Monday, 9 November 2009

Towards civic politics. Two different interpretations.

Mr Ulster contemplates an absence of ‘civic nationalism’ in Northern Ireland on his blog, prompted by the promotion of its ethnic cousin in Scotland, by the SNP First Minister. He believes that politics in the Republic of Ireland have embraced a more civic interpretation of nationalism, whilst there is no equivalent movement to the north of the border. In contrast, Jason Walsh, writing in Humanism Ireland, argues that secularisation and diversity in southern Ireland would be boosted incomparably if the state were to absorb Northern Ireland’s populace.

As a unionist, I accept neither argument, although I see the merits of each. Dublin, I admit, is liberal and cosmopolitan to an extent which cannot be claimed of Belfast. Disfigured by a recent legacy of violence and sectarianism, Northern Ireland’s politics are currently dominated, on one hand, by the Ulster nationalism of the DUP and, on the other, by the Irish nationalism of Sinn Féin. Neither party is interested in promoting a philosophy which can appeal across a broader spectrum of society.

Mr Ulster contends that the basis of civic nationalism is preparedness to accept ‘all residents’ of Ireland as Irish. The British equivalent is equally a form of civic nationalism. He is prepared to acknowledge that there is some willingness to contemplate this type of inclusivity within the UUP and the SDLP, but he insinuates that the Republic of Ireland has moved farther and faster.

I would raise a couple of reservations. First, to paraphrase a Russian axiom, used to emphasise that Moscow is not necessarily representative of the rest of that country, Dublin is not the Republic of Ireland. It is impossible to evince the proposition that the welcome for immigrants, and their acceptance as ‘genuinely’ Irish, has been universal across a broad swathe of society in the Republic, rather than amongst a section of the urban middle class in its capital.

Second, whilst nationalism, by framing its prescriptions along less excusive lines might edge towards a ‘civic’ model, it is quicker to envisage a broader definition of the identity which it attaches to political allegiance, rather than contemplate the possibility that allegiance need not coincide precisely with identity in order to form the principal building block of a state, in the first instance.

Jason, who describes himself as a republican, comes close to an acknowledgment of this distinction. The common understanding of ‘Irishness’, prevalent in the Republic of Ireland, might be widening, but it is still predicated on allegiance to the ‘Irish’ state and recognition of a special status for an ‘authentic’ Gaelic interpretation of the culture. I don’t get the sense that the notion that political allegiance to the state and cultural Irishness can be separated is gaining substantial momentum.

I assume that Jason sees the introduction of a region with distinct cultural and political differences to the rest of Ireland as a means to sever the two concepts. I can be ‘Irish’, culturally, without owing any allegiance to the Republic of Ireland, and I should be able to offer allegiance to that state without embracing a prescriptive cultural reading of ‘Irishness’.

Although its manifestations in Ulster have not always reflected the adaptability of Britishness and its willingness to span a multiplicity of identities, unionism is better placed, philosophically, to embrace civic politics. The state it promotes emphasises political allegiance and institutions, rather than a particular cultural reading of identity. Which means that an acknowledgment of the ability of different cultures, identities and even nationalities to subsist under the British umbrella, is already a working assumption within the UK. Unionists in Northern Ireland need to do more to demonstrate, substantively, the strengths of their state, in this regard.

13 comments:

Kloot said...

I had prepared a long reply to this interesting piece, but I deleted it and thought maybe to approach a reply in a different direction, more discussion like if you dont mind.

To begin with, I was wondering when you believe the Union took on a civic nature. Do you believe it was always civic based as opposed to cultural ?

Chekov said...

I believe it has developed into a civic construct Kloot, and its history, whilst not always reflecting a civic ethos (and I'm sure you'll catalogue the instances ;-)), has enabled it to develop in that direction. I think particularly of the multi-national compact which forged the original Union of Crowns and the subsequent Act of Union. There might not have been some civic 'intelligent design' guiding the UK towards a civic understanding of statehood, but its history has contributed to the result.

Kloot said...

Ha ha.. dont worry thats not how I intend on approaching this. I sat down again and attempted a reply, except my second reply began to turn out longer than my first!.

It is not easy to offer a reply, without trying to consider the origins and history of both Irish nationalism and British unionism. The origins/history of both are extremely important to this debate.

In an effort to avoid a long winded reply, i shall attempt to summarise my point, but it wont be easy

Irish nationalism in terms of religion, was until very recently, heavily influenced by Catholicism. In terms of culture, it latched on to the gaelic culture, that being the culture of the majority catholic population of the island. In terms of politics, Irish nationalism is republican in nature, influenced by the French and American revolutions.

