In the wake of Brexit, what now for nationalism?

I explored some of the issues resulting from the Brexit referendum, including the challenges and opportunities for Irish nationalism, at an Irish News and Slugger O’Toole supported “Summer” School (it happened to be one of the wettest days of the year!) last week. This was my take on things…

In the event’s brief, speakers were advised that we were to speak from the perspective of Brexit, including Northern Ireland, being a fait accompli – I think that it isn’t yet a done deal but appreciate that the efforts on that front can be a conversation for another day! Those negotiations have a long way to run and the SDLP are still determined to respecting that local majority for ‘Remain’ & the principle of consent.
By ‘nationalism’ we are of course mostly referring to ‘Irish nationalism’ but I also want to consider nationalism in general, and particularly the effects of the role of English nationalism in the Brexit vote, the effects of which we are still just beginning to comprehend, and which will go down in history as among the greatest collective acts of national self- harm… unless the US elects Trump in November.

I am a democratic Irish nationalist: by that I mean that I want Ireland to be under the control of the people of Ireland, in all their diversity, and for the people of Ireland to be able to make their decisions freely about their future and sovereignty. Some sovereignty the SDLP was very comfortable to see ‘pooled’ through the EU – and as such, support for EU wasn’t just about not having one of the island half in, one half out (as the Sinn Fein speaker outlined), but more instinctively pro the internationalism, diversity & opportunity of Europe. To me, nationalism also means I believe that I have the right to work peacefully for the unity of the people of Ireland and believe we need to challenge the view that doing so is somehow furtive or destructive.

It is fair to say that ‘Irish nationalism’ is not the primary indicator of my identity. I remain taken by John Hume’s observation that when he and others were founding the SDLP they deliberately avoided “trigger words” like ‘Irish’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘republican’ and realised early on the need for a wider world view. In terms of where nationalism goes now, post Brexit, I think all of the barriers which were in existence on 22 June, many of which Hume was identifying and challenging decades ago, remain to be solved.

Tired and old, as every political commentator seems desperate to point out, the SDLP core precepts remain intact and relevant for nationalism now – that conflict resolution is based on 3 key principles: respect for difference, creation of institutions that respect difference, and a healing process based on working together for our common interests.
I think the SDLP’s wider philosophy still stands too… that common humanity transcends our differences, that those differences are an accident of birth, that problems can’t be solved without everyone coming to the same table, and that people cannot be brought together by violence which only deepens divisions, and which most certainly sets back the cause of Irish unity.

The SDLP, correctly, warned against simplifying or viewing the vast issues around Brexit in terms of nationalism or unionism, but I accept it has made the context considerably more dynamic – albeit with risks, challenges and likely financial hardship thrown to temper.

Political commentators have for several years past noted the decline of the so-called ‘nationalist/republican’ combined SDLP and Sinn Féin vote over the last decade or so, which has affected both parties but more so the SDLP. I think this is in part of a reflection that up to now people of that background had become more and more comfortable with the situation in the North; public finances in relatively healthy shape, money coming in — particularly from the UK Treasury and Europe, robust fair employment and equality laws breaking the old patterns, significant and well-paid public sector employment and growing 21st century opportunities (albeit not universally available) and an appreciation of the more attractive aspects of UK tolerance, social democracy (less so in the last 6 years!), diversity and pluralism and all underpinned by institutional links with the Republic and overseen by the supra-national link with the EU.

Nationalists still had our aspirations and our cultural expression, the Good Friday Agreement was never a permanent unrestricted endorsement of Britishness in the North at the expense of Irishness, but very many (myself included) were content to adopt an evolutionary approach and to prioritise stability and progress on reconciliation and making NI work, under a comfort blanket of a bearable UK. But all that has now changed substantially with alienation and isolation as the result of the Brexit vote, and in particular the ugly forces of hard right nationalism that were empowered, and the inevitable fiscal tightening that will hit us worst of all. Little makes you feel more ‘nationalist’ and is more anomalous to the desire to control our own destiny, than having this situation thrust on us by people in England who didn’t give a second of thought to the impact here.

