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Don’t mention the war… November 26, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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There’s a strand in broader media narratives around nationalism that somewhat irritates me. One also sees it in politics and it goes along the lines of ‘if only x didn’t exist we could do y’. Of course it’s true. If only we could focus on class politics instead of nationalism then we could foster class politics. If only Northern Ireland had bread and butter issues then constitutional issues would recede. Granted sometimes this is nuanced to ‘if only parties concentrated on class politics then…’ etcetera. The latest manifestation of this is in the IT where writer and poet Michael O’Loughlin writes under the headline “We need to stop talking about a united Ireland” and in the text of his piece he writes:

If you really want a united Ireland, based on unity rather than head counts, now is the time to stop talking about it.

It sounds logical, but it makes not a bit of sense.

Because he’s essentially averting his gaze from a key problem. The partition of Ireland is a reality and the politics of the island has developed on foot of that partition. The fundamental divides between Unionism and Republicanism/Nationalism are precisely about partition. One can not stop talking about a ‘United Ireland’ because in the very essence of the DUP or UUP and to an extent SF and other parties the issue of a UI or NI is written into their political DNA. Moreover not talking about it is not a ‘neutral’ position, somehow beyond and above the sweat and grime of political discourse but is in and of itself a position that aligns with a status quo which as it stands embeds partition.

One of the problems in all this, though a telling one, is the issue of the very term nationalist being applied to CNR. Of course Unionism is an equal and opposite nationalism. But that framing – unfortunate as it is tends to accentuate a belief in some that Unionism is not, or not to the same extent.

The piece is somewhat confused:

Whenever I see a union jack, be it in Belfast or London, I feel a certain atavistic revulsion for the “Butcher’s Apron”, so I can easily understand how the unionist community has the same reaction to the Tricolour. As such, it can never, under any circumstances, be the flag of a united Ireland. The fact is, the very idea of a united Ireland is already a flawed and self-defeating concept.

And he sort of expands on that last comment, albeit not clearly a little further into the piece:

Catalan nationalist hopes rest on eventually having a razor-thin majority for independence in some future referendum. But would this give them legitimacy to impose their vision of Catalonia on the other 49 per cent of the people, who have a very different one in terms of language and culture? The Irish parallels are clear. If a Border poll in Ireland were to result in a 51 per cent majority for nationalists, would this lend legitimacy to the concept of a united Ireland – would it become more of a reality? Does it never occur to supporters of a Border poll that they are just replicating the behaviour of the people who founded Northern Ireland as a sectarian state 100 years ago?

It’s hard really to credit that. The circumstances are entirely different. NI was born as a secession within an artificial area (and yes, all borders are artificial, but even in the context of the time what became Northern Ireland did not follow the boundaries of a traditional Ulster, and tellingly not the nine-county entity that Unionism envisaged with the Ulster Covenant). To accept those boundaries as the expanse within which democratic legitimation for union with the Republic is the antithesis of 1920-21. It is also a foundational element of the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement where all-island but geographically distinct votes were taken in 1998. The democratic mandates were entirely lacking in 1920-21. That mistake will not be made again, and to argue that unity is somehow sectarian seems a curious and unsupported argument.

He continues:

But the fact that unionists are so delusional about the past century does not invalidate their emotions. They have a right not to live in a united Ireland.

They do as long as a majority within Northern Ireland agree with that. Their right not to live in a United Ireland is not absolute. And oddly Newton Emerson pointed to a dynamic O’Loughlin completely ignores when he wrote recently ‘Unionists also have to accept that living within an arrangement at odds with their nationality is what they demand of nationalists. I believe you can hear the wheels turning on that thought if you stand quietly enough in the garden centre.’

One could as easily write ‘Republicans/Nationalists have a right not to live in a partitioned Ireland’. They do indeed, but until a majority in the North agree with that proposition they will have to ‘accept living within an arrangement at odds with their nationality’.

From there it all breaks down to a greater degree.

When Irish nationalists talk about “reuniting” Ireland, what do they mean? When was Ireland ever “united” except in the context of British rule? So what would a united Ireland actually look like? A Republic writ large? A Christy Moore fantasy of Irish ways and Irish laws? At this stage so many people have killed for, or been killed for, a united Ireland that it has become a tainted concept.

