Is Irish Nationalism Dead like Dan O’Brien Says?

On the 16th of April, 2017 the Irish Independent published an article by Dan O’Brien entitled “101 years after the Rising, nationalism is dead and gone.” The main argument in the article is that Ireland has become a post-nationalist society and that this will be a stumbling block for unification. The following is a brief reflection on some of the points made in the article, particularly regarding the premise that Irish nationalism is dead.

A Post-Nationalist Republic

We gather that Dan O’ Brien is living in a post-nationalist society. A society in which a United Ireland is a grim, economic calculation rather than a starry eyed ideal. And where the “slumbering beast” of national awakening is regarded as at best a nuisance. What are we to make of this?

Does Dan’s Ireland exist? Is it real? Or is it a figment of his imagination. Is it the confirmation bias of an insulated media caste? To be fair, there is much evidence for this Ireland existing. Ireland is visibly a different place than it was, even fifteen years ago. There  is an up-rootedness, a restlessness, a dislocation that was not there before. There is a feeling of ambivalence, particularly towards the Tiger years and how they ended. Much like the English, the sense that the Irish know themselves is now limited. Displays of patriotism, restricted to sporting events and drinking sessions. The last public concessions to tribalism.

There is a deep ambivalence also towards the pre-Tiger years. The Arts seem to exist for only one purpose now. To tell us how awful everything used to be. To preclude the possibility of a national nostalgia and to keep us in line and on point. Our relationship to our history remains deeply unhealthy.  And in a myriad of ways, national feeling has become difficult or constricted.

The malaise is far from uniform. There are people who are post-nationalist by conviction and are even hostile towards nationalism. Then there are people who call themselves nationalists but who are really living within the paradigm of post-nationalism. Sinn Féin are the clearest example of this, having adopted a Left Liberalism that is in practice hostile to a national idea. There are people who take Irish nationalism for granted, who in day to day banter consider themselves patriots. There are people with no political sense whatsoever who nonetheless benefit from a sense of belonging. There are also those who have become weary of nationalism, or specifically the violence associated with it, and have become disillusioned, much in the same way people have become disillusioned with Catholicism.

So there is something to this notion that nationalism is dead and that the nation as a concept may be dying. At least it is fashionable to say so. Fashionable to say we are living in a global paradigm. And yet there is something suspicious about the claim. For the dead man has not yet been mourned. Certainly there is no sign of mourning in O’Brien’s article. So is nationalism dead in Ireland? Or is it inconvenient? Maybe the national idea has simply been shifted into the corner, into the shadows, in the hope that it finally may die.

As was observed last year, and largely agreed upon, the commemorations were inclusive and the events had more of a carnival feel than – by all accounts – did the flag-waving 50th anniversary events of 1966

While there are certainly some darker trends recently in how society and politics interact, most notably in the very low levels of trust in elected representatives and the political system, the rise (or return) of an exclusivist nationalism would not appear to be on the cards. If anything, there is a strong case to be made that Ireland is now one of the most “post-nationalistic” societies in Europe.

Nothing swells the head of an Irishman more than a plea to his exceptionality. The Irish media understand this well.  Nationalism and jingoism we are told are on the rise, but not in Ireland. The media are careful to emphasise this. They tell us we are an open society. It is what defines us. It is a part of our culture, so we are told. Not like those racist English who voted for Brexit. No, in Ireland we have no fear of the Other. We are inclusive. We include.

It’s an easy game. You define Irishness as being “open.” You define nationalism as being “closed.” The two cannot therefore co-exist. You define exclusivity as bad. You define inclusiveness as good. You associate nationalism with the former. You associate liberalism with the latter. And then you watch it all play out.

It is amusing that to a liberal and a globalist, nationalism is always something lurking in the shadows. It is a kind of Other. A kind of Id. Something monstrous and irrational which constantly threatens to plunge an ordered society into chaos. It is associated with darkness and danger. Nationalism, one might say, is the foreign element in a globalist society. What does globalism exclude if not nationalism?

Mass-Immigration and the EU

O’Brien cites two trends as evidence of nationalism’s demise. Positive sentiment towards the EU and apparently positive sentiment towards a mass influx of foreigners. We will address the immigration issue first.

Opinion polls show that there is less hostility to it in Ireland than in most other peer countries and that more people see it as beneficial compared with elsewhere in Europe.

