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Maybe not quite as British as Finchley? Why, it must be Dennis Kennedy and the Cadogan Group. August 30, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Republicans, The North, Unionism.
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One of the less attractive traits, although perhaps one of the most understandable, in politics is wishful thinking, the belief that by stating something it is true. All of us have seen that, particularly on the left. The revolutionary potential of the proletariat, the idea that somehow SF is vanguardist, the inevitable growth of the SP/SWP/WP/etc, etc…

But to my mind the regular missives from Dennis Kennedy fall into that bracket (incidentally I sort of like Kennedy, he’s a crusty fellow who reminds me of a close relative now since departed and I enjoyed his documentary on the South and North some while back where he made some very interesting – if strongly questionable statements about the RoI).

So no surprise that we have a strange article by Kennedy in the Irish Times today. In a lengthy rumination on the nature of Britain and Britishness under the heading “Coming to terms with the British Question” he raises some – well, to be frank, odd questions and makes some uniquely contradictory points.

He starts with:

Why, in the discussion of Britishness and the nationalist threat to the integrity of the UK, does no one mention Northern Ireland?

and continues:

In pondering British identity and the problems of Scotland, of assimilating reluctant minorities, no one refers to the most serious assault by far in recent times on that integrity – a terrorist campaign that led to 3,500 deaths, and which has absorbed vast amounts of British government time and diplomacy in reaching the accommodation we have today.

All very good questions. And yet, the tenor of them is typical Cadogan Group. There was indeed a terrorist campaign, there was indeed murder. Without going the relativist route both campaign and murders have ended, nor was the campaign something in simple isolation but the cause of numerous dynamics within the North, on the island and on these islands.

He suggests, entirely correctly in my opinion, that:

Behind the radical changes implemented in Northern Ireland might seem to lie a realisation that the United Kingdom is not a nation state, and there is no national identity that can be labelled British. The UK should be seen, rather, as partly a historical accident, and partly a convenient political arrangement within which people of varying identities can live together and organise their affairs in a manner that is beneficial to all. People live in it because they were born in it, because political or economic pressures forced them to migrate to it, or just because it suits them. It is pointless to agonise over Britishness – it is sufficient that those who live in the state recognise its legitimacy, respect its laws and join in the political processes of its governance.

But then performs a rhetorical turnabout:

Or were the changes in Northern Ireland just part of the appeasement of terrorism, and further evidence of London’s distancing itself?

Well, what does he think? Let’s put the word appeasement to one side for a second because it bound up in certain meanings which are broadly unhelpful (although is central to the discourse of the ‘nice, not nasty’ self-declared secular Unionism of the Cadogan Group). Yes, it is evidence London’s distancing itself, and someone as sensible as Dennis Kennedy should be well aware of this, and also note that this is an approach (let’s not reify it as a strategy) which has characterised the engagement by Britain with Northern Ireland over the 20th century. Okay, let’s return to appeasement. Yes, no doubt there was an element of hoping to deal with the problem by ceding some demands – that too is characteristic of British politics, as with “killing Home Rule with kindness”. But that is not appeasement, and really, if one concedes that PSF ultimately came to some degree of agreement with the British state as it currently exists then is that appeasement at all?

In a way what seems to come through from this piece is a sort of somewhat unconscious but very real disbelief that there is a distinction between British interests and those of Northern Ireland, and indeed a further cultural distinction between the two. But look, it isn’t Great Britain incorporating Northern Ireland, but instead the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern ireland. This difference isn’t really that subtle, it is suggestive of two specific entities that have a link but are not synonymous. To an Irish Unionist of the 19th century this would not have been impossible to comprehend, but to Ulster Unionism (which curiously was more than happy to jettison three counties to the South despite the Covenant) it has always seemed a more fractious issue). To argue that there is a specific national identity that flows from the UK is unlikely, considering that even a British national identity – and I actually believe there is such a thing – is hard enough to parse out. But he appears to wish to elide the term British with a political construct, the United Kingdom.

