Ireland Is A Real Place (Written 2006)

How Far Does The Case of Ireland demonstrate that an essential part of nationalism is remembering and forgetting?

There is a cliché that the Irish forget nothing in history and the English remember nothing in history. It is no less true because it is an old cliché. There has always been an odd relationship between Ireland and England . The buzz words from the Major-Reynolds Downing Street Agreement (December 1993) spoke of totality of relationships but the relationship is founded on the fact that in British eyes, Ireland has been “a problem”. In generations of Irish eyes, Britain is “the problem”.

All countries have an element of the “imagined” about them. There is something arbitrary (even Luck) about the existence of “nation states”. The United Nations website lists 191 members, the International Olympic Committee lists 203 members and FIFA the world body governing football has 207 members. Even these figures are misleading. Nations are born (Timor), die ( Czechoslovakia ), are re-born ( Estonia ), are still in labour ( Palestine ) and some die in infancy (Biafra) and some are aborted ( Kurdistan ).

By any standard, Ireland exists. But the UN website shows some nations have never had to “prove” their existence, the so called great colonial powers of France and Britain while other nations have in their history ( Algeria and India ) had to prove their existence by spilling their blood, their right to exist denied by…..coincidently France and Britain . Indeed my own unscientific count of the UN member states shows at least forty five countries that were at one stage part of the British Empire and most owe their presence in the United Nations to a de-colonisation process insisted on by the United Nations and relunctantly agreed by the colonial powers.

Does BRITAIN exist? Well clearly it does. No nation is imaginary but is Britain imagined as the anthropologists would have us believe? Well the alternative national anthem ” Jerusalem ” (based on William Blake’s poem) speculates that Jesus Christ walked on ” England ‘s green and pleasant land”. Much beloved as the song is at the Albert Hall, Twickenham and Women’s Institute conferences, it is I submit an anthem that is not so much based on imagination as total delusion. If Jesus was indeed in England he would have been deported as a failed asylum seeker. It is no less delusional than an obscure Greek aristocrat donning a kilt and being reborn as the Duke of Edinburgh, an economic migrant perhaps.

The case of Ireland is different. Over several generations the Irish have been asked to prove their existence as a people and to prove the right of their nation to exist. It follows that in drawing up the proof, some evidence is more convincing than other evidence. It has on occasions been necessary to spice up the dossier.

Clearly there is an island called Ireland visible from satellites in space. And the weather maps from outer space don’t have artificial borders. As any nationalist, tongue in cheek “knows” if this situation is good enough for God, it should be good enough for everyone. As any loyalist knows, satellite weather maps without a border is a BBC conspiracy.

The anthropologists tell us that Irish symbols are ……..symbols. Well we knew that. The point is surely what is symbolised. The green, white and orange flag symbolises peace between two factions (Pearse and others in 1916 would argue that the division was fostered). Clearly the peace is aspirational rather than real but should we forget that its three stripes symbolise Egality, Liberty and Fraternity? Is it not worth remembering that the man who first unveiled that flag in 1848 (Thomas F Meagher) was sentenced to death for sedition, commuted to transportation?

I recall aged 12, spending my lunch hour with other boys looking at this exotic flag in a shop window in Divis Street Belfast . It was a curiosity. And I recall a similar lunch hour next day after the RUC (police) from Hastings Street had removed it. Should the Flags and Emblems Act be forgotten? Did not that Act bestow on the Irish flag a particular symbolic power representing an aspect of freedom. The alternative British flag had flown over the governors residences, town halls, slave markets, prisons and execution yards of maybe forty five countries.

Of course the violent removal of that flag in October 1964 does not seem to have rid ” Northern Ireland ” of the Irish flag, although strangely I have still to see it fly outside the Europa Hotel, even though most of the hotels guests are from the Republic. Petty insults such as “Colonel” Jimmy Hughes commenting on the sectarian Twelfth Parade with licence fee money and that irritating deliberate BBC snub to the Irish National Anthem by delaying “going over” to Lansdowne Road until the last bars of the offending song had faded. A process of remembering and forgetting but the older I get the more I want to remember.

While any history of Ireland prior to the Act of Union is useful as a scene setting exercise (the Anglo Irish, the Cromwellian Wars, the Penal Laws, the United Irishmen) I believe that the “real” history can only begin in post Enlightenment times and I believe that Irish nationalism is a local product of that Enlightenment. From 1848 Hungarians, Poles, Italians and Chile , Mexico and Argentina (where coincidently names of honour are O’Higgins, Reilly and Brown).were among many peoples clamouring for additional freedom. The Irish were part of that movement.

The philosophy of Democracy and Republicanism cannot be separated from the romantic notion of Nationalism. This idealism is not merely about what the heart feels its about what logic dictates.