As ever, the media coordinated spectacle of national displacement goes on apace. Every weakness and failure to react is lionised. Ireland bends the knee and gets a cookie. Of course, if the media were so sure of themselves, or so sure of the Irish people, they would certainly behave differently. There would be full honest discussion of what is occurring. But there is not. In February a iReach poll showed that 47% of Irish adults regarded immigration as a serious problem, and the media went into panic mode.

Another point to make is that Irish journalists are always comparing the Ireland of this minute to the Europe of this minute. How many times have we heard that Ireland bucks a trend or that Ireland is an exception to the rule. The fact is that Ireland quite often lags behind global trends. What is occurring now in other Western European countries will inevitably occur in Ireland. To believe anything else would be arrogant.

It is remarked upon, though perhaps not often enough, that Ireland has been unusual in Europe in recent times in not seeing the emergence of an anti-immigration party. Even more unusually, none of the existing parties believe that there is electoral advantage to be gained by focusing on it.

The strategy towards mass-immigration in this country has been novel from the get-go. The strategy has been to completely ignore it. The strategy in the media and in government has been to maintain a silence. So it’s a bit rich when O’Brien alludes to that same silence, and calls it evidence. For the silence regarding immigration has been institutionalised in the populace. It has been done in the most cynical ways imaginable.

One example illustrates this. Ten years passed between Kevin Myers’ famous appearance on the Late Late Show in 2007 and his interview with George Hook last month on Newstalk. In both cases, warning about the lack of an immigration debate. In those ten years, not one inch of progress was made in that regard. No silence in Irish history has been so deafening.

O’Brien’s second point of evidence is the European Union:

If it is accurate and fair to say that being unenthusiastic about the EU and all its works indicates a more nationalistic world view, while being pro-integration suggests a more internationalist outlook, then this is further evidence of how Irish society has shifted over the decades.

This is somewhat misleading. Poland and Hungary are both strongly Pro-EU and yet both would be considered strongly nationalistic. O’Brien’s simplification on this point may be down to the UKIP/ Brexit paradigm of nationalism that occupies the minds of the Irish intelligentsia.

A Plea for Humility

The demise of nationalism is quite often presented as a positive. The decline of the nation (often cynically conflated with the 19th century nation state) is presented as an inevitable process. Rarely does the mainstream media reflect on the actual consequences. In fairness, the loss of a national ethos is alluded to by O’Brien towards the end of the article. He concedes a small point but an important point.

Arguably, a benefit of nationalism is the sense of solidarity it generates.

That, in turn, creates a willingness to make sacrifices for people and territory considered to be part of the nation. It is very far from clear that such solidarity exists widely in the Republic.

This is putting it mildly. The importance of sacrificing individual short-term interests for the future, is something that nationalism expressly emphasises and liberalism expressly ignores. Peter Hitchens has often made a point regarding religion that might be helpful here. He suggests that secularists overlook the fact that they benefit from the afterglow of organised Christianity. He also suggests that as that afterglow dies away, the real limitations of secular humanism will begin to reveal themselves. This seems like a fair enough observation. It holds in our own society with regard to religion and it certainly holds with regard to national belonging.

The people choosing a globalised Ireland are not choosing it for themselves, but for their grandchildren. They themselves have benefited from an Irish identity, an Irish sense of self, an Irish sense of belonging. Something profound and unique, an ethno-cultural sense of community and a place in the world. There’s an old saying that “he who forsakes the old ways for the new, knows what he is giving up but not what he will find.” The message of this proverb is not simply reactionary but is a plea for humility. And it is humility above all which is lacking amongst those who would be globalists. The hubris and the arrogance of the anti-nationalist position is often apparent.

The tone of Dan O’Brien’s article is hardly arrogant or even dogmatic. But what is disturbing is its banality. The banality with which it dispenses with an Irish nation. Much as one would sweep some dust into a dustpan and throw it in the bin. It is the tone of Official Ireland, which occasionally admits what it is doing and what it intends to do. But it never takes responsibility. It never acknowledges the scale and nature of its own treachery.

Between the 1966 commemorations and the 2016 commemorations, we saw several decades of political violence. Nobody would like to see those again. But throughout Europe, leaders and governments are doing their damnedest, it would seem, to ensure just such political unrest, by making enemies of their own populations. By treating the human condition the way Hitchcock recommended we treat actors. That is, like cattle. So in short, Dan O’Brien better be right. Official Ireland better be right. They better be justified in their complacency. For if they are wrong they will face difficult questions one day. They have told us that Ireland is an exception to global trends. Time will tell how deep that theory goes.