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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

(Re-)mapping the centres: membership and state

Proinsias De Rossa

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1The twentieth century has been marked by both drama and trauma. This has been particularly so within Europe and from a European perspective. Two murderous world wars saw civilisation almost destroyed by barbarism. The Cold War and an arms race threatened to exterminate humanity itself.

2The twentieth century has seen the end of Empire in a European context and the consequences of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century expansionism by European powers. We have seen shifts of populations throughout the world and the consequent intermingling of cultures, particularly in large urban areas and the continuation of great shifts of people from rural to urban areas. Science and technology have created new opportunities as well as new challenges.

3Each state has its own story to tell. Ireland, equally, has had its share of dramatic and traumatic experiences in the twentieth century. At the turn of the century, Ireland was a poverty stricken and rural society. There was massive migration to urban areas, primarily outside Ireland. The island as a whole was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was at the centre of the British Empire. Militant separatist political movements were small and insignificant. The political mainstream sought a measure of Home Rule within the UK. However, militant republicanism, aligned with cultural nationalism, grew in strength quite rapidly following the 1916 Rising. This, in turn, gave rise to a war of independence (1919-1921), followed by a civil war (1922-1923), and the division of the island between the Free State in the South, and Northern Ireland.

4The Free State became even more impoverished – with a weekly haemorrhage of thousands of young men and women to England and the United States seeking work. It became a Catholic state for a Catholic people while Northern Ireland became a Protestant state for a Protestant people. Books were banned. Contraception was banned. Films were banned. Plays were banned. To be considered really Irish you had to believe in a united Ireland, the revival of the Irish Language as the first language of the state – buy Irish made goods instead of foreign (i.e. English) goods – and most importantly be a Roman Catholic.

5That was the world I was bom into in May of 1940, at the beginning of the 2nd World War, from which Ireland abstained, although 150,000 Irish men and some women joined the British Forces to fight in the war.

6As I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s I was all of these things, Catholic, Nationalist, Chauvinist – as were most people in what had become (in 1948) the Republic of Ireland. Today I am none of those things – and most Irish people when faced with real choices, e.g. the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, are not either.

7Ireland is intrinsically linked to Britain by geography and history. Interaction between the two islands started early through trade and raiding parties and the introduction and development of Christianity. Christianity was brought to Ireland by a Welshman called Patrick in AD 432. Before the notion of Irishness, Englishness, Scottishness and Welshness became labels of identity, (in 1160) England began its annexation of the smaller island, giving life to an 800-year love/hate relationship. Over that period, political institutions, the two economies and cultural experiences became intertwined with each other through a process of invasion, plantations, alliances with local "kings", oppression, paternalism and plundering of resources such as the great oak forests. In the process, of course, they gave us a road network, railways, the English language, great buildings and monuments, and a split personality.

8But this process of assimilation did not remove cultural and language differences. When part of the island finally became independent, every effort to reestablish an imagined (even imaginary) Gaelic Ireland, proved impossible. Britain and Ireland still have this love/hate relationship. Our futures are intertwined because our past has been so closely intertwined.

What is identity?

9So what makes us Irish, and not British? Is it just our place of birth or is it the inheritance of a culture. Is it even the place of our birth....? Why are unionists in Northern Ireland British and Nationalists in Northern Ireland Irish?

10Consider the Irish Diaspora. They are both "Irish" and British, or American, or Australian. Culturally those who have emigrated have tended to raise their children in the imagined tradition of their "old" country. The Irish in Britain and the Irish in America, in particular, have maintained strong links with their original homeland, while at the same time proceeding to play an active role in their new home.

11But their notion of Ireland differs dramatically and fundamentally from the reality of Ireland. Their view is frozen in time and in the memory which has passed down from their parents or grandparents. Irrespective of that reality, "their Ireland" is still part of their identity.

12The attachment of young Ireland to the nation-state is much less extreme than it was 30 to 40 years ago. A healthy spirit of competition in sport has replaced the Anglophobia of previous generations. Young Ireland increasingly identifies with the wider world. The insularity of a small, peripheral, non-pluralist state has declined with access to travel, television, the world wide web and improving economic conditions. Yet paradoxically, for many their identity has become more local – for the very same reasons. The growing complexity of life, the growth of uncertainty about nationalism and religion has meant that many people feel lost and hold onto the "local" as an anchor. People increasingly identify with county, city, town or village – even neighbourhood, which is also reflected in electoral politics.

The Nation

13The concepts of "nation" and "sovereignty" are not static. The nation-state, independent and sovereign, is a relatively modern concept. It conferred legitimacy upon past conquests and sought to unite people with a common language, history, and territory. The creation of the European Union, an evolving political entity, could be seen as a further development of the idea of "nation". How it will evolve in the future is as yet unclear, but its evolution will generate as much impassioned debate as the unification of Italy or Germany.

