Friday, 5 February 2010

The low ideological price tag on British citizenship

Later this month Belfast Salon hosts a debate at the Belfast Exposed Gallery asking whether devolution offers a peaceful future in Northern Ireland, or whether it fosters 'peace at any price'. I will be contributing alongside Forth editor, Jason Walsh.

A series of taster articles will appear at Forth Magazine before the event.

I kick off with a piece about Irish unionism, the nature of British citizenship and the conditions Alex Salmond is attempting to put on Scottishness.

FOR NATIONALISTS it is often a working assumption that Irish unionism is defined and limited by reaction. Its genesis was simply a retort to Ireland’s burgeoning consciousness as a nation, from the 1790s on. And today, in the third century of its existence, unionism is understood to remain primarily a response to, and a denial of, legitimate national aspirations.

John Bew has written a fascinating little book, the Glory Of Being Britons, challenging these foundational myths about unionism. He describes a burgeoning civic philosophy, rooted in enlightenment values, which developed in Belfast from the outset of the nineteenth century. He argues that, far from representing a simple repudiation of Irish nationalism, unionism developed alongside a positive, mainstream association with the British state and its interests.

For Bew, Irish unionism owes at least as much to Victorian state-building, the industrial revolution and an interaction with the British constitution, as it does to recovered memories of 1641 or the Siege of Derry. The implication for modern politics is obvious.

Appeals to a civic, secular unionism can no longer credibly be viewed, through a nationalist lens, as an invention of modern unionists, grafted unto a more elemental framework of ethnic rage and false consciousness. There is a deep and enduring strain of Ulster unionism which is entirely at home within the constitutional structures of the United Kingdom and fosters a rational, defensible and attractive case for Union.

The civic argument for the UK, and Northern Ireland’s membership of it, is not new-fangled. It appeals to selfish instrumental interests but it also encompasses ties of community that rival cultural equivalents, on which nationalism often bases its assumptions of superiority.

It is, of course, difficult to disentangle completely economic and political arguments for the United Kingdom from cultural preoccupations. After all, even the central contention that unionism is more capable than nationalism of separating the concepts of culture and allegiance is, at its essence, a cultural argument, despite the fact that it is also undoubtedly profoundly political.

But whereas Irish nationalism is principally about nationality and the coincidence of allegiance, culture and a claimed territory, British unionism, and specifically civic British unionism, is about citizenship and allegiance to shared political institutions within the confines of territorial sovereignty. This is the ‘fifth nation’ which Richard Rose claimed provides the conceptual glue for the United Kingdom.

The functional nature of the United Kingdom’s constitution provides a strong incentive to participate. Put simply, if you are prepared to work within the political system, and recognise the legitimacy of the institutions which comprise it, then it is likely to work for you. Citizenship of the United Kingdom comes at a low ideological price and its politics encourage a strictly practical focus.

Scotland provides an interesting case in point. There nationalism has attempted to weld itself on to a vibrant cultural patriotism. Its response to the instrumental arguments of unionism is that they are unpatriotic, they ‘do down’ Scotland, they rely on a ‘Scottish cringe’.

Alex Salmond’s nationalist populism exerts an undeniable emotional pull. It attempts to avoid the practicalities of economics by placing a very definite ideological price on Scottishness. In order to be proudly Scottish you must believe that Scotland can be independent and successful. Holding your Scottishness in common with any other political allegiance infers a crushing lack of self-confidence which is anathema to the national spirit.

However susceptible Scots have proved to Salmond’s irrepressible, and rather kitsch, enthusiasm for Scottish culture, they have proved resistant to his arguments against membership of the UK. Support for independence has flatlined at around 30 per cent of the population, which is roughly comparable to previous nationalist peaks. Scotland has shown an appetite for national self-expression, but Scots have stubbornly clung on to an instrumental commitment to Union.

Although the mismanaged British economy was right at the heart of the global economic crash the crisis has been slow to trickle down, whereas the ’Arc of Insolvency’ forms a stark warning of the susceptibility of small, national economies. The UK’s size and influence has partially inured it from the worst financial vicissitudes. There was much talk, prior to the crisis, about the nimbleness of a smaller economic model. But while the larger countries might be slower to turn, they are also better able to weather a sustained buffeting.

The practical benefits of UK membership are widely accepted in the current climate and therefore there has never been a better time to emphasise the civic aspects of Ulster unionism and its inextricable link to the British unionist mainstream. Unionism, as Bew points out, has formed the instrumental core of the United Kingdom for three hundred years. Its functional focus is a sure base from which to aspire to another three centuries.

