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 book are three successive submissions, laid by Kearney with Robin Wilson and others before conferences seeking a way through the Ulster impasse. The first is a 1983 proposal for shared sovereignty between Dublin and London, which did not stand the test of time. The second, made to the Opsahl commission in 1993, was the alluring idea that Northern Ireland could find a stable future as an autonomous Euroregion. The hopeless contest over sovereignty would be defused and laid aside; the two communities would remain distinct as “cultural traditions,” but political allegiance would be primarily to Brussels and Strasbourg rather than to London or Dublin.
The trouble with this plan was that it did not really deal with the black heart of the matter. If London or Dublin backed off, who would prevent the majority from returning to their ancient agenda of bullying and oppressing the minority? Optimistic talk about “cultural traditions” does not help much when “keeping the Teagues in their place” is an integral part of the Orange-Loyalist cultural tradition-as Drumcree confirmed last summer.
Kearney’s third plan, devised in 1995 during the paramilitary ceasefire, is altogether wider. He proposes a “council of the islands of Britain and Ireland,” loosely based on the Nordic council, in which the notion of absolute state sovereignty would wither away within the EU and the distinction between states and regions would no longer be significant. The members of this council would be Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and England-perhaps divided into the self-governing regions of Northern and Southern England.
This is likeable, but not very probable in the foreseeable future. One obvious problem is England, too big to fit into the council by itself and yet unprepared to abandon its obsolete tradition of sovereign statehood or to break itself in half. A second objection is that the Republic is almost as overcentralised as Britain. A third problem concerns Scotland (and perhaps one day Wales). If devolution comes but then cannot be made to work-which is not unlikely-then the Scots would probably opt to become an independent nation state within the EU. What alternative would they have? The fact is that, for some small and submerged nations, statehood still remains a sensible option; only by first attaining even qualified independence can such nations afford decisions about how to move on and pool that independence.
The best parts of the book are Kearney’s reflections on Irish nationalism and identity. Facing such a mountain of myths, he does not deconstruct them to death but-in the most engaging post-modern way-gives each its biography. “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,” wrote Yeats, “what stalked through the post office?” Something with English as well as Irish ancestry was stalking in 1916. Kearney denounces the notion that Irish nationalism proceeds from Gaelic-Catholic roots alone, which led to Ireland’s version of that vicious ethnic nationalism invented by Roman Dmowski in partitioned Poland (“the true Pole is a Catholic Slav”) and practised by Atat?rk against Armenians and Greeks in the old Ottoman empire. Instead, he glories in the hybrid, dualistic nature of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.
Philosophers like Kearney, and the new Irish historians, allow us to understand how “American” that struggle became in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The dominant protestants had a colonial consciousness, determined to hold the catholic “natives” in subjection yet fiercely resentful of London’s restraint on their own liberties. (If the 1745 had triumphed and restored the Stuarts, threatening toleration for Irish catholics, might there not have been rebellion and a declaration of independence-ringing with phrases about the rights of man-in Dublin?) Only later, in 1798, was there a republican uprising led by the protestant Wolfe Tone which identified with the catholic grievance. As the United Irishmen put it, “the part of the nation which is truly colonial, reflected that though their ancestors had been victorious, they themselves were now included in the general subjection… protestants began to suffer what catholics had suffered.” Even then, the catholic hierarchy hung back in fear; hunger and poverty, rather than politics and religion, led catholics to Tone’s side.
But Kearney is not a wholehearted revisionist. He writes memorably about the “myths of the motherland,” about the weakness of Celtism, about the possibility (raised first by Tom Garvin) that English rather than Gaelic “has always been the language of Irish political separatism,” and that the more the Irish embraced English, the more nationalist they became. But he still has a profound, emotional reverence for something which he perceives as essentially Irish across the millennia. It is relevant to him, and to his passion for the European regional movement, that ancient pre-Tara Ireland may have been a land of petty kingdoms which only the bards proclaimed a unity that was cultural rather than political. More prosaically, though, the “essence” of his eternal Ireland is that for most of its history it has been a mongrel of different cultures, all of which have contributed to the present and none of which can be expelled from the record as “non-Irish.”
This pride in dualism-or mongrelism-comes out strongly in his section on Irish philosophy. He discusses the “Irish counter-Enlightenment”-Berkeley, Swift, Burke-and their complicated identity and loyalty (although it seems facile to conclude that they were out to justify ascendancy privilege against both Enlightenment principles and Jacobite pro-catholic pressures). He debates the extraordinary John Toland, the catholic shepherd boy from Donegal who converted to protestantism in 1686, wrote a book undermining the foundations of Christianity and spent most of his life in European exile. Toland was the most multiple identity imaginable. He claimed-untruthfully but wittily-that he had been christened “Janus Junius” (two-faced and republican). He was an atheist obsessed with religion, a republican who became the lover of the Electress Sophia at the court of Hanover, a defender of England against the Jacobites who was none the less accused of Jesuit conspiracy. Toland was at once a cosmopolitan wanderer and a self-consciously Celtic Irishman who wrote dictionaries of the Irish and Breton languages. For Kearney, Toland’s “doubleness” was typical at once of Enlightenment thinkers and of the cleft mentality of Irish intellectuals; Ireland itself was “at once a brutally colonised country… and one of the most advanced centres of elite intellectual culture.”
In a recent article in the Irish Times, Kearney wrote that “Irish and British nationalism are Siamese twins… Northern Ireland is the place where the sibling nationalisms meet.” Now he is offering yet another proposal: that both sovereignty claims-to a United Ireland and to a United Kingdom-be relinquished, opening the way to his new council of Britain and Ireland.
All these ideas have a common element. This is that the problem of a divided Ireland and the crisis of the UK-threatened both by internal nationalisms and by the growing radiation of the EU-form a single complex which ought to issue in a common solution. Not all that Kearney recommends is practical; European regionalism will develop in an uneven way, and the nation state is far from dead even if its illness is terminal. But his diagnosis, with its inspired disrespect for older concepts of supposedly homogeneous nation or state, is always brilliant. I remember the Scottish novelist William McIlvanney, at the rally for a Scottish parliament which followed the European summit at Edinburgh in 1992, proclaiming with joy that “we are a mongrel nation.” The crowd burst into applause. That was a good moment-and a Kearneyesque one.