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Nationalism and Identity: The Case of Ireland

Posted by Rational Madman , 01 August 2011 · 17,959 views

Although my philosophical orientation would generally make me skeptical of nationalist movements, I've had an abiding interest in the Irish struggle that defies this orientation. Regardless of my philosophy, though, there is a part of me that sympathizes strongly with some nationalist movements, because I think the structure of the international system---and its stability---makes an individual's national identity so very powerful and inevitable. By structure, I'm referring to theperpetual systemic anarchy of international politics, which leaves constituent states without a supranational government with the requisite qualities ofcredibility, a monopoly over the use of force, and the power to defend theinterests of its components. Therefore, nationalism becomes the only means of reliable defense, because what else can the terrified rally around? Laudable efforts have been made to mitigate the security dilemma that arises between states, and as the short-term success of the European Union suggests, sometimes these efforts are marginally successful. However, our interconnectedness makes failure contagious, and can easily erode---if notdestroy---the binding structures that we create supranationally. When tempers change, the cosmopolitans among us will inevitably try a build a new structure, but there is often afailure to understand how fragile systemic anarchy and national identity make this architecture.

It has always been my hope that wemight transcend national identity, but my liberal idealism seems to be always crowded out by my antagonistic acceptance of realism, which dictates that Igive my highest regard for the national interest. This posture may at times make me personally vulnerable, but I've reluctantly reconciled myself with the nature of the international system, which is a position that I admit to be frequently at odds with my desires. So at the expense of supporting otherwise worthy endeavors abroad, I have felt compelled to view global politics primarily as a mechanism for determining the ethical value domestic politics. Of course, such a posture can create social difficulties that I still struggle with, and force me to retreat for periods of introspection. But more often than not, when I find that my realism is under siege from friends or family, my response usually both sympathetic to their sentiments, and an acknowledgement of the tragic state that we find ourselves. "Do youthink I enjoy being a political realist," I demand. "My views might not seem virtuous," I will say, "But I must subordinate myself to my reason, to empiricism, and the immutable realities ofour existence outside of the nation-state."

With that said, it still might seem surprising that I sympathize with the Irish struggle, because it's often said that one's international political beliefs are a reflection of their domestic political beliefs, and perhaps somewhat unfairly, Ireland's war has been identified with intransigence. There will always be intransigence in civil conflicts, but their resolution requires the supreme political virtue of pragmatism, which is anattribute that I believe to have distinguished Ireland's inner conflicts fromits counterparts. To be sure, Ireland had its share of Tom Barrys, but its more decisive political actorswere its pragmatics, like Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera. I understand that to identify either of the aforementioned with pragmatism is bound to evoke deafening cries ofcriticism, but relative to the errors that many are aware of, I believe that it was their pragmatism that secured their legacies of creating a united and peaceful Ireland that principly serves its national interests, rather than theimperial interests of its volatile conqueror.

For his revolutionary methods of political violence, Collins' pragmatism will be forever vulnerable to attack, but morality is often subject to the design of the powerful. Indeed, Collins understood that if his precarious movement were to realize its ambitions, it would have to defy the norms of conflict, and use the best assets that it had at its disposal---terror, surprise, and a lack of regard for convention. Controversially, this approach may be considered to be pragmatic, because it acknowledged that the balance of force put his movement at a great disadvantage, and that an adherence to moral convention would most assuredly perpetuate an existence of subordinating Ireland's interest to the exceedingly dubious interests of its occupier. And although the causative weight of the terror sponsored by Collins should be put into perspective in the context of Great Britain's imperialoverstretch, I believe that his efforts expedited a resolution that wasconsiderably more in Ireland's favor---relative to an end of dominion thatwould have been decided predominantly in accordance with Britain's preferences.