As we all know England won the World Cup in 1966. It is very unlikely that they will select a team for 2006 based on the hereditary principle where the sons of the winners of 1966 play in the team. Its no way to select a football team but seemingly appropriate for a head of state. Now as in the mid 1800s the hereditary principle applies and the British Head of State is a monarch. Traditional but absurd. British liberals still found Charter groups and sign open letters to the Guardian but they have never in the modern world raised their heads above the parapets.

Britains colonial past and Irelands imagined status engages British people much more than it engages the Irish. The BNP rejoice in it and Conservatives mostly do (sure there were “victims” but hey get over it is the attitude). Liberals like to distance themselves from it and salve their angst by believing in some kind of notion that deep down “We” (British and Irish are all the same) while some on the Left take it a step further and believe in a different kind of Imperialism that was born and died in Moscow.

Britain still has a (recently enfeebled) hereditary system in the House of Lords and remains a country where it is still possible to be appointed (as an honour) to its Legislature.

While much is made of the sectarian nature of Irish (particularly Northern) politics, a convenient veil is drawn across the institutionalised sectarianism of the British state, a Protestant Head of State, an established Protestant Church (even in predominantly Catholic Ireland of the mid 1800s) and the ultimate absurdity of a Church… .any Church being governed by a Head of State.

The point of no return of Irish nationalism lies in the Famine years. If a ruling power treats a part of its ” united kingdom ” in an unequal way, the ruling power simply loses the right to govern. It is unlikely Yorkshire would have treated in the same way.

British liberals will argue that the good folk of Yorkshire would have had no interest in ruling Ireland . But I think this overstates the social concerns of the average Yorkshireman to the idea of Empire. Yorkshire regiments such as the Green Howards have served in Ireland and the (arguably) worst Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Roy Mason was a Yorkshire miner who had a hobby designing neckties for Army regiments.

While it is true to say that many Irish regiments were recruited for the British Empire , I think this is much more to do with the expedient need to eat and have a roof over your head or simple acquiescence rather than enthusiasm for British imperialism which is at best patronising and at worst racist.

While it is true to say that there has always been free movement of people between Ireland and Britain in post independence days, it is too easy to forget that there was no free movement of people between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland until the mid 1970s. For most of the years of the northern state, a licence was required for a resident of the Republic to come and live and work in the Six Counties.

Certainly the entire Nationalist enterprise is littered with inconsistencies, notably the Gaelic language. Yes it was revitalised by “British” education and “British” railways. And the First National Language of Ireland doubles as the First National Hypocrisy.

As Ireland grew in prosperity and formed new partnerships in Europe , it has become fashionable to see Irish nationalism as old fashioned or too closely linked by comfortable Southerners to the Northern Ireland Troubles. The suspension of the military parade by the Irish Army lest it upset the British has now thankfully been reversed in 2006. It always had a bizarre Basil Fawlty “don’t mention the war” aspect.

That same army has lost 85 personnel in United Nations missions, many of them part of the decolonisation process, where the Irish forces were seen as more acceptable as belonging to a former colony rather than an imperial power.

Yes, Irish nationalism is a process of remembering and forgetting and I would add forgiving. But I caution against a well intentioned political correctness with as many inconsistencies and half truths. The peace process obliges us to accept equality for the Irish language on the basis that we must accept the existence of Ulster-Scots, a risible concept. The process obliges us to accept a mantra that we are all right and all wrong. It preaches a ying and yang credo where we are all to blame, that we all must take ownership of the problem. It is as seductive as it is wrong. While compromise is clearly desirable, it is not desirable to split the difference between what is mostly right (the Irish position) and what is mostly wrong (the British view).

We have learned to accept the ultimate imagined state that there is a peace process, where Republican paramilitaries don’t smuggle fuel, where Loyalist paramilitaries don’t smuggle drugs and where Alliance Party members don’t get appointed to quangos.

Every year at either Twickenham or Lansdowne Road the pageant of the Anglo-Irish conflict is re-enacted. The aristocracy of the English backs and the roundheads in the English scrum come face to face with the Wild Geese raparees/cavalry  in the Irish back line and the terrorists in the Irish pack and they (the English) don’t seem to get it….they think it’s a rugby match.

George Orwell and latterly John Major defined England as warm beer, cricket on the village green and middle aged spinsters cycling to the village church. And Eamonn De Valera saw Ireland in frugal comfort with sturdy children, athletic youths and comely maidens laughing and dancing at the crossroads.

Certainly Irish nationalism is in part about remembering as theres a lot worth remembering. To some extent its about forgetting but theres really nothing that should be forgotten.

Its acceptable for academics to compare Orange with Green, Loyalists with Nationalists, but in issues of Imperialism and Republicanism the comparison is Evil versus Good and to go down that road means losing a moral compass.

But ultimately it’s a matter of choice…….oppression or freedom? Middle aged spinsters on bicycles or comely maidens dancing at the Crossroads? It is as the Amricans say a no brainer.

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