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Nationalism and Identity: The Case of Ireland

Posted by Rational Madman , 01 August 2011 · 1,288 views

Although my philosophical orientation would generally make me skeptical of nationalistmovements, 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 thatsympathizes strongly with some nationalist movements, because I thinkthe structure of the international system---and its stability---makes anindividual's national identity so very powerful and inevitable. By structure, I'm referring to theperpetual systemic anarchy of international politics, which leaves constituentstates 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 securitydilemma that arises between states, and as the short-term success of theEuropean Union suggests, sometimes these efforts are marginallysuccessful. However, ourinterconnectedness makes failure contagious, and can easily erode---if notdestroy---the binding structures that we create supranationally. When tempers change, the cosmopolitansamong us will inevitably try a build a new structure, but there is often afailure to understand how fragile systemic anarchy and national identity makethis architecture.

It has always been my hope that wemight transcend national identity, but my liberal idealism seems to be alwayscrowded 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, butI'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 supportingotherwise worthy endeavors abroad, I have felt compelled to view globalpolitics primarily as a mechanism for determining the ethical value domesticpolitics. Of course, such aposture can create social difficulties that I still struggle with, and force meto retreat for periods of introspection. But more often than not, when I findthat my realism is under siege from friends or family, my response usually bothsympathetic to their sentiments, and an acknowledgement of the tragic statethat we find ourselves. "Do youthink I enjoy being a political realist," I demand. "My views might not seem virtuous," I will say, "But I mustsubordinate myself to my reason, to empiricism, and the immutable realities ofour existence outside of the nation-state."

With that said, it still might seemsurprising that I sympathize with the Irish struggle, because it's often saidthat one's international political beliefs are a reflection of their domesticpolitical beliefs, and perhaps somewhat unfairly, Ireland's war has beenidentified with intransigence. There will always be intransigence in civil conflicts, but theirresolution 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 ofthe aforementioned with pragmatism is bound to evoke deafening cries ofcriticism, but relative to the errors that many are aware of, I believe that itwas their pragmatism that secured their legacies of creating a united andpeaceful Ireland that principly serves its national interests, rather than theimperial interests of its volatile conqueror.

For his revolutionary methods ofpolitical violence, Collins' pragmatism will be forever vulnerable to attack,but morality is often subject to the design of the powerful. Indeed, Collins understood thatif his precarious movement were to realize its ambitions, it would have to defythe 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 bepragmatic, because it acknowledged that the balance of force put his movementat a great disadvantage, and that an adherence to moral convention would most assuredlyperpetuate an existence of subordinating Ireland's interest to the exceedinglydubious interests of its occupier. And although the causative weight of the terror sponsored by Collinsshould 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 theprincipled violence that defined Collins pragmatism. Rather, it was his enigmatic advocacy for the terms ofseparation that made him an enemy of his comrades, but in his sober analysis, turnedout 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 bemade reflexively, because the provisions of the separation that he negotiatedwere clearly in conflict with his desires. However, political behavior that conforms to reality is theembodiment of pragmatic politics, and after the conclusion of the First WorldWar, it became abundantly clear to him that the British had the subjectivelystrong interest to pacify one of several pockets of resistance in an empirethat had become dangerously discordant. To compound this threat, the proximityof Ireland made it especially vulnerable to being subject to the sort ofterrible force that would be needed to bolster an extended deterrence that wascracking under substantial external and endemic pressures. So if Collins had resigned to theinflexible fervor of the anti-Treaty movement, a profoundly regressive outcomewould have been a metaphysical certainty. Nonetheless, lending his considerable influence to those that supportedthe treaty would promise to alternatively create a civil conflict between thepoles at some point down the road. Therefore in the context, the realistic choice was a decidedly difficultchoice, and Collins' inner torment over this decision is a credit to hischaracter. By begrudginglysubmitting to realism, though, his eventual choice not only protected thedividends 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 referringto a identity that transcends sectarianism, and a pragmatic politicalmethodology that has distinguished Ireland from many of its neighbors. In the latter case, so much so thatthis 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 posturewas his determined insistence to maintain neutrality throughout the duration ofthe Second World War, which was a position that his contemporaries treated withscorn, and remains one of the leading issues of contention in critical assessmentsof his legacy. Nonetheless, therehas been a failure in my opinion to appreciate the degree of relativevulnerability that was created by forces of civil conflict and economicdepression. Which is not tomention the ease of which Ireland could have been seized if it openly aligneditself with the Allied cause, and the considerable danger it faced if it wereenter a conflict that it could scarcely afford. Indeed, due to this relative weakness, Ireland would've probablybeen more of a liability than an ally, because its limited self-sufficiencywould've likely endangered Britain's flank, and because of varied endemicdeficits, domestic resistance to the costs of war would've made whatevercontribution it managed to muster inconsequential to the larger war effort---ifnot detrimental. But of perhapsgreater concern, its participation in the war would have probably made it asignificant debtor to its most likely creditor, Britain, rendering Ireland intoa 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 abeneficial regional integration that was at odds with its standard ofneutrality, and domestic policies that have made Ireland more economicallyproductive, globally competitive, and an attractive target for capitalinvestment. Given the present circumstances,I can understand the reasoning for questioning the inflationary, and incentivedistorting effects of some of these policies. But quantitative evidence makes me convinced that with properadjustments, 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 forconcern. This is because when itbecomes reduced to lesser sectarian identities, it may result in the fragmentationof states, or engender conflicts---both internal and external---that threateneither regional or systemic costs of great variance. Indeed, the world has been a witness to the polarizingeffects that violent nationalism has on all levels of politics, and inIreland's case, there is good reason to be mindful of its incendiary andintractable effects. Such wasevident in the Irish Civil War, when the anti-Treaty combatants insisted terms thatwould have been self-destructive, and with the protracted campaign of the IrishRepublican Army, whose intransigence---coupled with that of their opponents---needlesslyprevented a peaceful resolution of their domestic political differences. So relative to the causative role ofimperial domination, I think that the multiple dimensions of nationalism shouldbe recognized for their explanatory weight in the onset of conflicts, becausethey are both universal in this regard, and more salient when the implicationsof postwar decolonization are considered.

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