British Unionism, has its own history. It is heavily influenced by protestantism. Latched on the anglo culture, while at the same time inventing a British culture. British politics are largely pro monarchist.

Irish nationalism has in the main reflected the Catholic Irish identity, although it would claim that its aims are not tied up with the catholic faith, and that many protestants have been attracted to the cause, it seems to me, that due to the large cross over between membership of Irish nationalist parties and the catholic church, that the Catholicism was always going to have a distorting influence, and it has until very recently.

British Unionism, you state, has a "willingness to span a multiplicity of identities". Well, it does, to an extent. It has in the most also aligned itself with a religion, ie the Protestant faith. The British state was first and foremost a Protestant state. The identities that unionism incorporates by and large are Protestant.

The acts of unions were all about securing a strong protestant state, one free from internal warfare and division, and secure from outside attack.

The British state/public were very slow in accepting the full inclusion of Irish catholics within it. Catholics had to drag emancipation from the British state, it was given very much begrudgingly.

Religion has had a massive distortion on Irish and British politics for centuries. If the outcome of the English Civil war had been reversed and a Catholic win was secured, it is interesting to speculate how things may have turned out. Was the union with Ireland to have occurred, under circumstances where there was a catholic king its likely that the shoe would have been on the other foot, and that protestants in Ireland could have been in the position that irish catholics found themselves with regard to the British state.

Kloot said...

>>>Continued from above <<<

To bring it back to my first comment on this thread. At what point did British unionism become "civic" in nature.

I believe British Unionism could afford to become "civic" once it was felt that the union was secure, and it was only really secure once the Irish catholic element removed itself. Until that point, the British state had failed, partially through a lack of trying, to accommodate the Irish catholic within its boundary. Also, from the day of the unions inception, Irish catholic politics worked on the basis of attempting to achieve either full exclusion or partial exclusion from the British state, the feeling being that an Irish state would better deal with Irish affairs then a disinterested British state.

Once the Irish catholics were removed, the disruptive member of the group was removed, and those remaining were largely in agreement. A catholic Irish state was formed, and the protestant British state continued. It is easy to say then that British Unionism is inclusive, because it multiple cultures it encompasses, however, the key point is, that the cultures all share(d) a common bond, which was protestantism. Protestantism was the key requirement for full and proper membership.

It could be argued then, that what looks to be an apparent decline in the cohesiveness of the British state, may be down to and extent to a decline in the importance of religion across these islands, but also due to the fact that the British state now has to survive on a purely legal basis. As in, the state cannot resort to the mechanisms of the past, such as bribery, appeals to peoples influences to secure it. It now has to rely on a purely democratic mandate, and we all know how fickle the voting public are.

Looking at the present and the future. The EU is a reality that is not going away. It is a political and economic union which both Ireland and the UK are apart of. Sovereignty is pooled amongst a group of states with common interests. All members are equal (theoretically). The Irish political establishment, which is the representative of Irish Nationalism, is almost 100% behind the EU. By and large the people are as well, despite what the lisbon treaty threw up. Irish people are very much open to a multicultural Europe. There is no question of Ireland pulling out of it.

However, the same cannot be said of the UK. None of the political parties in the UK is fully behind the European project, for various reasons. Some do not like giving up sovereignty to Europe, some do not like the way EU law/regulation has brought about change in some aspects of the lives of UK citizens, some just want the UK to control its own affairs and to return to the fully sovereign UK state. If you look at it, British Unionism in this case is now playing the same type of role as Irish nationalism did in the 18th, 19th and 20th century. The move is away from europe, to protect British sovereignty and the British way of life. Sound familiar ? Where as Irish Nationalism is heading towards further integration within a multicultural, federal Europe.

Ok.. I thought I may be able to summarise my reply.. but it just wasnt possible. It was very hard to get across my point without giving a lot of context. Im not overly happy that ive adequately capture the finer details of my point, as it would take quite a while to think out and formulate a more detail reply, but I hope you get the point, and apologies for the length of reply.

Jason Walsh said...

Dear Owen,

I've just read 'Towards civic politics. Two different interpretations. Two different interpretations.'

Interesting stuff and I'll reply more formally in due course.

Funny story, I pitched that story to Humanism Ireland and… they printed my pitch as a finished article. I was disturbed when the mag arrived in the post and read it about ten times just to make sure it was coherent. It was – just about.

