Apr 2, 2011

Is nationalism a hangover from history?

An appalling atrocity took place in Omagh today. A young man, who happened to be a Catholic and who had only recently completed his training as a policeman, was murdered by thugs masquerading as patriots. They claim to act in the name of Ireland, all of Ireland needs to send them a message that they don’t.

The following is an abridged version of a speech I gave to The Phil in Trinity in October last opposing the motion ‘That Nationalism is a Hangover From History’. The first section is in rebuttal to Des Dalton, President of Republican Sinn Féin, who also spoke at the debate.

Mr Vice President, ladies and gentlemen of the University Philosophical Society, ladies and gentlemen:


Before summing up this debate and setting out why I believe you should oppose the motion, I am going to take the slightly unusual step of totally disowning someone who also spoke on the opposition side earlier.

Des Dalton and his organisation represent a totally failed political ideology. All they have to offer is a return to the gun and the bomb.

Republican Sinn Féin and their allies are often referred to as ‘dissident republicans’. They are not dissidents, they are rejectionists. And they are not republicans, because the founding ideal of Irish republicanism was that the Irish people should have the right to determine their destiny for themselves. The Irish people did that in a great act of self-determination when we overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in May 1998.

Des Dalton disagrees with the Good Friday Agreement. That is his right. But if he can not accept the prevailing view of the Irish people, north and south, Catholic and Protestant, then his fight is not with the Brits but with the Irish people themselves.

Mr. Dalton, you are an enemy of the Irish people. And if you and your friends in the Continuity IRA believe that you can bomb and murder your way into somehow carving a future out of a tombstone, then you had better start by shooting me.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are embarking on a decade of commemorations. In the next ten years, we will mark the centenary of one of the most turbulent, significant and course altering decades in Irish history. We will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, the slaughter at the Somme, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the foundation of the Irish Free State and of Northern Ireland.

This gives us, and I speak particularly here of my generation who were not even 10 years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, an opportunity to reflect back on those events that shape our State and our island today. As Tony Blair put it, we have an opportunity to be students of our history, not the prisoners of it.

But as well as giving us an opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, it also gives us a chance to think about where we are going. The people who fought for Irish independence did so because they believed the Irish people should have the right to make their own decisions, to chart their own course, and to make their own mistakes; and in the 90 years since, we have certainly done all three.

But while we have made plenty of mistakes, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget the many things of which we should be proud. In the field of the arts alone we have Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw and Heaney – names which might not have made it onto RTÉ’s list of greatest Irish people, but names which mark us out around the world nonetheless.

I am immensely proud, irrationally perhaps, of this country. But that’s not to say that my pride is misplaced. In this lottery of life, I could have easily been born elsewhere, but I wasn’t. I was born an Irishman – with all the repression and guilt that that entails! Yet I am proud of my culture, I am proud of my country, and I am proud of her achievements.

As an example, I am reminded of the remarks of Bill Clinton on his recent visit to Dublin. He spoke of the work of Irish Aid in its partner countries and, in particular, of its work in Timor Leste. He spoke of the respect, indeed the reverence, in which Ireland’s name is held by the people of that troubled land because of the transformational work Irish people are doing there. That’s us. That’s our tax money. It’s our expertise. It’s the compassion of our people who are out there helping people to help themselves.

It is true that the concept of the Irish nation and Irish nationalism has been used and abused over the years. The Irish state, like many others, emerged from a period of nationalist activism that claimed lives. But times have moved on; what it means to be Irish has evolved, and the manner in which we channel our nationalism has been refined.

In itself nationalism is not at all a destructive concept. Our sense of place, our sense of Irishness, our sense of nationhood is the common denominator that binds us all together. It’s the reason we vote for Mary Byrne on a Saturday night, the reason we feel embarrassed when we see Bono on the TV. We can’t explain it away, and we can’t always rationalise it, but it is natural, it is powerful, and it makes us united as a people.

When I eventually shut up and sit down, most will go next door to enjoy a few of the (free!) drinks. Some will enjoy those drinks more than others; they will drink to excess, and a hangover will follow closely behind. But it will not be the alcohol that will yield the hangover. It will be the excess. The same is true for nationalism. National pride is not itself harmful, quite the contrary.

It is only when the ideas are abused, when they are bastardised beyond recognition and taken to extremes that their value should be questioned. Yes, we should oppose the over zealous and unwelcome pursuit of nationalist ideals, but not at the expense of an identity that we should be enjoying and embracing. Enjoy your country, embrace your identity, and take pleasure in some moderate drinking.

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