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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Where now for northern nationalism?

(Colin Harvey, Derry Journal)

There has been talk of rescuing the good name of northern nationalism. The implication is that recent events have not simply damaged a particular political party but that the impact may go much further. The risk, inherent in the suggestion, is to the project of northern nationalism as a credible vehicle for political change on this island. This will be a concern for those who believe that northern nationalism can offer a socially progressive alternative in political life.

The danger is the potential political isolation of northern nationalism based on a flawed analysis of its contribution to politics. In the realm of political ideas nationalism (in its general and global sense) is widely viewed as a discredited ideology which promotes conflict and exclusion. Many simply want no part of a political project that has national aspirations at its core, preferring instead to focus on, for example, socio-economic change as the basis for political engagement.

There are very good, and well known, historical reasons for rejecting narrow nationalism in any form – it has fed intolerance and violence within countries and between states. Northern nationalism might seem, from this perspective, as an outdated and worrying remnant of a past age. This critique of nationalism has been around for some time and has been applied in the north. If this viewpoint is combined with the recent appalling criminality linked to individuals within the republican movement – widely reported nationally and internationally – then it is not difficult to see why northern nationalism risks looking like an impoverished political position which is out of touch with modern reality.

I think the negative view is wrong: northern nationalism can be promoted in positive terms as a constructive and enlightened vision of republican nation-building which is internationalist and inclusive in orientation. 'Nations' can be conceived as horrible things – exclusive, unwelcoming and nasty. Alternatively, they can be imagined as central to social progress and equality – inclusive, diverse, outward-looking, welcoming and progressive. The struggle is to win the argument for a politically progressive vision of an inclusive republican nation-building project. Northern nationalism, in its best light, is a transformative democratic political project aimed at changing the north for the benefit of all and working with others for an Ireland that everyone would wish to belong to. Equality, human rights, social reform and political engagement at all levels are central to this constructive vision of northern nationalism.

In practice there is evidence that both nationalist political parties – the SDLP and Sinn Féin – work to achieve progressive policies that will benefit all. The policy positions of these parties on, for example, immigration and asylum, fit within an international and European model of socially progressive politics. There is little evidence of narrow nationalism in their public policy positions.

In fact, the politics of both the SDLP and Sinn Féin looks very like other left of centre political parties in Europe (although as is well known they hold very different views on the future of the EU). This suggests a national community seeking international recognition of its own distinctive political, economic, and social position and striving for a better society for all. It reflects the general consensus that the needs of national communities are often different from other groups.

The obvious distinction in the north is that one national community (Irish) does not seek integration into the state of the other (British), no matter how generous the terms might be. This clearly distinguishes the position of Irish nationalists and republicans from that of newly arrived migrants who will often be seeking integration into the host state (UK) on fair terms. Recognising that the needs of these groups might be different does not undermine the importance of the rights of all. The political debate in the north is often distorted by the attempt not to acknowledge any difference.

However, it is accepted internationally that the needs of communities are diverse: the aspirations of national communities sometimes differ from those of established minority ethnic groups and newly arrived migrants. Individuals and communities want and demand different things. The distinctions are sometimes ignored, or simply not understood, in debates in the north.

On this it is revealing that the SDLP and Sinn Féin are often at the forefront of campaigns against racism and both have progressive policies on immigration and asylum. In other words, the northern nationalist parties have attempted to show leadership in the area of anti-racism and are striving for inclusion. They do not appear to believe that human rights and equality are for themselves alone.

What does all this mean in practice? It means that northern nationalism can be viewed as a transformative political project with the express aim of changing the north for the benefit of all. And that sounds like an explicitly left of centre project with social justice at its core – a politics of governing and government for the good of everyone through democratic and peaceful means only.

In terms of practical measures it would mean, among other things: political engagement and participation in all democratic institutions in these islands to improve the social and economic conditions of all; working to achieve an expansive Bill of Rights and a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland; working to achieve a Single Equality Act; and working within the policing and justice systems to ensure institutional transformation becomes a reality. The good name of northern nationalism rests on its ability to function effectively as a transformative democratic political project with an agenda for change that will benefit all. It is that political position that stands the best chance of persuading people in the north that their future rests in an inclusive Ireland that is united in more than simply name.

April 19, 2005

Colin Harvey is on the editorial board of Fortnight. This article is written in a personal capacity only.

This article appeared in the March 22, 2005 edition of Derry Journal.