Anyway, quick comment: I am hostile to identity politics, as you no doubt gathered from that piece. In fact, that was the root of my criticism of Robert Ramsay's book.

Anyway, my half-formed thought is that while 'Britishness', however we might interpret this (though I principally mean in the sense you are calling civic) may well afford opportunity for common, universal bonds, (Ulster/Irish) unionism is not.

True enough, much of that is to do with the conflict (and is thus as true of republicanism) but it does seem to me to go deeper than that.

The other thing I would challenge you on is that Dublin, for all its cosmopolitanism is not significantly more liberal than much of the rest of the South – by which I mean, the modernisation has been reasonably even. In addition, I don't see true openness (or whatever we might call it) as the gift of the middle class. In fact, I would argue that it is working class people who are more supportive of universal values etc.

Anyway, more later.

Best,
Jason.

Chekov said...

A lot to ponder there guys.

Kloot,

You ably identify some characteristics which helped form two political identities, or at least played a part in the creation of two separate states. First thing to note is that, broadly, its true to say that the British state preceded any serious concept of a British nation and certainly anything which might be described as ‘British nationalism’, whereas we can broadly say that Irish nationalism preceded and resulted in a modern Republic of Ireland state. The formative Catholic and Protestant influences (respectively) within each are certainly there and they are important. But three points here 1) movements toward Union (and I think in particular of the Union of the crowns, but there were many cross islands allegiances before that, for which the ‘English colonialism’ narrative is entirely inadequate) began before Protestantism was securely embedded as a state religion or even as a pillar of identity. Religion was important, but within the context of other enlightenment ideas which were beginning to come to fruition. 2) The two united states continued to have two different official religions, albeit both versions of Protestantism. A situation which would have been unthinkable in other, more authoritarian European states at the time. A17th / 18th century take on tolerance, not too impressive to modern eyes, but tolerance nonetheless. 3) Even within the religious construct, there remained the notion that Scotland and England (in particular) were distinct and the Scots and English were distinct, although they could both be Britons.

More to follow …

Chekov said...

I believe British Unionism could afford to become "civic" once it was felt that the union was secure, and it was only really secure once the Irish catholic element removed itself

There might be some truth in that. But I think you’re too intent on seeing civic politics in terms of a top down, Eureka moment, rather than something which evolved out of, indeed as a result of, a particular political culture. Naturally, the twentieth century saw the UK develop the characteristics which we recognise today, but this was a process which had its roots further back than 1916, 1920, 1945 or whichever other key date you wish to mention. It became a multinational state, rather than a mononational one and hence a pluricultural state, or multicultural if you prefer. It developed a constitution based on parliamentary sovereignty in reaction to the European model of absolutism. It began (slowly) to expand the franchise, and part of that expansion concerned Irish Catholics. We had the Factory Act and so forth, which began to develop the type of social compacts which became a critical feature, particularly after the Second World War. We even has Gladstone, and dare I say it, nascent aspirations towards devolution, for Ireland and elsewhere! Of course at no point during this development could you say, ‘here is a perfect civic state’ and you still can’t. But the elements were in place and there wasn’t (didn’t need to be) as self-conscious a process of national self-definition. Not a virtue in itself, but something which spared Britain the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism.

that the cultures all share(d) a common bond, which was protestantism. Protestantism was the key requirement for full and proper membership.

1) By the time the full and proper membership requirement was adhered to, its importance was beginning to dissipate. Surely few people could claim that the Protestant religion had as direct an impact on twentieth century Britain as Catholicism had on the Republic of Ireland during the same period.
2) Even if we accept the proposition that Protestantism was the key bond it wouldn’t’ negate the range of cultural and even national differences which I regard as a strength.

To greatly simplify the thesis of your argument – the UK state couldn’t accommodate Irish nationalism, therefore unionism is a form of protestant nationalism. That it to a) underestimate the autonomy of Irish nationalism’s dynamic and ascribe it overwhelmingly to British unfairness b) undervalue the attempts that had been made to accommodate Irish nationalism, as inadequate as they admittedly were.

On the EU – I admit that the EU has changed the Irish Republic, for the better. I don’t accept that integration will continue, unopposed, unless it is accompanied by very distinct economic benefits. Nor do I accept that attempting to protect state existing sovereignty is the same as seeking to carve out new sovereignty based on nationalist prescriptions. I think that the idea that unionism’s logic falls apart because it doesn’t want everything united to everything else is a bit of a red herring. It is not nationalist, in that it proposes that political allegiance and cultural identity are separate concepts, but it nevertheless requires some political allegiance. Unionism is not incompatible with European integration, but those institutions have to make a case for commanding allegiance and if that case isn’t there, it doesn’t undermine the precepts of unionism.

