December 19, 2007
Next year will give us the opportunity to ask ourselves, after 10 years of an economic boom, who are we? Our minds will be focussed on this existential question by yet another EU referendum. Where do we want Ireland to go? What sort of EU commitment suits us now? Whether we vote yes or no, it is a positive thing that a country should have discussions with itself from time to time. My hunch (and its only a hunch) is that we might vote no as we did to the Maastricht Treaty before the government told us that the no vote didn’t count and we would have to vote again. The reasons for this are both historic and contemporary.
For the last 100 years of our history, Ireland was defined in geographic terms. The national project was a 26-county vision of a country, free from London but with some unfinished business in the North. Initially, Ireland’s choices were seen as revolutionary. In an age of Empire, nationalism was indeed modern and rebellious. But events have overtaken us.
In a globalised world borders matter less, change is constant and the very essence of modernity is measured by the ability to adjust, discard and re-invent. The people who win are those that embrace the world rather than shy away from it. Globalisation means that the limits of geography and boundaries matter less. In fact you could go further and argue that globalisation should render old-fashioned nationalism obsolete. When everything is porous, influences are instantaneously downloadable, addition people are always contactable and networks are always on, geographical lines in the sand are just that and no more. Hackneyed as it sounds, globalisation actually does make us citizens of the world.
This new world suits smaller countries. Smallness which used to be seen as a weakness is now a strength. The small are more nimble and can move quicker. In fact, races that have been pushed around in the past have learned to deal with adversity. We are no strangers to an open-access world; we were there when it all started. The Irish are one of the few truly global tribes and we therefore, have a head start over other less wandering peoples. But to get the best out of the new world, Ireland will have to make it up all over again. We will have to re-imagine ourselves.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Ireland is a modern nation, we are able to jettison when other countries hold on too long, we let go; we think on our feet when other countries are left flat-footed.
We have always sought to transcend the limitations of geography and size. Irish people leave when the going gets tough and come home in better times. We ebb and we flow. For example, in the 1980s, unemployment in both Ireland and Spain was at 18pc. In Ireland, this prompted mass emigration, in contrast, the Spaniards hardly budged.
We are entering what might be termed “the age of the chameleon” when an ability to fit in, shed one’s coat and blend are rewarded. Self-interested pragmatism, although not heroic, might come to dominate national thinking. The Irish have shown a unique ability to drop core values when expediency demands. This is not necessarily an attractive national trait, but it is one nonetheless.
If we think about the three of the central attributes that make a culture unique, they are language, religion and national territory. In the past one hundred years we abandoned all three. First, in the 19th century we stopped speaking our own language. This, even for colonised peoples, is unusual, but we dropped our language for materialistic reasons. Most extraordinarily and in direct contrast to the nationalist movements of central Europe and the Balkans, the language of the coloniser became the language of the separatists. English became the official language of Irish nationalism.
In the 1911 Census, the return made by my great-grandfather John Leary, in Macroom Co. Cork, underscores the disappearance of Irish. He had been born in the 1850s. Under the column for language, he wrote that he and my great-grandmother spoke both Irish and English. Yet, tellingly for his children, he wrote that they could only speak English. My great-grandparents did not pass their own language on to their children.
Since independence — unlike the Welsh across the water — the revival of the language has never really sparked much popular enthusiasm.
Our second core value has been similarly discarded. When I was a kid, people on our road tried to ‘out ash’ each other on Ash Wednesday. People marched around the street with the contents of entire hearths mashed into their foreheads, looking like extras from Dr Who. The Ashometer was part of my life in those drab February days. Now it’s gone. Next Ash Wednesday, try to spot the mark of Twenty Major on someone’s forehead. You’ll be hard pressed because we just dropped another core value.
Up until recently, Catholicism was a key part of the Irish DNA. It defined us for centuries. This, too, has been jettisoned for all intents and purposes.
Finally, out of the blue, we dropped 32-county nationalism. Remember the entire furore about Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution in the 1980s and early 1990s? And then when we got the chance, we dropped those, too, by voting overwhelmingly for the Belfast Agreement which is essentially the original 1922 Treaty with nice bits about canal cooperation in Fermanagh attached.
So a cynic might say that we are a Kleenex nation, more ready to wipe clean and throw away rather than the long-suffering, irrational, dreamy romantics we like to think we are. When something is a hassle, we drop it. With such a pedigree it’s hard to argue that any arrangement we enter into is permanent and in a changing world maybe such expedience is the best option.
This national ambivalence might re-emerge again with respect to reform of the EU constitution and, as the economy turns down, there might also be, however implausible, a tendency to look for someone to blame. Why not caricature the remote, essentially benign bureaucracy in Brussels as the boogey man this time? We’d only be reverting to form.
As I said at the start, this is only my hunch. Whatever the referendum outcome, a post party period of national reflection might not be a bad option for all of us. Happy Christmas!