A new generation of Irish intellectuals is exploring the hybrid nature of Irish and British identity. Neal Ascherson finds their views appealing but politically impracticalby Neal Ascherson / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, culture, philosophy by Richard Kearney Routledge, 1996, £12.99
After the revolutions of 1989, the study of nationalism burst into gaudy flower and in due course the fruits began to rain down: some strange, some rotten before they were ripe, but most of them juicy. The buds had already sprouted in the 1970s and 1980s, with the pioneering work of Ernest Gellner, Tom Nairn, Anth-ony Smith and others. Now came the books, the television series, the hasty establishment of academic centres for nationalism studies, the PhD theses and finally the political speeches which showed that the new enquiries had reached the street.
The reception of this harvest has evolved against a background which included Yugoslavia’s hideous disintegration, the advance towards European economic and political union, the conflicts within the old boundaries of the Soviet Union, the search for new relationships between the states of east-central Europe, the renewed search for devolved solutions in the UK, the upheavals in Quebec and the failure to end the conflict in Northern Ireland.
At first came versions of the old imperial distaste for nationalism, presented as a negative, “separatist” force whose manifestations were exclusivity, racialism, variants of fascism and war. This led to the useless distinction between “nationalism” (bad) and “patriotism” (good). Then came an urge to recognise positive categories in national movements. Michael Ignatieff was one of those who popularised the difference between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism. With this more balanced approach came efforts to unhitch nationalism from the drive towards the nation state, and to suggest that the urge to express a communal identity could be as much cultural as political; something which might be satisfied in ways which did not require new sovereignty and flags.
Ireland has been prominent in this search for new solutions, and Professor Richard Kearney is one of its most interesting intellectual explorers. He calls his subject “postnationalism.” This seems a bit too modish to me; nationalism, after all, has not gone away, but remains the vehicle onto which most people load their hopes for a better and less dependent future. But he is writing in a European context only; he is proposing a new nationalism which can fit into a system in which the nation state is beginning to weaken, its authority leaking away to supranational authorities in Brussels and downwards to the rapidly strengthening level of regionalism.
At the core of this…