No problem on the length of the reply Kloot. When replies are so thoughtful and articulate it’s a pleasure to read them.

Chekov said...

Jason,

Anyway, my half-formed thought is that while 'Britishness', however we might interpret this (though I principally mean in the sense you are calling civic) may well afford opportunity for common, universal bonds, (Ulster/Irish) unionism is not.

I take your point. Particularly with the manifestations of Ulster / Irish unionism which are often displayed. But I believe that broader British unionism can be applied in Northern Ireland.

Anyway, looking forward to reading your response.

Kloot said...

Chekov

Interesting reply. Run off my feet in work today, but going to try get a reply in tomorrow. Cheers

Kloot said...

First thing to note is that, broadly, its true to say that the British state preceded any serious concept of a British nation and certainly anything which might be described as ‘British nationalism’, whereas we can broadly say that Irish nationalism preceded and resulted in a modern Republic of Ireland state.

Agreed

But three points here 1) movements toward Union (and I think in particular of the Union of the crowns, but there were many cross islands allegiances before that, for which the ‘English colonialism’ narrative is entirely inadequate) began before Protestantism was securely embedded as a state religion or even as a pillar of identity. Religion was important, but within the context of other enlightenment ideas which were beginning to come to fruition.

There were indeed many cross island allegiances. Irish and British relations have and never will be black and white. However, I think you may be playing down the colonialism element. Remember, the effects of Cromwell were still in play. Large swathes of land were in the hand of English landlords, the descendants of those gifted these land areas as payment. The titles to these lands would have been guaranteed by the English crown. It is far far more complicated then that of course. One would need to examine each section in Irish society from the native Irish, largely based on the land as tenant farmers or the residents of small towns and cities, to the middle class and the upper class. One would also have to consider, that the idea of complete independence advocated by Irish nationalism from the 1920s onwards, taken for granted today, is far from what was in the minds of Irish nationalists prior to and including the home rule movement.

2) The two united states continued to have two different official religions, albeit both versions of Protestantism. A situation which would have been unthinkable in other, more authoritarian European states at the time. A17th / 18th century take on tolerance, not too impressive to modern eyes, but tolerance nonetheless.

Thats the funny thing about religious views of tolerance. Yes, the states united were, as you say tolerant to the forms of protestantism, but no such tolerance is shown to Roman Catholicism. It is a very limited scope and not at all appropriate in a state containing a large Roman catholic element. However, I agree, that religious freedom was not the order of the day across Europe, so there is no reason to expect the new British state to have been any different. However, by choosing not to emancipate the Irish Catholics, the British state found itself continuously on the wrong foot with regards to Ireland. The British state found itself enforcing the connection as opposed to strengthening and enhancing it.

3) Even within the religious construct, there remained the notion that Scotland and England (in particular) were distinct and the Scots and English were distinct, although they could both be Britons.

Maybe, yes. However, was Scottish culture sacrificed to too great an extent in the effort to create the new British culture.

Kloot said...

But I think you’re too intent on seeing civic politics in terms of a top down, Eureka moment, rather than something which evolved out of, indeed as a result of, a particular political culture. Naturally, the twentieth century saw the UK develop the characteristics which we recognise today, but this was a process which had its roots further back than 1916, 1920, 1945 or whichever other key date you wish to mention. It became a multinational state, rather than a mononational one and hence a pluricultural state, or multicultural if you prefer.

Im not sure if the two follow, as in a multicultural state automatically follows a multinational. Yes, the state was multinational, however, it seems to me that in an effort to create a new state and a matching culture, Scottish culture ( and indeed it would appear to an extent English culture) may have lost out. The Scottish language is all but gone, and with it the appreciation of the backing literature and art. The British state saw Irish culture as the baggage holding the development of Ireland back. The majority Irish were agrarian , poor, superstitious and uneducated. Looked down upon as irrelevant and backward. The British state, in an attempt to modernise Ireland decided that education and eradication of the “bad habits” of the Irish were necessary. This in effect resulted in the decline of the Irish language and culture, and it was seen necessary to use the law to enforce the designs on modernising the Irish. There was no attempt to incorporate an Irish culture within the British state, it was this very culture that was getting in the way of modernisation. It seems to me that Irish culture would have been considered too low a form of culture to have been incorporated into the British culture.

