By HAL (@michael_hal)
At the recent Sinn Fein Ard Fheis Gerry Adams outlined the party’s future strategy in his Presidential address to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2013.
Sinn Fein’s plans centre on a campaign for a Border Poll which is the continuation of the party’s strategy of electoralism. Electioneering or canvassing in pursuit of the objective of a United Ireland has replaced the assertion of the right of national self-determination for the Irish people. Such a strategy reduces the demand for national self-determination to a whim.
The Good Friday Agreement put a qualified distance between Westminster and ‘the province’. A key concept enshrined in the GFA is ‘parity of esteem’ for the ‘two traditions’ in Northern Ireland. “Parity of esteem” is a deliberately nebulous concept. Surely ‘esteem’ emanates from within and cannot be bestowed externally by state agencies? But both republicans and loyalists have bought into the politics of cultural diversity and respecting traditions.
In essence the ‘peace process’ provided a framework that offered a way out for protagonists who were exhausted by the length of a conflict that had no end in sight. The new dispensation is a far cry from national self-determination. The issue of sovereignty is no longer debated with any vigour. Republicanism was an ideology that sought to transcend sectarian differences. Present day Irish republicans are enmeshed in a political system that perpetuates such differences.
However, in the absence of any practical alternative to Sinn Fein’s strategy and given the utter exhaustion of physical force republicanism it is perhaps time to conduct a debate on what Irish unity and self-determination mean today. Historically ideologically driven nationalism was linked to state formation. In his 1862 essay on ‘Nationality’ the English historian Lord Acton observed that: “The new idea of freedom made room for different races in one State… A nation was… a moral and political being; not the creation of geographical or physiological unity, but developed in the course of history by the action of the State. It is derived from the State, not supreme over it.” Ireland by that measure is a nation without a State. There is no unitary Irish state that encapsulates or embodies the will of the Irish nation.
Following the French Revolution in 1789 the ideal of citizenship was not based on race or ethnicity. Any individual born in France had the right to French citizenship. In Ireland the idea of one state for Catholics, nationalists and republicans and another for Protestants, unionists and loyalists represents the antithesis of statehood and citizenship. Incidentally this is why the idea of a ‘two state solution’ in Israel/Palestine is also a flawed one. Inclusivity is the hallmark of stable nation states. That is why identity politics which is based by default on competing identities leads to an impasse.
The historian R.F. Foster’s injunction to celebrate ‘varieties of Irishness’ is a pipe dream in the context of two states riven with antagonism. Both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are failed entities. Both states cemented and reinforced sectarian divisions. That is why Partition was enacted.
The Free State of De Valera’s making was dominated by clerical and political elites and marked by censorship and nepotism. It offered the majority of its citizens a life of stultifying conformity and poverty or the boat out. Today the Free State is decidedly unfree. It is politically and financially bankrupt with its budget decided upon by EU oligarchs based in Brussels. In the North, the ‘Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’ envisaged by James Craig was a vicious little sectarian regime. This was the ‘carnival of reaction’ predicted by James Connolly. Partition is a blight and needs to be dispensed with, but before that can happen we need to create the political conditions that will bring that day forward.
We need to question the politics of national identity and cultural diversity. The loyalist flags protest is an example of identity politics in action. Identity politics and the politics of cultural diversity results in competing claims and a never ending demand for recognition. It freezes inter-communal relations in a continuous present of mutual distrust and hostility. It is an approach that embeds sectarianism.
Embracing identity politics is misguided. For example many Celtic fans lauded the late Paul McBride QC as one of our own yet he was one of the key instigators of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation and as such an authoritarian and illiberal.
It is important not to confuse expressions of national identity and cultural nationalism with assertions of political independence and self-determination. An identity can be adopted or assumed. It is transitory and superficial. Independence is a quality that is hard earned. You are either independent or not. Republican communities traditionally valued their political independence. They were defined by it. It was more than an identity.
State sponsored peace or state brokered institutional arrangements will never meet the needs of the people or match their aspirations. We need to aim higher. It is time to reassert the sovereignty of the people by rejecting dependency on the state. It is possible that in the future Ireland may look to Scotland for an example of an inclusive, independent nation state. The Irish in Scotland can play a leading role in making such a state. It seems clear that, whatever happens, the status quo is no longer an option.