In Northern Ireland, three ideas are commonly conflated – Religion, Nation and Politics. This is done for the purposes of division – on one “side” you have the Protestant Unionist Loyalists, and on the other “side” you have Catholic Nationalist Republicans.
I’m not going to talk here about the first; instead jumping straight to the latter half of that debate, which is to question the link between Loyalism/Unionism and Republicanism/Nationalism. This is clearly a divide that comes apart – one can be in support of a non-monarchist tradition while also following a union or federal structure, and one can be a nationalist in defense of a nation that is not itself a Republic.
The operative dynamic is that these labels are supposed to be descriptors of a separation of communities, each of which might be appealing in different ways depending on the mode of engagement that those communities need in order to maintain the sense of connection to the others on their “side”. You have the “ussuns” and “themmuns” functions at work, and while “Irish” or “British” sound nice as names, using concepts that help people relate to those names in a way that pick them apart from those that use the other names is what really helps the division solidify.
So to jump in and start attacking the “Ussuns” sounds a bit weird. I would happily and readily subscribe to the Republican ideal, and am strongly opposed to Loyalist politics. It’s also a bit unusual in that Ireland is not itself anti-Unionist – it is a member of the EU, willingly and to its great benefit, and so a recognition of the value of Union in the functioning of state is built in to what Ireland currently stands for. It’s one of the great promoting functions that the North could, in a Unified Irish state, serve to bring to the debating floor – the North believes strongly in Union, as a consequence of its experiences with isolation, division and national domination, and it believes we are better together than we are insular.
So why is it then that Republicanism and Nationalism are so closely tied together? On one level, when we talk about the “Nationalist” cause in the north, we’re really just talking about “anything related to a tightening relationship between the North and the Irish State” (this is part of why the Loyalists are so jumpy – their “opponent” is enormous). But on another level, as we see in Sinn Fein’s position in wider Irish politics, Nationalism also represents a tighter relationship between citizenship and power. They aim to empower Irish nationals, particularly those that are facing particular hardship under a globalised capitalist world.
It’s natural to see that in a Republic, citizens do have more power via their representatives than in the same state otherwise as a Monarchy or Oligarchy. But it’s one thing to talk about the distribution of power within a state, and another for the individuals within the state do advocate for an expansion of their power in absolute terms, rather than simply in relative terms. I, as a Republican, do not want my interests to be dominated by the mechanisms of state, and believe there is a role for campaigning for both my interests and minority interests under the same threat of domination. For a Nationalist, domination is back on the table as potentially something the state does, and the question is not so much whether I am part of a nation that does not dominate, but more about whether that relation of domination is directed towards the “others” such that I, as a citizen of The Nation, am powerful in absolute terms than in a non-nationalist state.
These two ideas are not exclusive, necessarily. One can see that functioning as a republic can empower a citizenry to work better on a global scale, and particularly when that republic has good authority to speak for its citizens in an effective and honest way, this kind of strong leadership has huge potential for influence in the international marketplace of ideas. A new nationalism, in other words, would do well to found itself on republicanism, and to deviate from it only in as much as it can help define a powerful distinct national identity. Similarly, a strong republic can become something to be proud of, and establishing a potent sense of nation may feel quite natural if the foundations are successfully implemented.
But the distinctions are important as motivations for the state. For a Republican, rather than the nationalist, the principle of non-domination is not just a mechanism that helps establish individual flourishing, but is the essence of the endeavour around which the scaffolding of state is constructed and upon which the rest of the architecture must build as its foundations. The true republic must never allow its perspective to be clouded by promises of wealth, influence or favour – the positive liberty of all citizens and freedom from non-arbitrary interference is not up for sale, even if national glory and riches for us and our friends are waved before us as the rewards of seemingly small sacrifices of principle and integrity.
Perhaps then the other cause for the conflation comes from a certain degree of cynicism concerning this ideal, the reality of the Republic of Ireland as it is presented to us with all of the compromises and little uncertainties that we think come along with it. Motivation is all fine and good, if we take ourselves to be bearers of principle and truth, but when individual power seems to be the primary motivator of the individuals in charge, the collapse of one to the other seems all to easy to presume in someone presenting said principles in aiming to convince and lead.
But then, how much do I really know that Ireland? I see Sinn Fein’s and Fianna Fail’s interpretations of that Ireland, fed to the media through the respective interests of the socialist and conservative perspectives that claim to represent it. I often fail to see even that, recognizing that such address is often filtered through the fog of civil conflict rather than witnessed with the clarity of the engaged, objective scepticism that I often suppose myself to claim. Perhaps, this cynicism might itself be born of the Protestant side of the equation, and perhaps it is not wholly justified in its disregard of the possibility of genuinely authentic collective moral venture.
There is definitely more of that Ireland for me to explore and understand, and as the next few months progress and lockdown reopens them, I hope to be able to do just that.