united peacefully, by consent and with due recognition that Irish people exist in “all the diversity of their identities and traditions”.

This formulation, too, was a reaction to shame – in this case the shame of the IRA’s murderous reduction of Irish nationalism to the annihilation of its opposites. But in this case, for once, shame did not lead to an exaggerated pride. It led to a sober, quiet and decent reimagining of nationalism itself.

Perhaps, in the euphoria of the peace process, we did not quite realise how radical the revision is. It upends the most basic assumptions of the 19th century nationalism on which the State itself was founded. Ours is now a consciously post-nationalist nationalism.

Multiple identities

The old nationalism held that there is a single territory and a single people to whom it naturally belongs. The new nationalism of 1998 subverts both sides of this equation. The crucial territory is no longer land – it is the inner space in the minds of the people whose consent is the source of legitimacy. And there is not “a people”. The nation does not have an identity – it has multiple identities. The old question of how to integrate the national territory has been replaced by a much more radical question: how do you integrate a diverse population while respecting its multiple identities?

All nations are inventions – but ours has reached the point where it knows this

A mere 86,000 people voted against this radical revision of Irish nationalism, which suggests that there was perhaps a limited sense of how startlingly radical it is. And perhaps also that there is a simplistic reading of the "diversity of their identities" as being just a fancy way of saying "Protestants and Catholics" – a reading given substance by the continuing hold of a binary sectarianism in the politics of Northern Ireland.

Yet the fact remains that the Constitution does not say that there are only two identities. And the even more compelling facts on the ground, the facts of ethnic and religious diversity on both sides of the Border, make it clear that there are many more identities. Both migration and the peace process have brought us to a point where the only viable answer to the question “What is the Irish story?” is one that changes the question to “What are the Irish stories?”

And yet, while this conceptual revolution is necessary, it is not sufficient. There is still a need for something that transcends diversity even while embracing it. The motto of the United States – e pluribus unum (out of many, one) – might provide a useful way to frame the problem. We know the pluribus: Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, religious and secular, home and abroad, rich and poor, indigenous and migrant and so on. But what's the unum? Is there a one that arises from the many?

We know what it can’t be: a single religious faith, a simply bounded national territory, a common gene pool, a single shared history. So all that’s left is self-conscious invention. All nations are inventions – but ours has reached the point where it knows this. We have learned the hard way that “us” is not just an inheritance from the past. It must also be a plan for the future. It is not a reliable memory, so it must be a conscious desire.

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