John Hume said various profound and controversial things during his career, one of which was that we were living in a post-nationalist Europe, a remark for which he was pilloried: Sinn Féin called him “a traitor to the Irish people” and it is a favoured barb by SF activists to this day. Judging from the perspective of now, and while he was talking about politics rather than just identity, I am prepared to admit he was being a bit optimistic! But it was an expression of the early realisation – Hume was no slow learner – that the EU dimension would be hugely important in the relationships on and between this island and the one next door. EU was pivotal in allowing sovereign Ireland and UK to work and co-exist together in equality and harmony and throughout the long and painful road to peace, and especially after John Hume’s election to the European Parliament in 1979 Europe was a benign, encouraging and financially generous presence.

The EU is interwoven into the 1998 Agreement and the EU presence was a kind of supra-national link between the contracting parties to the Agreement and provided a of validation to Northern nationalists that the two governments were dealing with each other from a position of mutually-recognised equal status. After opposing 8 or 9 referenda, and as late as 2009 sharing platforms with chief Brexiter Nigel Farage, I welcome Matt’s acknowledgment that Sinn Fein have come round to this warmer view of the importance of the EU.

So, there will be no silver bullet revealed here for how we play Brexit, or how Irish Nationalism plucks utopia from the jaws of constitutional mess.

So, there will be no silver bullet revealed here for how we play Brexit, or how Irish Nationalism plucks utopia from the jaws of constitutional mess. It has already been pointed out how immensely complex that the process of the UK disengaging from the EU will be and I have zero confidence in the collective abilities of Johnson, Davies and Fox to negotiate and less than zero confidence that the North will feature heavily in the minds of those negotiators. One of the most frustrating aspect is the opportunity cost — imagine if all these thousands of hours that will be spent by policy makers, legislators, drafters, diplomats and business, in mitigating against Brexit, could have been spent tackling problems we didn’t create for no reason!

It is for that reason the Assembly needs a plan, and it needs it now. We have had crisis talks and midnight meetings about every bump in the road and manufactured logjam, but when an actual crisis happens, we don’t know if the Executive has even met. And the Stormont House issues never had people running for passport forms!

A few other to-dos for all of us in Nationalism:

  • Remember that a border poll should be the last piece of the jigsaw — we need to act and increasingly develop as a United Ireland, in practical, non-threatening ways — a border poll shouldn’t be about ‘starting’ a conversation… if people have big ideas and plans get them out there — it should be a confirmation of what people feel and not a 50% + 1 starting pistol to start putting the social, economic and political frameworks in place. We’ve just seen what happens when you ask a massive question with loads of impacts and look for a Yes/No answer.
  • Fiscal powers — more power to the Assembly seems anomalous, as it barely handles the ones it has, but as Brexit has placed our future in peril it is sensible to avail of every tool to repair things and mitigate against future external shocks — UK government is increasingly going to be circling the wagons around the financial sector and economic interests that don’t include NI!
  • Put pressure on the Dublin government and parties to be shouting for our interests in negotiations with Brussels and London.
  • Now is a very good time to get serious about TDs for the North. The French model is good — this can create a real change moment more than any parliamentary associations or fora and will really catalyse a national conversation and restore the primacy of politics and gives the North’s citizens an actual parliamentary stake in a continuing EU member.
  • Watch the Scottish situation, make common cause — as Colum Eastwood has pointed out, Nicola Sturgeon has done a lot more than just write a letter to Theresa May over the last 3 months. The SNP’s nationalism is a model to aspire to — even those who don’t share their constitutional aspirations can vote for them, because they are good.
  • Some kind of associate, special status membership of the EU is doable — Norway, Lichtenstein, Cyprus, reverse Greenland, whatever — the EU may be slow, and it may need reform, but it is a creative problem solver.
  • Nationalism is about to become less misty eyed, atavistic and chest beating. It is entirely disingenuous to suggest that those unionists who voted remain are suddenly united Irelanders, but many (like those now applying for Irish Passports) are probably open to pragmatic, rational arguments.
  • If we are at some sort of ground zero on the UK constitution we need to start being a lot more evolutionary, and have a lot more progressive realisation — the North South working the Good Friday Agreement structures were supposed to facilitate but which has been allowed to totally wither on the vine as the DUP calls the shots — Nationalist parties have been system captured!

** The SDLP’s mission of this decade, making NI work, hasn’t gone away you know. Dealing with identity, the legacy issues, not being an economic basket case — those problems are still live and still have to be our focus.