This is offered with no supporting substantiation. One could equally argue that the Union, Northern Ireland itself has, given the level of deaths and repression, across many decades until the GFA/BA also become a ‘tainted concept’, but that doesn’t really help. These sort of large rhetorical flourishes obscures more than it illuminates.

Benedict Anderson’s concept with respect to nationalism being an ‘imagined community’ is immensely powerful, that is that “a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group”. It is one I broadly find very plausible. But there’s a problem. It may well be imagined but it’s not imaginary in the sense that it has very very real political power, in much the same way as many other isms. It would be a fine thing to be able to move directly to class politics, but class politics oddly – given the manifest limitations of nationalisms (and that plural is key given the reality of multiple nationalisms, though not nations, on this island), is oddly weak in some ways with regard to its mobilising power. Then again, so is nationalism much of the time.

And that’s why the exhortation that “If you really want a united Ireland, based on unity rather than head counts, now is the time to stop talking about it” has little utility in all this. Is it in the slightest bit likely given the centrality of national identity and nationalism(s) to the politics of this North and South that anyone can stop talking about it? Unionism is predicated upon opposition to a United Ireland, Republicanism and Nationalism on working towards it. The Border exists – in some ways more manifestly than in decades (or at least since 1998). There is quite clearly no chance at all people will not talk about it. So with O’Loughlin and others of that ilk the question is, if that’s not going to happen, what precisely is Plan B?

Comments»

1. terrymdunne - November 26, 2021

The problem predates partition – in fact you can see the future border lines of the the two states in where had, and where didn’t have, Repeal meetings c.1840. Unlikely any kinda move to a post-partition future is going to make it go away.

I think it is also highly unlikely that class politics will become predominant in the Six Counties – that did happen, and certainly diminished sectarian conflict in other parts of the U.K., e.g. Liverpool, but in a very different historical context.

Nonetheless there is a “Northern Ireland” in the media and the North in real-life – and while there is a cross-over between the two – and it is not at all like people do not vote along the confessional/ethnic lines by and large – there is a “normal politics” in the North as well (“politics” in the broad sense). We, broadly speaking, have no chance of influencing the headline PULs vs CNRs conflict, and it will not have a progressive outcome, so maybe concerning oneself with the “normal politics” in the North (or anywhere else) is more sensible. Honestly gold-mining is what I think of when I think ‘what’s going on in the North’.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

Surely, many aspects of the problem do predate partition. No disagreement there, and also agree class politics has little or no chance of becoming predominant in NI. Just not a possibility at this point or for the foreseable future. And in a way that’s precisely what I’m getting at that NI does exist, but I can’t see a situation where the constitutional aspect of it stops being an issue until, well… it stops being an issue. But given the very nature and existence of NI is contested even where there is ‘normal politics’ that existence inflects so much. The closest we’ve seen since its establishment to a more normal politics was the GFA/BA period, and even that hasn’t exactly been normal as such. The ability to focus on more quotidian issues while absolutely there functions only so well in a context with deep embedded nationalisms contesting the space. And the history of NI is littered with the debris of parties that couldn’t really function in that sort of contested space – the NILP being a good one, the WP being another albeit in a different way, arguably the PUP as well. The CP too come to think of it in certain ways. The big problem being that larger battalions articulating more clearcut approaches on the constitutional aspects could always circle around them and cut their terrain out from under them. But I’m unconvinced that’s a dynamic generated by the latter parties – though definitely it has been exploited by them – so much as a contextual dynamic. And I can’t see a way past that short of resolution of the overall issue one way or another. I think there was a potential space with shared membership by the UK and the ROI of the EU, not because the EU is wonderful or anything like that but because that supranational angle allowed for the competing nationalisms within NI to in some way avoid having to face the questions, so we got an effectively invisible border on the island, a lot of the trappings of sovereignty (if not substance) could be sub-contracted out to Brussels which was more than tolerable for most and in various areas the economies of scale in relation to trade etc could develop in ways that probably hadn’t been seen since pre-partition.