Moreover, it wasn't just the principled violence that defined Collins pragmatism. Rather, it was his enigmatic advocacy for the terms of separation that made him an enemy of his comrades, but in his sober analysis, turned out retrospectively to be an essential step to securing a relatively peaceful, and complete freedom from Britain's yoke. In the case of Collins, the choice was certainly not an easy one to be made reflexively, because the provisions of the separation that he negotiated were clearly in conflict with his desires. However, political behavior that conforms to reality is the embodiment of pragmatic politics, and after the conclusion of the First World War, it became abundantly clear to him that the British had the subjectively strong interest to pacify one of several pockets of resistance in an empire that had become dangerously discordant. To compound this threat, the proximity of Ireland made it especially vulnerable to being subject to the sort of terrible force that would be needed to bolster an extended deterrence that was cracking under substantial external and endemic pressures. So if Collins had resigned to the inflexible fervor of the anti-Treaty movement, a profoundly regressive outcome would have been a metaphysical certainty. Nonetheless, lending his considerable influence to those that supported the treaty would promise to alternatively create a civil conflict between the poles at some point down the road. Therefore in the context, the realistic choice was a decidedly difficult choice, and Collins' inner torment over this decision is a credit to hischaracter. By begrudgingly submitting to realism, though, his eventual choice not only protected the dividends of his campaign for independence, but helped to create a nationalidentity that has served Ireland very well in the succeeding years.

By national identity, I'm referring to a identity that transcends sectarianism, and a pragmatic political methodology that has distinguished Ireland from many of its neighbors. In the latter case, so much so that this brand of pragmatic politics was even embraced by members of theanti-Treaty movement, like Eamon de Valera. For de Valera, there are several remarkable examples thatare worth citing, but perhaps the most notable manifestation of this posture was his determined insistence to maintain neutrality throughout the duration ofthe Second World War, which was a position that his contemporaries treated with scorn, and remains one of the leading issues of contention in critical assessmentsof his legacy. Nonetheless, there has been a failure in my opinion to appreciate the degree of relative vulnerability that was created by forces of civil conflict and economic depression. Which is not to mention the ease of which Ireland could have been seized if it openly aligned itself with the Allied cause, and the considerable danger it faced if it were to enter a conflict that it could scarcely afford. Indeed, due to this relative weakness, Ireland would've probably been more of a liability than an ally, because its limited self-sufficiency would've likely endangered Britain's flank, and because of varied endemic deficits, domestic resistance to the costs of war would've made whatever contribution it managed to muster inconsequential to the larger war effort---ifnot detrimental. But of perhaps greater concern, its participation in the war would have probably made it a significant debtor to its most likely creditor, Britain, rendering Ireland into a virtual subject with considerable constraints to its postwar sovereignty.

In addition to de Valera's tenure,the tradition of pragmatism has continued to the present, resulting in a beneficial regional integration that was at odds with its standard of neutrality, and domestic policies that have made Ireland more economically productive, globally competitive, and an attractive target for capital investment. Given the present circumstances, I can understand the reasoning for questioning the inflationary, and incentive distorting effects of some of these policies. But quantitative evidence makes me convinced that with proper adjustments, the distinctive Irish model will once again become prosperous whenit has sufficiently inoculated itself from the economic contagion.

While Ireland's nationalism may bemore of a pragmatic nature, and although systemic conditions make nationalismboth inevitable and necessary, its expression should still be a cause for concern. This is because when it becomes reduced to lesser sectarian identities, it may result in the fragmentation of states, or engender conflicts---both internal and external---that threaten either regional or systemic costs of great variance. Indeed, the world has been a witness to the polarizing effects that violent nationalism has on all levels of politics, and in Ireland's case, there is good reason to be mindful of its incendiary and intractable effects. Such was evident in the Irish Civil War, when the anti-Treaty combatants insisted terms that would have been self-destructive, and with the protracted campaign of the Irish Republican Army, whose intransigence---coupled with that of their opponents---needlessly prevented a peaceful resolution of their domestic political differences. So relative to the causative role ofimperial domination, I think that the multiple dimensions of nationalism should be recognized for their explanatory weight in the onset of conflicts, because they are both universal in this regard, and more salient when the implications of postwar decolonization are considered.

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