It began (slowly) to expand the franchise, and part of that expansion concerned Irish Catholics.

I think you may be down playing failure to expand the franchise. I read quite a lot on the histories of the people of these islands. I finished a book recently on the effects of the Irish problem on British politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even in the 1920s the anti catholicism, especially of the Irish variety, of leading members of the British cabinet is there to see and openly stated. However, that period in history was the beginning of the waning of influence of religion across the European states, and so these people can be considered the last vestiges of a time gone by, but I would tend to believe that throughout the 19th century, Catholicism was something tolerated as opposed to encompassed or embraced.

We even has Gladstone, and dare I say it, nascent aspirations towards devolution, for Ireland and elsewhere! Of course at no point during this development could you say, ‘here is a perfect civic state’ and you still can’t. But the elements were in place and there wasn’t (didn’t need to be) as self-conscious a process of national self-definition. Not a virtue in itself, but something which spared Britain the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism.

Was enough done though. Could enough have ever possibly been done to accommodate a large Irish catholic population into a British state with the impediments that existed in peoples minds. I dont believe so. I dont believe that the British state could have been created in a form, nor evolved into a form quick enough, that would have been accommodating to the Irish element. The impediments being religion, past history, and the prejudices on all sides.

Kloot said...

1) By the time the full and proper membership requirement was adhered to, its importance was beginning to dissipate. Surely few people could claim that the Protestant religion had as direct an impact on twentieth century Britain as Catholicism had on the Republic of Ireland during the same period.


I would argue that throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century religion had its effect on the British state, and its population. In a different less socially restrictive nature to Irish catholicism, but it definitely affected its politics.

To greatly simplify the thesis of your argument – the UK state couldn’t accommodate Irish nationalism, therefore unionism is a form of protestant nationalism.

I do believe that British Unionism and Irish Unionism have differed down through their years due to the obvious dependency that the ascendancy in Ireland had on the British state to keep its position of control in Ireland.

That it to a) underestimate the autonomy of Irish nationalism’s dynamic and ascribe it overwhelmingly to British unfairness

Im not sure I get this point, sorry. I wouldnt use the word “unfairness”. Im not attempting to per say blame the British state. Im trying to see if certain realities existed that prevented history from going a certain route. Its all far to complex to come down to British Bad, Poor Irish.

b) undervalue the attempts that had been made to accommodate Irish nationalism, as inadequate as they admittedly were.

I suppose a core point of my argument is that the attempts to accommodate the Irish catholic (culture and national aspirations) into the new British state did fall short of the mark, but I think that I am also putting forward the argument that those attempts may have been predestined to have always fallen short of the mark due to so many things, including the divide in terms of wealth between the Irish and English/Scots/Welch, the fact that Britain was more modernised then Ireland as a result of the industrial revolution, and also the role of religion.

On the EU – I admit that the EU has changed the Irish Republic, for the better. I don’t accept that integration will continue, unopposed, unless it is accompanied by very distinct economic benefits.

The (middle class) Irish have become green tree hugging, culture devouring, neutrality loving, nuclear energy protesting, organic loving people in the celtic tiger years. Its all about multiculturalism and respecting other peoples opinions and views. “I feel” being the most common words to come out of an Irish persons mouth these days. Freedom from the overbearing influence of catholicism has left Irish people with a very different view of themselves as individuals and others. Yes, most definitely Irish people see economics benefits to EU membership, but they also look to europe for decent legislation that the Dail fails to introduce. The EU is looked on as a good overseer of change in Ireland. Of course a lot of scepticism has crept in over the last 5 years. Largely though this is because of fears that the EU is becoming less democratic or has lost touch with its people. The nice and lisbon referendums in ireland have done damage that will need to be addressed.

Kloot said...

It is not nationalist, in that it proposes that political allegiance and cultural identity are separate concepts, but it nevertheless requires some political allegiance.

Well, maybe thats what my argument comes down to, that the British state failed to acquire political allegiance from the Irish catholic, and the union was thus destined to fail, much like it appears the UKs involvement in the EU appears to be.

Unionism is not incompatible with European integration, but those institutions have to make a case for commanding allegiance and if that case isn’t there, it doesn’t undermine the precepts of unionism.

Thats fair enough, to bring back the Irish/British analogy though, is it not the case that the realities of the British character (self pride, independence and self sufficient) mean that the circumstances dont appear to exist under which the British will ever really identify with Europe.

Anyway, very interesting debate. Enjoy the weekend.