Letter: Tribal baggage

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The Independent Online
Letter: Tribal baggage

I APPRECIATE your correspondents' reply ("Ireland's tribal baggage", 6 April) to my letter ("Ulster's Titanic", 4 April) and hope that I may reply to them.

My point was the symbolism of the Titanic. It symbolised Ulster, Union and Britishness, an identity in its own right. The general point was that two identities exist on the island of Ireland and simply trying to ignore one and see them all as Irish muddles the picture and helps create bitterness and enmity because it denies the reality and right to exist of the identity that is denied.

It may sound liberal and egalitarian to say that they are all Irish, but in fact it is the opposite, because you deny the right to exist of the other identity. Consequently the other identity has to resort to aggressive tactics to be heard and establish its existence, it has to fight, especially against those who deny their existence.

It is not me who is excited, it is the people you reported on ("Anger as loyalist march is banned", 4 April) who are excited. I was trying to explain why - they are having to fight to assert their identity, rights etc against people who appear to deny it. Try telling an Irish nationalist that we are all British really: same thing, same problem.

The problem is one of ethnic nationalism, a most illiberal concept as most multi-ethnic states have found. I then tried to explain how Ulster Unionists formed their "ethnic" identity, a mixture of industrial economic interests, religion, military security and the way that Irish nationalism totally ignored them and just assumed a right to the whole of Ireland.

But this typifies a major problem with many nationalisms - a tendency to assume a geographical entity must be a political entity, or pre- existing state borders must form an ethnic-national border and that somehow these are natural. Nearly all the literature on nationalism stresses how artificial nations are, they are political and man-made (often to ward off progress and liberalism). Nations are "imagined communities" that exist primarily on a mental level, but reflect shared interests of economics, security, culture, language, and most commonly with a religious core and history that make claims for an exclusive territorial control. These interests are recalled to members via an extensive use of symbols, flags, statues, history and even monumental ships. Wherever nationals originally hailed from (Europeans into Americans, Australians, Canadians etc) they connect via these symbols to form a mental collective that informs them of a "greater" being, past present and future and provides an important sense of individual and collective identity.

Most of these identities appear to have been moulded in their present form in the 19th century, just like Unionism and Irish nationalism, and, as the recent Rowntree poll on Northern Ireland displayed, the core identities appear to have stuck, no matter what temporary (Brussels dependent?) boom might have occurred in the Republic. Perhaps farmers may find some benefits in the Republic, but the bulk of Northern Ireland's population would not want it (97 per cent of Protestants and 33 per cent of Catholics).

The Republic never had an industrial revolution, and after the 1870s it lost its agricultural markets in mainland Britain, consequently it developed different interests from Ulster whose key industrial and economic interests were and still are dependent upon the Union. This is where your "own" government becomes so important - to represent your interests.

If we wish to progress and engage Unionists constructively then they must be accorded the same right to exist and have their identity as everyone else. But that was always the rock (iceberg?) that nationalism foundered upon. It could not advance its own claims and recognise the legitimacy and equality of the Ulster Unionists at the same time; that legitimates the border and undermines any concept of a united Ireland. This is a problem common to most of Europe's ethnic nationalisms, and why I, for one, would happily seek some alternative political arrangement to modern nationalism.


Centre for the Study of Conflict

University of Ulster, Jordanstown