14Elsewhere, we are witnessing the reawakening of old national quarrels, as in parts of the former Yugoslavia and the old Soviet Union where nationalism is seen in its ugliest form with ethnic groups seeking to carve out national identity at the expense of other peoples' legitimate rights and identities in the same territories. Whereas in Ireland we appear to be in the process of creating an over-arching identity which can be common, while respecting other pre-existing identities.

Ireland: Historical Context

15It has been argued that when part of Ireland was cut adrift from the United Kingdom, it was like Britain cutting off one of its own limbs. In Britain, Ireland was seen as an integral part of Britain – not a conquered colony or "nation-state" in waiting. It was as much part of Britain as was Scotland or Wales. Ceding independence was not only politically difficult for Britain, it was also emotionally difficult. This, too, was the case for many in Ireland – not least the Unionists who were trapped as a minority in the newly created Free State and formed a majority in the newly created Northern Ireland.

16Before the War of Independence, Home Rule for Ireland had been sought for many decades. The resistance from London to this concept assisted in fuelling the growing cultural nationalism which flourished in the years leading to the 1916 Rising. The Outcome of the War of Independence – the creation of the Free State and the Northern Ireland State – was a solution which few sought or desired. The aspirations of Nationalism and Unionism remained. The two conflicting identities were separated by dividing the island and oppressing minorities in the two territories.

17In the Free State the nationalist camp divided between those who felt betrayed by the newly created entity as it fell short of the "Sovereign Republic" made "holy" by the blood sacrifice of 1916 and those who accepted a pragmatic solution. The result was a short, bloody and bitter Civil War, which left its mark on Irish politics for much of the remainder of the century.

18The net result was that both parts of Ireland redefined themselves in the narrowest of terms. The South became an insular Catholic state, obsessed with proving its independence from Britain. The North became a Unionist-dominated, inward-looking province funded from the UK exchequer which saw every Nationalist as an enemy. Both were greatly affected by emigration. Both had seriously underdeveloped economies.

19The 1960s brought great change. The ending of economic protectionism was followed by moves towards social modernisation. In the South economic progress followed decades of economic stagnation. The opening up of Ireland to the wider world for the vast majority of citizens began. Challenges to the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church began to appear. Issues such as the legal ban on divorce, contraception and homosexuality, the role of women (defined in the Irish constitution as "mothers" and "housewives"). In the north the Civil Rights Movement took to the streets in the late 1960s. Essentially the Civil Rights Movement was looking for equality of citizenship with British citizens. This included fair housing allocations, fair employment and the concept of "one man one vote". The end of gerrymandering of political constituencies, an unarmed police force, the disbandment of the part time police auxiliaries known as the "B-Specials" were also sought. The political status quo in both parts of the island was being challenged. These demands were resisted by the unionist establishment – who reacted viciously, giving rise to the view that Northern Ireland was irreformable – and that unity with the Republic was the only answer for Nationalists.

20The resulting conflict in the North put the National Question once again on the agenda. In the meantime, social and economic change in the Republic was to proceed with increasing speed.

21A shift in peoples' perspective of their national identity emerged in the Republic of Ireland from this point. Joining the EEC in 1973 and the subsequent development of social legislation and opening of Ireland to external influences had a dramatic effect. The "national" interest was redefined. We began to measure ourselves against a wider canvass. The Franco-German axis in the European Communities became more important to us. Some historians began to deconstruct the myths created by the National Movement, national heroes were re-assessed and found to be mere mortals just like the rest of us. They might even have been wrong when they said "Labour must wait" or when they said that "Ireland not only has to be free, but Gaelic as well, not only Gaelic, but free as well". And the notion of the "blood sacrifice", espoused with great fervour by Padraig Pearse, was debunked.

22Psychologically one other important and critical result emerged from our membership of the European Union. We now sat at a table with the British as an equal sovereign state with an equal vote on issues concerning Europe and not just concerning Ireland. The large neighbour who dominated our existence as a colony and as an independent state was now a partner. Indeed over the next twenty-five years Britain's problems within the European Union became Ireland's opportunity. Britain's self-imposed exclusion from the centre of the development of the European Union had its impact in attracting industries to Ireland which wanted to locate inside the Union in an English-speaking environment and with an educated work-force.

23Social reform was debated through the 1970s and 1980s. To a large extent it was delivered in the 1990s although there are still major reforms needed to remove the last vestige of Roman Catholic theology from our constitution.

