My last post was a section of a proposal for a survey I had to write in college, proposing to measure whether Irish national identity is based for most people on ethnic or civic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism essentially means a view of national identity based around a shared ethnic ancestry. Civic nationalism is a more inclusive view of national identity, in which individuals of any ethnic ancestry may be welcomed as citizens as long as they embrace various cultural and legal norms.
I argued that it is not clear whether most Irish people view national identity here as an ethnic or civic identity. I often hear Irish people joking about the notorious paleness and vulnerability to sunburn of the Irish. This is true, if we consider that being 'Irish' means something about a shared ethnic ancestry, typified by the pale skin that evolved in a people living in the cloudy north. It means nothing for Irish citizens of Pakistani or Nigerian ancestry. So are they Irish or not?
Right now the Irish football team is competing in the European Cup. There is a lot of excitement about this, lots of explicit national pride and flag-waving, but without - I think - any explicit explanation of what Irishness means.
My concern is that Irishness in the early 20th century was almost universally seen as an ethnic national identity, a movement by the Celtic natives to overthrow their Saxon oppressors. We are encouraged today to be proud of being Irish, but not told what it means. Politicians talk often about the ethnic Irish diaspora scattered around the world: Americans and Australians and British who are connected to Ireland only through a distant ancestry. Here President Higgins tells an Irish-American organisation about the Irish 'instinct to get together and talk and listen', and he calls the diaspora a 'family'. Talk of instinct and family seems to fit more with an ethnic nationalist ideology than civic nationalist.
Yet politicians have also used inclusive language towards immigrants, calling them the 'New Irish', for example. Ireland lacks a significant anti-immigration political party, and when one town's mayor announced that he was not going to represent 'black Africans' there was immediate outrage and he was forced to resign and apologise. There seem to be slightly mixed public messages.
I worry that some people take this cheerful Irish national pride, encouraged by the politicians, to mean ethnic nationalist pride in a discreet ethnic nation, exclusive of settled immigrant Chinese and Poles and Romanians. I fear that some people had always taken Irishness to mean ethnic ancestry here, in opposition to a Saxon English enemy, and they now feel confused or betrayed by a state that has loosened migration controls enough to welcome many thousands of immigrants.
I don't really have any answers or solutions here. But I fear things may come to a head. There seems to be a contradiction in national identities that have imperfectly shifted from ethnic to civic, along with politicians torn between stirring up national pride and keeping borders open to economic migrants. Several European countries have experienced growth in far-right anti-immigration parties, yet even the horror expressed about this development suggests trouble, if it means that any opposition to immigration is deemed radical. Those people I suspect grew up assuming that their national identity was defined by ethnicity must now be scratching their heads to find that their mainstream, conservative nationalism renders them terrifying neo-Nazis in the eyes of media commentators. If the only options are fairly open borders or far-right reactionism, no wonder some people are going to shift towards the latter.
A few years ago I would have blamed nationalism itself, as an inherently divisive ideology. Now I'm not so confident; perhaps nationalism plays a role in building social cohesion within countries. I hope that European countries will shift to some version of inclusive national identity that emphasises, perhaps, cultural and not racial unity. If people must rally around ideas, perhaps they can rally around ethnically inclusive cultural ideas. For now, I am concerned that these tensions go unaddressed. Today Polish and Russian football fans have fought in Warsaw after Russians attempted to march through the city to commemorate their national holiday. Ethnic nationalism is still drawing blood in Europe.