This becomes increasingly problematic as the article continues:

It has taken 70 years for some of those lessons to be learned. While Brown urges everyone in the UK to fly the Union flag, its flying in Northern Ireland is restricted because it is seen as divisive.

But what happens in Northern Ireland is apparently irrelevant. The Governance of Britain says symbols help embody a national culture and citizenship, with the Union flag one of the most recognisable, and it wants current rules of flying it on government buildings relaxed. But not in Northern Ireland. There, it says, there are particular sensitivities.

Firstly it is divisive in a divided polity. Secondly, Northern Ireland is not Britain. There are particular sensitivities. This is the problem. And by the by, there are significant problems and sensitivities emerging in Wales and Scotland, within what is broadly termed Britain.

Then the article takes another turn.

The British should learn from the EU. Like the UK, it is an accident of history, the outcome of appalling wars, but it is also a convenient political and economic arrangement for an ever increasing number of Europeans. Its leaders have been foolish in trying to foster a European identity by decreeing a European constitution, anthem, flag and, now, a president – all trappings of the nation state. The EU is not and was never intended to be a nation state, or anything like it. Nor will a European identity ever replace national identities, however contrived.

To my mind absolutely correct.

That does not mean it cannot be an ever closer and sui generis form of union. Its flourishing will depend on its efficiency in satisfying the political, economic, social and security needs of those who live within it, not on everyone waving a blue flag and singing Ode to Joy.

Also correct.

Similarly, the future of the UK will depend more on efficient governance for all, than on banging on about Britishness.

But again with the Britishness… Let’s be clear. There is a British element to Northern Ireland. This is political, cultural, historic. But Northern Ireland remains sui generis within the United Kingdom, and the odd aspect of Kennedy’s argument is that he seems unable to perceive this.

Earlier in the piece he suggests that:

It was the failure of the UK to accommodate and integrate a majority of the Irish into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the 1800 Act of Union that ended in the failure of that union. It was the inability of the UK to reconcile the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland to life within the United Kingdom that led to the IRA terrorist campaign.

Very true. So what is the lesson?

Is there nothing to learn from this? Why did the 1801 United Kingdom fail? A factor was the refusal, mainly at the behest of George III, to grant Catholic emancipation immediately. Irish Catholics were expected to identify with a new state which denied them full political rights. Even after emancipation, they found themselves in a state which was avowedly Protestant, where the monarch was head of the Anglican church, and where that was the established church in both England and Ireland. The Governance of Britain, a potted history of the constitutional evolution of the UK, makes no mention of Catholic emancipation.

Hardly surprising. We’re – although I use that ‘we’re’ advisedly and to refer to Nationalism/Republicanism, rather than Catholicism – not on their radar. Never have been.

There were, and are, other strands to Irish nationalism, but few as all pervading as Catholicism. The lesson was not learned after partition in 1921; the new, reduced, UK still had almost half a million Irish Catholics fiercely resentful of their inclusion in that state. By that time republicanism was another factor in Irish nationalism, yet Catholics/Nationalists in Northern Ireland were asked to give their allegiance to a state which was not just a monarchy, but where the trappings of a Protestant monarchy coloured much of the institutional and social life of the country.

Also very true. And I’m fairly convinced that had Stormont been able to act more generously then it is just possible that a dispensation could have been arrived at that would have allowed at least a partial reconciliation with the state as it was then extant by the Catholic/Nationalist minority. But such a reconciliation was as impossible as it was implausible with Unionism as then constituted in the six counties. They could not allow themselves the flexibility to deal with identity and nationality in such a generous fashion for specific historic and political reasons. And let’s be honest. Such a flexibility was in short supply until arguably this very year when the DUP and PSF sat down together in administration.