But again my main problem with theses like the one in the article is that it doesn’t actually address the reality of the dynamics in play – indeed in a context where SF may be the next government of the ROI it seems almost wilfully perverse to be arguing there shouldn’t be talk about a UI. There’s going to be so why pretend it’s possible to do otherwise. And there’s a further question in this, if there is that conversation people like the author might be better employed thinking up robust critiques of unity positions if that is what they believe rather than pretending a debate/discussion/difference of opinion and more that has lasted centuries and exercised London, Dublin and further afield across much of that time is suddenly going to go away.

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benmadigan - November 26, 2021

“I can’t see a situation where the constitutional aspect of it stops being an issue until, well… it stops being an issue”.

Agree. It will stop being an issue once the Border poll for reunification is won by 50%+1 or more.

if the Border Poll is not won the constitutional aspect will continue to be an issue for the 7+ odd years until the next Border poll.And the one after.

Once a Border Poll is won, some Unionists/Loyalists will accept the democratic vote; others may try to rebel (against what and whom?)
They will see how their bread is buttered. Most of them will eventually settle down to living, working and studying in an EU country.

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EWI - November 27, 2021

Once a Border Poll is won, some Unionists/Loyalists will accept the democratic vote; others may try to rebel (against what and whom?)
They will see how their bread is buttered. Most of them will eventually settle down to living, working and studying in an EU country.

This. ‘Class politics’ has achieved nothing to help the situation – outliers like the Ervines aside – and has a regrettable habit of ending up supporting unionism.

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terrymdunne - November 28, 2021

The weekend. That’s what class politics did for the North of Ireland. Also a health service Sinn Féin want to expand on a 32-County basis.

In any case we don’t have another Six Counties to test against so we do not actually know what the conflict would have been like in the absence of the pre-1969 history of having a N.I.L.P. (whose history is a little more complex than pro-Unionism), the peace committees in 1969, or cross-community trade unionism during the Troubles.

Re: the proposition on the establishment of a 32-county state we are left with the hypothesis that the political forces which gave us the Orange State/Carsonia in the first place are just gonna melt away like frost in the bright morning of Dublin rule – it is a wonder they managed to create a violent supremacist statelet in the first place. We are still at rottweilers turning into Andrex puppies. This is why it is necessary to believe Unionism is an epiphenomenon of an external force – hence strange notions like people in Belfast copying English accents – but it isn’t – there is an issue internal to this island which exists irrespective of how baleful we regard the attachment to the adjacent island.

In other words there is a divided people, not just a divided land, and unless you address the former, you will not get too far with the latter – in the absence that is of serious military capacities.

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terrymdunne - November 27, 2021

The problem with (a) constitutional settlement which ends the conflict before (b) class politics, is that (a) is not going to happen. There have been major episodes of sectarian conflict in the North every generation since the 1780s (before the Act of Union, nevermind since before Partition).

If we argue, rightly I think, that any cross-community politics (e.g. Outdoor Relief protests, NILP – which did function for quite some time!) will prove ultimately fleeting in the face of entrenched communal division, then why would we think a constitutional settlement which ends that division is possible?

Ultimately, it all comes back to the Andrex Puppy theory of Ulster Unionism – that all of a sudden people who are presented as the fire-breathing partisans of the Orange state one day are gonna roll over so you can tickle their tummies the next.

Away from the headlines “normal politics” does exist in the Six Counties – it couldn’t not given the nature of capitalist society – I mean by “normal politics” people face the same issues & problems as in England or the 26 Counties or anywhere else – and sometimes mobilise around them (and some of the conflict-related issues are a part of this) – I gave the gold-mining situation as an example – that is what we should be looking at – not necessarily that specific situation – but not a Stormont-centric view.

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WorldbyStorm - November 27, 2021

It depends! I agree that there’s not going to be a big transformation in attitudes – that said I would envisage any process to unification would assuming it was on foot of a vote be very very slow, that it wouldn’t be a Big Bang – that many elements to assuage or ameliorate unionism would be built in to the next stage including retention on north east west links etc that in other words it might take a very long period and in such a way that rather like the gfa/ba it would remain a process rather than being an endpoint – the alternative being that things remain under the gfa/ba dispensation another twenty years or more. More thoughts on this but tied up a bit.

