News Analysis

Tuesday 2 September 2014

James Hamilton: So what does it mean to be Irish in 2013?

James Hamilton

Published 04/05/2013 | 17:00

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New rules and warning systems have been put in place at EU level to avoid future public finances crises in member states

WHEN I was asked to be guest director of this year's Burren Law School I began thinking about the changes which have taken place in Irish society during my lifetime, as well as the challenges facing us in the future and changes which are likely to happen in the next 50 years.

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Our membership of the European Community, which we joined 40 years ago, has transformed the country generating prosperity and bringing about profound changes in the way we see ourselves. I am old enough to remember a time when Irish people tended to look at Ireland in relation to England all the time, leading on the one hand to exaggerated pride and in some cases to an inferiority complex.

Suddenly we found ourselves one of a number of nations where we all had a voice, and not just the poor cousin of the bigger next-door neighbour. The transformation in the national psyche was remarkable.

But now all is not so well. The economic catastrophe has led many to blame our woes on outside forces, including some of our European partners.

To listen to some one might think that Angela Merkel had been personally responsible for overheating the Irish economy. Others react by saying that in our current circumstances we have no alternative but to do the bidding of the more powerful forces in Europe.

But Europe itself is in a crisis which it must resolve or enter a steady decline. Some see the solution in moving towards greater European integration whereas our nearest neighbour, and still our biggest trading partner, is seriously considering leaving the Union.

If that happens where will it leave us? Will our bargaining power be reduced in relation to the very many issues on which we share common values with the UK? Do most Irish people have a deep sense of being European, or are we still closer to Boston than Berlin? How would a British withdrawal from the European Union affect Northern Ireland or Scotland?

In Northern Ireland 40 years ago the Troubles were at their height. It seemed sometimes as though we were on the brink of a full-scale civil war.

Fifteen years ago the whole island voted by an overwhelming majority in two separate referendums for a peace agreement.

The recent riots over flags and emblems in Belfast should ring alarm bells. Despite the 15 years that have passed since the Belfast Agreement, the suspicions and hatreds between the two communities remain. Relations between the two major parties in the Northern Ireland government are said to be at an all-time low.

The agreement was based on a very imaginative idea which was to recognise the right of every person living in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish, or both. Essentially the idea of nationality was to be divorced from territory. The agreement provided that if a majority in Northern Ireland wished to join a united Ireland the British government would respect that decision.

In that event, however, those in Northern Ireland who considered themselves British would continue to have the right to be and be considered British. How much thought have we given to what this would mean? The hurt felt in the South every time a sportsperson in Northern Ireland decides to play games under the British rather than the Irish flag does not encourage one to believe that we have fully thought through the implications of respecting national differences.

Furthermore, many on the Irish Republican side seem to have assumed that a united Ireland is an inevitability. But the agreement does not so provide and recent census figures would suggest that while the sectarian headcount has changed dramatically, an emerging body of people see their primary identity as Northern Irish.

Perhaps the most visible change in the last 20 years is the transformation of Ireland from a country of emigration to one which is now host to a substantial number of immigrants. There is not a supermarket in the country without a Polish food section. Dublin is a much more vital and interesting place than it was 30 years ago. But there are also huge risks if we do not manage this new situation very carefully and avoid the ghettoisation which has taken place in other societies.

All of these problems raise in a profound way questions about our national identity, our place in the world and what it means to be Irish in the 21st Century.

James Hamilton is a former DPP. The Burren Law School, examining the theme of Ireland's place among the nations, is on this weekend in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare

Irish Independent

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