So there is more than a touch of ‘if only everyone acted reasonably’ to these protestations. I share that feeling, yet I’m fully aware it was unattainable. But hidden within those protestations is another message, one that Kennedy and the Cadogan Group have been pushing for quite some time, that being that all would have been well if Catholic could be reconciled to the NI state and somehow discard their nationalist and Republican political pretensions. Again, perhaps had events unfolded in 1920 onwards in a different way such an outcome might have occurred. The North is far from the only contested territory on the planet and yet compromises have been reached in equally difficult circumstances. Yet, that too is to argue against fact, against the nature and disposition of those involved particularly – but not exclusively – on the Unionist side [and look at the records in PRONI from early Stormont cabinet meetings on various areas to see how the establishment of the polity was quite deliberately structured to exclude], and yet again most crucially to pretend (for that is what is happening) that Nationalism and Republicanism can somehow be diminished to a cultural expression in a way in which Unionism cannot.

Note too that while he mentions terrorist campaigns he is curiously quiet in making any linkage at all between a situation within which “Irish Catholics were denied full political rights” and that subsequent campaign. Nor was it simply an issue of being asked to give allegiance to ”a state which was not just a monarchy…etc, etc..”. The reality of that particular process was a state which in some respects refused to accept allegiance from Catholics, let alone Nationalists. Those few who stuck their head above the parapet saw no reward for their troubles. A cowed people were offered a ‘cold house’. Curiously this equally important element is ignored.

The heart of the issue is that this is not the Irish question, or the British question, but a number of questions overlapping and intermingling that allow for numerous interpretations. Consider the way in which there is no single agreed Marxist view of the North and we begin to see that to try to place this within simplistic frameworks is a futile exercise.

[Incidentally, and I'm being quite serious, while writing this I noticed that the little Irish flag under character input on my Apple menu changed to a Union Jack - now, I wonder how that happened, presumably sufficient inputs of "Britain" or "British" will have that effect!]

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Comments»

1. Tom Griffin - August 30, 2007

Kennedy seems to be arguing that pragmatic economic and democratic arguments for accepting British institutions can substitute for a strong sense of British identity.

What he doesn’t acknowledge, accept maybe in the final line, is that its precisely the economic and democratic arguments that have driven the rise of English, Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

It’s because Brown doesn’t want to address those arguments directly that he has resorted to ‘banging on about Britishness’.

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2. WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2007

That’s it. It’s quite a shift even for the ‘pragmatic’ Unionist camp.

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3. Tom Griffin - August 31, 2007

The irony is the convoluted integrationist logic underlying it.

The state doesn’t impose British identity in the North, according to Kennedy, so it shouldn’t impose it in Britain either, so that the North can continue to be just as British as Britain.

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4. Ciarán - August 31, 2007

But hidden within those protestations is another message, one that Kennedy and the Cadogan Group have been pushing for quite some time, that being that all would have been well if Catholic could be reconciled to the NI state and somehow discard their nationalist and Republican political pretensions.

I’ve heard it argued that this is currently what SF are doing by being in government with DUP in Stormont, except that the nationalist and republican pretensions are maintained. With both SF and SDLP giving support to the six-county set-up, you have a situtation (or sitcheeaschen) where for the first time in the history of the statelet it has support from the majority of nationalists – though in this case it’s seen as merely a stepping stone or whatever and not an end in itself. Obviously it’s not a new argument to suggest that good governance in the six counties would lessen the demand for the reunification of Ireland, but the question is whether or not that’s even possible (see John McAnulty’s contribution in the “Peoples Democracy, ideology and just what is Trotskyism?” comments). Personally I’m interested in seeing just what becomes of the Irish Language Act, which is according to some unionists a major threat to the “British” identity of Norn Iron. If they can’t “appease” the Gaeilgeoirí, then what hope is there?

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5. WorldbyStorm - August 31, 2007

Yeah, there are definitely going to be litmus tests for just how much things have changed and the one you point to is crucial because it deals with just the sort of political/identity issues that for all of Stormont 1 were ignored. I don’t have an aversion to the stepping stone argument, but this is a dual process, to make the North both more complementary of those within it and retain the option for future progress for Republican/Nationalists and simultaneously for Unionists. Quite a feat.

Tom, that’s it in a nutshell.

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