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terrymdunne - November 30, 2021

But if there isn’t going to be a big transformation in attitudes then any new constitutional arrangement (or process of arrangements) isn’t going to mark the end of conflict – the conflict will still be there – perhaps somewhat frozen as it is in the post-GFA dispensation, so the premise we’ll sort the constitutional question first, and then there is the space for class politics – that doesn’t actually hold up. We are left, as most sanguine outcome, from a situation not unlike the one that already exists.

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WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2021

Yeah I agree, unoinists aren’t suffering from a false consciousness, they are unionists. And one would wonder how that would function and what they would require as a minimum in a new dispensation as a minimum to not disrupt any such dispensation. But my problem with class politics is that the track record of that doesn’t offer much hope it could substitute or fill the vacuum either.

I’m also in agreement that the status quo (ante in relation to Brexit) is/was as things go not the worst place to be and we see how things go – as a left republican the fact of the GFA/BA, the potential of building very real interelationships through NIMC, cross border entities, etc was more than acceptable as a means of gently easing matters forward if implemented. Brexit though changed that and the dynamics in play now are unpredictable and have pushed matters towards a faster pace. Matters will fall where they will, but I’d still point to the GFA/BA as having a primacy in terms of structuring all that comes next. And as an example of why festina lente remains a reasonable approach, not least with a Border Poll – ie well before we get to that it’s necessary to have some pretty coherent plans, just in case. And people have to recognise we may not get there for quite some time to come.

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terrymdunne - December 3, 2021

Not sure where this is going to go, but it is in response to WbS post of Nov. 30th – I think it depends on what you define as “class politics” – I mean if politics is something which happens in elections – a state-centric approach – then yeah it hasn’t existed in the North for a long time – if it is more a question of ordinary life then lots of “class politics” happens (the conflict itself was full of it).

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WorldbyStorm - December 3, 2021

I’m not dismissing the prospect of local class politics, but given the silo’d nature of the working class in Northern Ireland, and like yourself having talked to people at the coalface of that in and outside parties the place where there seems to be real class politics at local or community level ie cross community class politics is in (parts of) the middle class. That of course is class politics too, but that siloisation appears very difficult to overcome – and perhaps it will and perhaps it won’t. But communities are often self-referential and self-reinforcing. I live in one such myself and that’s not riven with religious/national identity division so I’m sceptical that it is easy to scale up smaller incidents of positivity in a way that is useful in terms of overcoming that division at least as structured currently. The best, and we seem to have arrived at this already, under current dispensations seems to be negative aspects are tamped down and there’s stabilty and relative peace – no small thing in itself. But for the medium to longer term…

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terrymdunne - December 3, 2021

I don’t disagree – I think as you say lots of communities are silo’d – I also think that in workplaces people can wear one hat & wear another in another context – I am thinking there of how the left would point to, or used to, instances of cross-community solidarity – y’know where an Orangeman shop-steward was calling for cross-border joint action or some such, that makes sense in that context, go back into another and quite different logics come into play. I don’t think there is going to be a new cross-community workers’ movement which resolves “the Northern Ireland problem” through mobilising around “bread & butter” issues.

I do think that most people’s issues in the North of Ireland (or anywhere else) are more amenable to class action – or more addressable at that level – than by the rearrangement of coloured cloth. I think what I am saying in a nutshell is the North of Ireland – communal division not withstanding – is a fairly normal place – and there is a lot of stuff that goes on there that hasn’t got to do with the “constitutional question” – and some of what is seen as part of the “constitutional question” is unfortunately actually pretty normal to other societies (e.g. I am not sure how some of the treatment of the minority in the Six is that different to that of other minorities in the U.K. or indeed to a wider culture of institutional crime & cover-up) – so looking at the Six Counties from that framework, other than one of constitutional re-arrangement, might be more useful to the left. Its pretty modest.

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terrymdunne - November 27, 2021

These situations are resolved in two different ways:
(1) a new overarching identity subsumes the older identities – as in sectarian conflict no longer being a big thing in Liverpool or the lack of a Leinster vs Connaught conflict in the south (enough material there to produce separate ethnicities – and Connaught migrants used to be attacked in the 1800s) . . .
or
(2) In a situation of competing imperialisms one side or the other gets enough wallop together to finish it once and for all – as in we don’t hear much about the Polish-German conflict in Silesia anymore.

