While scrolling through British Unity’s coverage of today’s separatist rally in Edinburgh when I came across this:
Now, I’m not surprised by the display of nationalist solidarity on display, and this post isn’t about any relationship between Scots and Irish nationalism. Instead, I want to take issue with the specific proposal the James Connolly Society are advocating on that banner of theirs: ‘One Ireland, One Vote’.
The JCS’ website tells us that it is a “socialist republican organisation based in Edinburgh”, and describes one of its core aims as “the establishment of the socialist republic envisaged by Connolly”. One can thus see why the notion of a pan-island referendum has its appeal – the unionists in Ulster would be massively outvoted by the nationalists and a 32-county republic would be achieved. At the same time, the absorption of Northern Ireland’s vast and hugely expensive public sector would probably go some way towards turning the Republic into a ‘socialist’ country to boot.
But there is a fundamental problem with the notion, which is that it is predicated on the notion that there exists ‘one Ireland’ in the first place. This might be true in the geographical sense, but in the political and cultural senses it is patently nonsense.
The exact nature of the divide depends on your perspective. It can lie between the Republic and Northern Ireland, or between Catholic nationalist culture and its largely Protestant unionist alternative. What isn’t in question is that the divide exists.
To my mind, the best expression of why this matters still rests with Bonar Law, who wrote in the foreword to the pamphlet Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union in 1912:
“The strongest objection, however, and, in my opinion, the insurmountable obstacle to Home Rule, is the injustice of attempting to impose it against their will upon the Unionists of Ulster. The only intelligible ground upon which Home Rule can now be defended is the nationality of Ireland. But Ireland is not a nation; it is two nations. It is two nations separated from each other by lines of cleavage which cut far deeper than those which separate Great Britain from Ireland as a whole. Every argument which can be adduced in favour of separate treatment for the Irish Nationalist minority as against the majority of the United Kingdom, applies with far greater force in favour of separate treatment for the Unionists of Ulster as against the majority of Ireland.” [Emphasis added].
That’s the nub of the issue. The idea that Dublin can justly compel Belfast, but that London could not justly compel Dublin, has no basis in any objective notion of subsidiarity, self-determination or democracy. The only intellectual basis for it is a combination of fundamental nationalist beliefs: that Irish identity is somehow more legitimate than either British or Ulster Unionist identity; that Irish identity can demand the loyalties of those who don’t subscribe to it; and that this allows it to override the right to self-determination of dissentient groups to which it lays claim.
This is a fundamentally chauvinist and – if one steps outside its assumptions and extends to Irish nationalism’s subject individuals the right to self-determination and dissent – even imperialist doctrine. It is undoubtedly an interpretation of Irish nationalism (I hasten to stress not the only one) which has inspired generations of armed irredentist factions to wage a brutal war on the civilian population and government of the United Kingdom in general and Northern Ireland in particular.
In ordinary circumstances, therefore, it is a creed which ordinary democratic people on the left or right, but particularly the anti-nationalist pro-democratic left, would go nowhere near. So why has Irish nationalism proved the exception?
It isn’t just the brazen inclusion of irredentists (or from the perspective of ‘Irish Republic’ die-hards, revanchists) in a Scottish independence march. The British left have always tended to align against the legitimacy of the position of the Ulster unionist population, whether it is George Galloway calling them “Scottish settlers” who inflicted a ‘terror’ that deprived the Irish of ‘unity’, or the Labour Party supporting “unity by consent”. In fact, so rare was support for Ulster self-determination on the left that when the British & Irish Communist Organisation adopted a ‘two nations’ position on the Troubles, it rendered them almost unique.
The reasons for this aren’t hugely difficult to understand. In the same manner that myriad modern leftists (including Mr Galloway) can endorse far-right Islamist politicians because they are so caught up with opposition to America that they adopt an ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mentality, opposition to the ‘reactionary’ British state has led many to support nationalist movements they would otherwise oppose in other contexts.
The socialist-to-Marxist flavour of much Celtic nationalism, and the fact that unionism is most strongly represented on the political Right, doubtless help. So too does the fact that Ireland is an island, allowing the border to be portrayed as an aberrance where it would not be on the European mainland, where shifting national borders are accepted as a fact of history. This also gifts Irish nationalists with the term ‘United Ireland’, as opposed to the nastier-sounding ‘Greater Ireland’ that nationalists in similar positions in Europe have to put up with.
Coming to the end of this article, I can think of no great rallying cry to end it on. Many leftists – including George Galloway, oddly enough – are rallying behind the Union in the upcoming referendum. Others, such as most of those at the Guardian, are taking their traditional positions in the trenches of the separatists, perhaps to the tune of Billy Bragg’s ‘Take Down the Union Jack’.
I hope that one day they will be persuaded that an ideology like modern unionism, which focuses on the common ground between nations and bridging the divisions between them, fits far better with the best of left-wing values than the nationalist alternative. If that proves a bridge too far, maybe at least they will realise that unionism is not such an evil as to be worth actively opposing, let alone compromising democratic politics and self-determination to destroy. Alex Salmond should have nothing to do with anybody who thinks otherwise.Share on Facebook