Northern Ireland – democratic future or peace at any price?
A debate at the Belfast Salon
February 16, 2010
Belfast Exposed Gallery


Kloot said...

But whereas Irish nationalism is principally about nationality and the coincidence of allegiance, culture and a claimed territory, British unionism, and specifically civic British unionism, is about citizenship and allegiance to shared political institutions within the confines of territorial sovereignty.

Interesting article. Very busy in work, so I dont have time to comment on it in its totality.

I was just wondering about the tag "Irish Nationalism". Who do you believe this tag covers ? The SF voter in Belfast ? the SDLP voter, the FF voter in Dublin, the FG voter in cork?, the labour voter in Kilkenny ?

Who is encompassed by the term Irish nationalist do you believe

Chekov said...

Kloot. Good to see you back. Been a while! In short anyone who aspires to reunite the 'national territory'.

Kloot said...

Kloot. Good to see you back

I check in regularly but caught for time alot lately so cant comment as much.

Kloot. Good to see you back. Been a while! In short anyone who aspires to reunite the 'national territory'.

I wasnt expecting that answer. I kind of thought you might say all of the above, with regards to my list of scenarios, but you havent, intentionally I believe.

Heres where Im coming from on this, in 2010, I believe that its possible to make an argument that "Irish Nationalism", that which owes a large part of its origins and founding principles in its opposition to Britain, has, to a very large extent, ceased to exist in the Irish republic.

What I mean by that is this. In certain generations, the old ones, in the ROI, there remains a bitterness to the UK, brought through from the 40s/50s/60s/70s and 80s. This bitterness/resentment or negativity to Britain, is not to any large extent visible in the younger generations in the republic and almost invisible if not invisible in the 20yr old/late teen generation.

The younger generations do not have any hang up on the issue of Northern Ireland. It is not a contentious issue for them. Most ignore it. Irish people by and large consider the Northern Ireland issue constitutionally settled. Im not sure what result would occur in a poll on the border in the South. Any poll would spark of a national debate that would be quite interesting. People would be acutely aware of the economic, social and security implications that would exist were there to be a removal of the border. Either way, its not something that people in the ROI give any real thought to. It most certainly is not an issue that has any at all impact on politics in the ROI. I wonder when the last time unification was ever even discussed in the Dail.

So, where does that leave us. Is it a case that when referring to the Irish people in the ROI, the Nationalist tag can be dropped. Irish society is far far different from what it was 20 years ago. It is a modern, vibrant, young, educated, multicultured, diverse, outlooking society. The issues of importance to people in the ROI are the same as those for any other country in Europe. People are concerned about education, health, society, their families, their jobs.

Yes, the GAA plays a big role in Irish society, the Irish language is there too, although largely given lip service. However, these irish specific features sit comfortably along with the many other sport, art and cultural components of Irish society. There is no dominance of one over the other.

Jeffrey Peel said...

Owen, a beutifully articulated piece and one I agree with whole-heartedly. However, you fail to go beyond the vanilla definition of unionism which implies that all unionists have similar socio-economic ambitions. It's one reason why I have so many reservations about the Conservative UUP link-up - as much of the UUP's membership and voter base draws upon a left-of-centre cohort. Few active UUP members have a sophisticated understanding of progressive Conservatism. Moreover they are unlikely to provide rich arguments for the merits of a largely secular, British political system. I think the civic focused Unionist that you refer to is, typically, someone who has been largely politically inactive. The Unionist middle class was mostly silent or shouted down during the troubles. However, the party-political Unionist contrivances that have emerged from the troubles are not much to the secular/civic Unionist's taste. That why a new political structure is required - to satisfy the needs of educated middle class Unionists, as well as educated middle class 'nationalists' who are, in fact, nothing of the sort.

Our nomenclature needs to change. Given the constitutional certainty that has emerged from the various Agreements, we have at least a foundation upon which to build. But we need a strategic plan rather than bungalow blight.

Chekov said...

Interestingly Jeff the civic unionism which forms the central topic of John's book predates specific unionist parties.

Incidentally, has O'Neill or someone decided to parody unreconstructed ethno-nationalism on the forth site?

"Ireland, from the earliest monastic writings to be found in the Annals, Genealogies, Literature/Mythology, Poetry, etc. has always been conceived of as a single, national unit with a linguistic, cultural, ‘ethnic’ and geographical/territorial unity and integrity (whatever artificial internal political divisions may have existed or been recognised). The island of Ireland as a nation, the inhabitants of the island of Ireland as the people of that nation, dates as far back as we can go in native writing (and probably in oral tradition too). Such a single national consciousness predates that in Britain by at least a thousand years."

Jesus Herbert!