Neither of these things is likely to happen, and only one of them is any good.

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2. Colm B - November 26, 2021

To be fair to Anderson, I think he was very clear that imagined communities were not imaginary communities but, as you point out, entities whose existence have real material consequences.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

Yeah, and sorry I should have been clearer. Anderson always was clear that they were imagined not imaginary – and I always loved his further point about the incoherence of nationalist programmes despite their potential at times to achieve significant mobilisation. My point was not to contest Anderson, or to take the word literally but rather to use his view as a stepping stone to contest the view that nationalisms simply because they’re constructs around imagined communities somehow lack any power.

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3. Francis Donohoe - November 26, 2021

Is this the ‘jump the shark’ moment when CLR moves from being a Leftwing to nationalist blog? The Plan B is simple, if very difficult, push for a focus on class politics.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

The answer to the first is no because the overall piece is not framed in a context of suggesting that nationalism is per se great. Anything but. We’ve got an over-abundance of nationalisms on this island. What is being put across is the idea that there’s no point in pretending those nationalisms don’t exist or that ignoring one somehow takes nationalisms out of the equation. The point about class politics is not that class politics is wrong but that given that structural dynamic moving directly towards it while a fine thing were it achievable isn’t achievable. And class politics that seeks to ignore the reality of those nationalisms is to my mind a part of the problem because it is then unprepared to deal with the very real consequences of that reality of the nationalisms.

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EWI - November 26, 2021

Is this the ‘jump the shark’ moment when CLR moves from being a Leftwing to nationalist blog? The Plan B is simple, if very difficult, push for a focus on class politics.

With the possible exception of Roddy, there are no ‘nationalist’ regulars on here. But how has ‘a focus on class politics’ worked out for the WP and the SP in the North over the decades?

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Alibaba - November 26, 2021

By way of disclosure, I am no nationalist. It’s fair to say nationalism is problematic for socialists. Historically, in general, it only existed in a world becoming capitalist and ultimately imperialist powers. 

Socialist movements saw national rights as merely a stepping stone to class revolution. For Marxists the starting tactic was support for national rights. But leadership by a nationalist bourgeoise of the masses could be challenged by the revolutionary workers’ party if revolutionary socialists applied a united front tactic.

It should go without saying no socialist today should disallow SF’s or republicanisms’ legitimate concerns and demands but reserve the right to critique some of this politics.  Don’t ask me to disregard the reality faced by nationalists. I want to know more. If there are posts here about related matters and polemical exchanges, it’s all the better for that.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

I wouldn’t consider myself a nationalist either – a Republican though, dmall r definitely

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

+1

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Wes Ferry - November 26, 2021

Wasn’t CLR always a left-wing blog looking at politics across the spectrum, including nationalist politics?

It is an inescapable fact that partition, British imperialism, and the rise of Sinn Féin to becoming a serious contender for government in Dublin (already in Belfast) will impact on the development of left-wing sentiment and present the conservative FF/FG bloc with a previously unimaginable prospect.

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WorldbyStorm - November 26, 2021

I always thought so!

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Fergal - November 26, 2021

‘Push for a focus on class politics’ is a slogan… the trick is do politics with people not with slogans… easier said than done!

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4. yourcousin - November 26, 2021

I think WBS’s crypto Provo streak is showing. I always knew letting roddy lurk would lead to a bad end. I agree with whatever faction of the WP comrade Donohue associates with.🥸

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5. roddy - November 26, 2021

When Roddy parked his tractor on the CLR lawn all those years ago,nobody realised how it would all end.

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yourcousin - November 27, 2021

Well, I believe we were reliably told a little bit ago that it will end with a UI declared by 2029. I am crossing the days off on the calendar as we speak. But roddy could you please take your wellies off before coming in for a cup of tea? To be quite frank they smell of shit and mud. Which means your political deviations aside, you’re an honest man. Or at least that’s what me da’ told me.

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6. Paul Culloty - November 28, 2021

People want a united Ireland … but only if it doesn’t cost them anything, and it’s effectively annexation, rather than a new Ireland:

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