Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is ethnic nationalism going to be a problem?

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.


  1. I think that when people finally realise that race is a quality that they and other people project onto themselves rather than thinking it's a quality inherent in all of us, the safer we'll all be. The idea of race is just that - an idea, an unfounded idea, a figment of the imagination. The only differences between us are cultural. So when the politicians do decide to qualify what it means to be Irish hopefully it will be on these terms, combined with a sense of civic national identity also being very important. (There are no racists, just assholes.)

    I'm not so sure if nationalism is a good idea. Sure, it might lead to community cohesion but just look at the 20th century. The most destructive century we have known and mostly all down to nationalism Nationalism is incredibly destructive. In many ways it is more dangerous than the most dangerous elements of religion.

    With regard to the fighting in Warsaw today. If they were Irish nationalists marching through there on March 17th I think people would probably (maybe?) come out and celebrate. The political history between Russia and Poland obviously has a lot to do with the violence there today.

  2. Agreed David. I used to be fiercely opposed to nationalism. What I've wondered lately is this: is it INEVITABLE that many people will develop exclusive groups with whom they feel a sense of community that does not extend to all people? My guess is that human history has covered a shift from very tiny clan-based communities to bigger and bigger communities, right up to the "imagined communities" of nation states. It would be nice to think people would push past that to a universal humanity - a brotherhood of man, so to speak - but perhaps lots of people are just never going to do that.

    If people are going to stick with some kind of exclusive group identities, maybe we need to take it into account. If, for example, a great many Europeans are going to retain their old ethnic nationalist beliefs, maybe politicians need to take that into account instead of hoping that people will become more tolerant of others. Deal with the ugly reality.

    Dead right about the Russian-Pole tensions. Actually I learned recently (thanks to The Russian Rulers History Podcast!) that Poles repeatedly invaded Russia when it was weak in earlier periods, it wasn't all oppression in one direction! Today's fight reminds me of the Love Ulster parade in Dublin some years back that sparked an Irish nationalist/opportunist riot. Perhaps a mixture in Poland too of annoyed nationalists and opportunistic hooligans looking for a scrap.

  3. '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?'

    The pale skin is certainly true for the vast majority. It is true. The tricky thing is the minority. However the minority is not just the modern arrival of people 'of Pakistani or Nigerian ancestry', it includes too the minority of ethnic Irish with sallow skin who tan easily and quickly. They have not been discriminated or deemed unIrish as a result. Perhaps they have been suspected of being of mixed ancestry, sometimes corroborated by a apparently Gaelicized name.


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