Monday 22 July 2019

Paddy is in danger of losing himself in a fog of nationalism

It's unconvincing that we Irish have somehow escaped the rise of 'Eurosceptic' parties

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Billy Connolly was asked recently by the BBC about his views on Scottish independence and he put it like this: "There's a thing I was always saying when I was asked about nationalism – I've never been a nationalist and I've never been a patriot.

I've always remembered that I have a lot more in common with a welder from Liverpool than I do with someone from an agricultural background from the Highlands, though I do love them, I love Scotland and all its different faces."

There was an echo of this in the words of another brilliant Scottish artist, the musician Roddy Frame, when he told Herald Scotland, "My view is probably coloured by what I experienced growing up in the Seventies. Labour were the good guys, the Tories were the bad guys, and the Scottish Nationalist Party were these odd, fringe-y types whose idea of Scotland didn't appeal to me. It was the kind of Scotland that Postcard Records made fun of, tartan and shortbread tins. My world in East Kilbride wasn't about any of that. my Scotland was T Rex, double nougat and Starsky & Hutch."

Like Connolly, he is "wary of national pride. It's a short step to saying other people aren't quite as good as you".

Along with this capacity to "love Scotland and all its different faces" while disliking Scottish nationalism, there is something else that Billy Connolly and Roddy Frame have in common – they've both been sober for many years.

There was a time when both men were anything but sober, and indeed I recall interviewing Connolly when he spoke with great fondness of coming over to Dublin during his drinking days to get "trousered" with various Furey Brothers and other such untamed spirits.

Yes it may be a coincidence that Connolly and Frame have arrived at this similar position. But it is also interesting how the sober are also clear-eyed about nationalism. How they have looked at life from both sides now, and emerged with enough perception to call it as they have experienced it, not according to some tribal template.

We may take it that such men in an Irish setting might have mixed feelings about the rise of Sinn Fein, feelings of deep unease mixed with even deeper unease. They might see that Paddy is in danger of losing himself again, in the fog of nationalism, as he has so often lost himself in the fog of drink.

Nationalism indeed was once the orthodoxy in Ireland to such an extent that to say you were not a nationalist was like declaring that you were homosexual – basically there was something wrong with you. And while many other influences, over time, have had a benign effect, it can take very little to throw us back into that atavistic state.

This urge towards nationalism on our part is so ingrained, we're not even conscious of it any more. We see it, and yet somehow we don't see it at all.

So we hear commentators droning in a slightly superior tone about the rise of "Eurosceptic" parties all across Europe, and how we Irish have somehow escaped that malaise. Apparently, we're better than that.

Yet we also observe that all these "Eurosceptic" parties tend to be essentially nationalist, which has all sorts of unhappy connotations, in every country in which it has taken root. Every country, that is, apart from our own. Our variety of nationalism, it seems, is fine.

Leaving aside the matter of that 30 years of pandemonium to which Sinn Fein made such an important contribution, most analysts were reluctant to make any comparison between Sinn Fein's perfectly fine nationalism and what they saw as the more unpleasant type espoused by UKIP.

And yet Sinn Fein themselves, always ahead of the game, were so anxious to distinguish themselves from such undesirables across the continent, they went to the trouble of styling themselves "Euro-critical", not "Eurosceptic". As if there is a difference, which there is not.

And commentators were also reassured by the notion that Sinn Fein, unlike all those bad nationalists, were not openly racist.

Well now, that would depend to a large extent on what race you'd be talking about here. If you were a member of that race known as The Brits, for example, you might argue that Sinn Fein, down the years, has not been entirely rational in its hatred of you.

Irish nationalists even invented a race, known as "West Brits", which Martin McGuinness demonised during his Presidential campaign, demonstrating that they may display tolerance towards certain immigrants, but they are not so tolerant of Irish people who oppose them. And their history on Protestant Irish people in particular is not good.

This impulse to claim that "I am more Irish than you", that "you don't belong like I do", is classically nationalist and classically racist, and invariably when you burrow down deep enough you don't have one without the other.

The badness just tends to be channelled in different ways – UKIP for example is relaxed about the Irish but down on the Romanians. In recent weeks Sinn Fein fielded candidates who came across like gaelscoil teachers, while in Belfast a senior republican was declaring that they still had access to their own army.

Alternatively, according to most commentators, there's not much to worry about, and it's all going to be grand.

Sunday Independent

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