Credit: Frank Chandler CC BY-SA 4.0

MARGARET HICKEY: A century after Partition may be time to consider Irish identity and why it matters

Identity politics is as much about the collapse of old identities as the forging of new ones. The current discussion about how the centenary anniversary of Ireland’s partition should be marked shows how radically political identities can be re-constructed over time. 

When Michéal Martin stood up in Dail Éireann about a year ago and declared Ireland had moved on from ‘backward ideas about sovereignty’ in favour of ‘ the ideals of the European Union’, it must have struck a lot of people that this was something quite incongruous from a member, let alone the leader, of what was proudly the republican party, the anti-partition party, the party most identified with the pursuit of a unified and sovereign Irish nation. The same party was also the one most enthuastically promoting the country’s native culture and language. It drew its vision from the 1916 signatories and in particular Patrick Pearse who aspired to an Ireland, that was ‘not merely free but Gaelic as well’.

A week is a long time in politics so it should not be surprising that over a number of decades to see a political party like Fianna Fáil re-evaluate and recast its identity to the point of discarding what it once held to be non-negotiable core values.

Like all such evolutions it did not happen overnight.  The EU as an entity in itself, rather than a collection of entities, was implicit in its adoption of the symbols and structures associated with sovereign states. Its grand assembly was designated a parliament, presided over by its president. It had its own anthem and its own flag and logo.  It didn’t set out to dissolve its members’ identities but to subsume them in all their particularity into a comprehensive political organism.  Its declared aim was to break down historic animosities between rival nations, not destroy or dilute their identities. But of course the policy of open borders and centralised policy formation needed to secure its aim has ushered in a new sense of what it is to be of Irish or any other nationality. Incrementally, we have all become a little more like each other in how we think, how we learn, how we work, how we eat and, to varying degrees, in how we appropriate a supranational, European identity.

As Michéal Martin pointed out in his Dáil address, the ‘values of the European Union’ have ended wars between European states.  They have contributed too to the gradual and growing detente between the UK and Ireland.  In fact after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Fianna Fáil under Bertie Ahern began to assume a less vividly green shade of nationalism. In 2004, they quietly changed the party’s name from ‘Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party’, to simply Fianna Fáil. Michéal Martin has led them the rest of the way by entering coalition with the old enemy, the party who approved partition and settled for being a free state instead of holding out for an all Ireland republic.

But all that was very long ago now and merging with the old enemy was the final logical step in a converging political journey as both parties outgrew their shared social conservatism and their founding raison d’etre was overtaken by events.  This ideological coming of age together has forged a degree of unity between them. It has also found them making common cause against enemies who used to be or, in the case of Fianna Fáil particularly, continue to be, within their own ranks.  The rump of dissenters who refuse to buy into everything the new european age of enlightenment is trying to force on them.

The problem with changing identity is that not everyone is happy to move on. From the point of view of Michéal Martin and Leo Varadkar, dissenters will be swept into the current of progress sooner or later or else find themselves, irrelevant and ridiculous, up an ideological creek without a political paddle to free them. As a former teacher of history, the new Taoiseach should know it’s not always so simple.

Identity matters at some level to everyone. It is about being fully, freely and authentically who you feel yourself to be. People may find their sense of self within a belief system or an ethnicity or a culture or a way of life. Most often it is within an intersection of several of those markers that we define ourselves. Some people will resist and risk all they have even life itself to defend that sense of who they are and what they stand for. Michéal Martin probably sees his open, non-partisan stance towards marking the centenary of Irish partition as statesmanlike. Very many would agree with him. However, in abandoning the deeply rooted identity of his party, he has opened the field to others.