24One outstanding major question remained to be resolved. The so-called "National Question" i.e., the partition of the island. Many of us had come to the conclusion that we had been pursuing an answer to the "National Question" which was untenable. We had to find a new answer by re-defining the question. Instead of "how do we unite the territory of Ireland", we asked "how could we enable two traditions and two national allegiances to live side by side in Northern Ireland and as good neighbours with the Republic of Ireland and Britain?" How could the issue of sovereignty be resolved in a way which required no one to abandon their legitimate political aspirations. Ironically this process of re-definition was driven to some extent by the atrocities of the IRA and Loyalists, both of whom clung to the traditional conceptions of the problem, and sought the traditional answers, which of course was a zero-sum game.

25The 1970s and 1980s and part of the 1990s witnessed appalling terrorist atrocities, continuous armed violence and little political progress. But that thirty-year period also saw many of the protagonists' positions evolve.

26The Republic, through its involvement in the European Union – in sharing its sovereignty with others and through a clear and distinct shift in public opinion against violence, moved its position considerably. With confidence gained through improved economic circumstances, a positive international role and reputation and a growing sense of pride among the population, many traditionalists were able to accept a reassessment of history and look critically at "sacred cows". The conclusion of this process, driven by a desire for peace, was acceptance of the principle of Consent and an acceptance by Unionists and Nationalists that each others' aspirations were legitimate. This was a major step forward. Britain also declared that it had no strategic interest in Northern Ireland, and should a majority of people in Northern Ireland vote for a United Ireland, Britain would not object. These are distinctly different positions on all sides from those of 1921, or at any time since. They derived from a new conception of identity and an acknowledgement that national allegiance can be facilitated in different ways to the old "one nation, one people, one state" concept.

27Once these principles were accepted the problem was how to construct a constitutional and political framework to accommodate these new positions. The two Governments had to agree with each other at every step and ways had to be found to bring the militant extremes into the political process. The following sequence of events brought the situation forward:

  • The Downing Street Declaration by the British and Irish Governments – which outlined the principles on which an agreement on Northern Ireland could be reached.
  • The IRA ceasefire – which had to be (and was) unconditional. Followed by ceasefires by other Loyalist and Republican paramilitary organisations.
  • The Mitchell Commission on the De-Commissioning of Arms which laid down the basis on which the situation in Northern Ireland could be de-militarised.
  • The Good Friday Agreement – which provided the framework for a democratic governing of Northern Ireland involving all sides.
  • The Downing Street Declaration principles which are now incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement included:
  • Consent: the principle that the majority of people in Northern Ireland could decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic
  • A Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive
  • North-South Institutions
  • East-West (British-Irish) relations
  • Weighted majority decision-making on key issues
  • The amendment of the Irish Constitution to incorporate the principle of consent, and the amendment of the Government of Ireland Act (1920).

Where are we now?

28Because most Irish political parties defined themselves primarily in relation to the Civil War or their approach to Northern Ireland, most intellectual energy went into those issues. There was also a concentration on modernising Irish society, driven largely by the broad left. Because there was little ideological conflict (as distinct from theological conflict) in that process, parties have tended to drift into pragmatic alliances based on Programmes for Government. These programmes were largely a mix of centre-left/centre-right agendas.

  • The development of the Irish Economy: an end to emigration and a dramatic fall in unemployment
  • The delivery, to a large extent, of the Modernising Agenda
  • The agreement of a consensus solution on the National Question

29All the main political parties have been in power during the 1990s for some period of time. All worked to a common plan negotiated by government and the social partners which dealt with wages, economic objectives, and social objectives.

30There were a couple of clear objectives to the national economic consensus: the reduction of punitive tax rates, preparation for EMU, and the reduction of unsustainable unemployment rates. However, there was a down side. The poor and the marginalized are still waiting for the good times. By definition the social partners are the Included. The Excluded are at best ghosts at the table which haunt the consciences of those already inside.

31The Left has so far failed to mobilise a political consensus to seriously tackle poverty and social exclusion which has been largely ghettoised. The politics of consensus leaves little room for solutions which will cost the middle classes. Politics panders to the people who are better off, who have something to lose.

32I feel that this too is the case in most of the E.U. New political thinking is a rarity. Consensus has blunted much of the debates between the left and right. The aspirations of both have been modified – so too has the dynamism which existed and which brought forward new ideas. In a world which is changing so rapidly and with economics and trade becoming so globalised, new ideas and new solutions to common problems need to be brought forward by the Left based on traditional values of solidarity and internationalism. I stress "values" because I believe many traditional platforms of the Left such as national self-determination, sovereignty, internationalism, which derive from the eighteenth-century drive to create nation states, must be redefined in a globalising world.


M.E.P., President Labour Party (Ireland)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2000

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