Nationalism, according to De Gaulle, was when “hate for people other than your own comes first”. While I’m sure he had a more sinister brand of the ideology in mind when he issued his critique, the crux of his problem with nationalism (and my issue with nationalism of the British and Irish variety) is something we see playing out in daily life in the UK and, this week, in an utterly depressing fashion in Northern Ireland.
The furore over Belfast City Council’s decision to remove the Union Flag from City Hall on all but 16 days of the year has led to death threats to Naoimi Long MP, the arson of an Alliance Party branch and numerous public protests. The inflammatory rabble-rousing remarks of Unionist politicians have brought mobs back onto the streets of Northern Ireland and taken the political discourse to an even more tribal footing than we are used to.
The events of this week, while appalling, shouldn’t be viewed as a temporary blip in a province now engaged in normal political debate. These events are the culmination of years of inaction I talked about in a previous blog. Already this year, we’ve seen a discussion about badly needed housing in Belfast reduced to a sectarian headcount by the political parties.
But the true tragedy of the last week is that the people of Northern Ireland settled on the border question with the Good Friday Agreement – both the Irish and British governments gave up their claim of ownership over the north and entrusted it to the people to decide in a democratic referendum. Why then, some 14 years out from that Easter, are we continuing to ignore the issues that really need addressing? It’s understandable that a generation who grew up with the strife and distrust of the Troubles will continue to vote along ethno-religious grounds, so leadership must come from the politicians to move us beyond the Troubles mindset. We can only hope that the courage of Naoimi Long and the Alliance Party; Basil McCrea; and Stephen Agnew will pay off in polls.
The voices of reason are few and far between but look at the alternative and their importance is clear: arch-creationist Edwin Poots has responded to this attack on democracy by seeking to bring the flag debate to Stormont and parliament buildings. Yesterday, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister failed to attend a committee meeting on the new welfare “reform” laws which will negatively impact so many vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. In the age of coalition governance and rebelling backbenchers, Sinn Fein’s votes in Westminster carry more weight but still the party is one of abstention. Our only hope lies with the only parties putting the border question at the bottom of their list of priorities.
It would be foolish to expect too much too soon but we need only to look across the Irish Sea for a nationalism that is based on more than ethnicity and its narrow parameters. In Scotland, the SNP are creating a case for independence, but their nationalism – unlike the British and Irish nationalism at play here – is anything but tribal. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s recent speech on independence was focused on a Scotland independent of the UK. What set it apart from the average speech given in Northern Ireland was that her hopes are based entirely on the belief that independence will bring about a society reflective of Scotland’s social democratic makeup. And there’s moderation too: far from being Braveheart addicted ideologues, the SNP if elected as the government of an independent Scotland, will remain in the Commonwealth to placate those who identify themselves as British. Our political leaders struggle to think outside the box but if they were to look globally then they could study Malaysia’s attempt at celebrating the plurality of ethnicities through the 1Malaysia project. While it’s fledgling, and at times controversial, it at least demonstrates a willingness to think of society as a multitude of opinions, religions and identities.
I am happy to be corrected, but I haven’t heard a Northern Irish politician consistently argue for a united Ireland or for staying within the Union on the grounds of equality or reduction in poverty. It shouldn’t be the case, but to be a unionist or nationalist in the north so often correlates to a lack of care about the issues at hand. The debate inside the chamber of Belfast City Hall was impassioned in a way the debate on the 13% of people in Northern Ireland living in ‘absolute poverty’ never is, and where was this passion when the discussion on equal marriage took place? We have serious, pressing concerns that are being ignored for sectarian headcounts and the politics of division.
The problem with relying on nationalists of the orange or green variety is that their politics puts the welfare of a flag before the welfare of the majority; it limits ideological flexibility because a nationalist usually thinks in narrow terms. In a political age requiring the most flexible of approaches to all our social and economic ills, nationalism, in its current form, should be an anachronism. We should widen this discussion by promoting the individuality of identity. One erstwhile leader of the north talked at length about the variety of identities at play in this part of the world.
I’m Irish, that’s my race if you like. My identity is British, because that is the way I have been brought up…
The leader in question? None other than Dr. No, Ian Paisley. If a man like Paisley can acquiesce with a dual identity then surely we can all come to realise the folly of offence over flags and emblems and move on to the challenges that unite us all.