Sinn Féin have held more firmly to their republican roots.  They have taken over from Fianna Fáil as the colour party in Irish politics. They have managed to graft their social progressivism to traditional consevative nationalism. Perhaps, strapped on rather than grafted might be more accurate. However, ill sorted as their hybrid platform is by european standards, they have managed to sell it at the polls, North and South.  Sinn Féin see ’nothing to celebrate’ about the upcoming centenary anniversary. On the other point of the political spectrum, the DUP have called for a public holiday to mark the occasion. Whether this divergence of views will spill over into the same divisive debate that stymied the government’s plans to mark the contribution of the RIC to Irish life has yet to be seen.

Brexit has shown the EU that there is a point beyond which identities can be merged without causing revolt. It is facile to dismiss the Brexit vote as an exercise in voter manipulation. Voter manipulation does not equate with voter capitulation. People have deeper reasons for voting than a seductive slogan or soundbite. Most people who take the trouble to go out and vote, which is usually not more than three quarters of the electorate, are likely to have considered the question posed in the round.

There are other member states who have gained hugely from EU membership like Poland who are not prepared to trade sovereignty for better security and  living standards. Like Ireland, Poland paid a high price for its sovereignty. At the other end of the spectrum Sweden defines itself more by its progressiveness and inclusiveness, than its national and historic character. Uniquely in Europe, it has enjoyed centuries of peace.  But even in Sweden there is a resurgence of nationalism. From Hungary to Spain, from Sweden to Italy, European countries or rather a signifiant demographic within them is asking if they can freely be who they are, a people shaped by their shared past, within the new European order. Refusal to acknowledge the desire of people to belong within a culture, a nation or a tribe, within a national and historic narrative has fuelled populist, far right politics across Europe.

In both personal life as well as national life, there is a new sense that identity is not something immutable that runs in the blood but rather something that can be shaped and chosen. In an age that extolls diversity, there must be accommodation too for the many who think otherwise.

It is easy to pay lip service to diversity but it is very challenging to live it out.  While the European project has certainly kept peace between nations, it has created another rift along a much wider frontier of ideology. Michéal Martin may well speak of ‘the values of the European Union’ as if they were what any reasonable person might be expected to sign up to. In actual fact while leading with the rhetoric of inclusion, there is clear push to impose an overarching world view to which every individual and  group is expected to conform.  Do ‘the values of the European Union’ acknowledge the right of a doctor or a nurse to decline to participate in an abortion or euthanasia procedure for instance? Do they acknowledge the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education that does not adhere to a faith based understanding of sexuality? Do they acknowledge the rights of churches to operate charities and services that conform to their understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the individual?

On the other hand, do the same ‘European values’ allow arbitrary exemptions on the grounds of religion or ethnicity to certain groups despite causing deep offence to the indigent culture ? Why is it important raise up some ghosts from history and not others? How will Europe respond to claims for parity of language rights which looks like it may be the next cause du jour for rights campaigners?  It is easy to see how difficult and complex it is to take diversity from aspiration to implementation. It is not easy to see how any community, large or small, can live without an overarching frame of shared values.

Real rather than notional diversity would allow a voice to the wide spread of opinion about how to mark the upcoming centenary of partition. Can the anniversary be a time to celebrate, a time to mourn and a time to reflect dispassionately all at once?  Will the Irish government, who in the words of Michéal Martin ‘have moved on’ from the turbulence of the past, be empathetic to those who have not or feel unable to do so? It is as good an example as any of how difficult it is to give rival identities expression in a multi-ethnic society without conflict at some point. Multi-cultural societies will always struggle to find the commonality that makes ’them’ ’us’.

In one of his poems, from his anthology, The Lays of Ancient Rome, Thomas Macauley describes how the sense of belonging to a people and place inspires great acts of courage.  Patrimony is about beliefs and values as much as the ties of blood and race.  It is the kind of thing some people will give their lives for.  Those impulses it must be said have exacted a terrible price from the peoples of Europe across the centuries.  Nevertheless, the things a person might risk life for are also the things that give life its point, its heart and soul.

Macauley’s throbbing lines may sound like outmoded jingoism to modern ears but they nevertheless pulse with the timeless human need for meaning and identity even when defending them becomes a weary struggle:  ‘And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods.’


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