One Island, Two Nations?

I wrote the book One Island, Two Nations? in the early 1980s. At that time, following the Hunger Strikes in 1981, political passions were running high with regard to the National Question in Ireland. It was therefore not a good time for anyone living in the Republic to question the basic tenets of Irish nationalism, but this was what One Island, Two Nations? set out to do. Much has happened over the past 20 years, and I suspect that the book would probably be regarded by modern readers as fairly bland. However, in the early 1980s the ideas developed in the book were both radical and contentious, and resulted in a certain amount of personal abuse. Fortunately the vitriol was directed at me anonymously through the post, rather than face to face, but it was still very unsettling. The fact that the publishers distributed the book at a price which only libraries could afford to pay restricted the readership, and probably saved me from further unpleasantries. It is highly unlikely that the book exerted any significant influence upon the course of events, given that no-one could afford to buy it. Nevertheless, it is still very satisfying to think that many of the ideas which provoked such an intense reaction 20 years ago should now be widely accepted

On Island, Two Nations Cover

As suggested by the title, the book argued that there are two national identities in Ireland. This has always struck me as being self-evident - anyone who believes otherwise has obviously never tried to wave an Irish flag in a loyalist area. However, the notion that there may be more than one nation in Ireland was regarded by Irish nationalists in the early 1980s as deeply provocative. If you accept that there are two nations, and if you also subscribe to the principle of the right of nations to self-determination, then you also have to accept that each nation has a right to its own territory. In other words, you are obliged to accept that some form of partition is morally justified. This, of course, is totally incompatible with the traditional nationalist goal of Irish unification being a denied 'right'. Nationalists in the 1980s therefore preferred to argue that everyone living on the island of Ireland was part of a single Irish nation (whether they wanted to be or not), and that a minority of this nation (i.e. the Ulster unionists) had no right to frustrate the wishes of the majority by remaining separate. Mainstream nationalist opinion today has mellowed considerably. It now accepts that there are two 'traditions' (if maybe not two 'nations') and it also now accepts that Irish unification will require a consensus based upon compromise between the two traditions, rather than simply being a 'right' which must automatically follow just because you define everyone on the island as belonging to the same nation.

The second main argument in the book was that nations are not natural 'God-given' subdivisions of humanity, but are social constructs. Nations exist because people believe them to exist, and the reasons why people believe themselves to have something in common varies from nation to nation. Modern 'post-structuralist' geographers would have no difficulty with the notion of identities being socially constructed, but my interpretation owed more to the influence of Marxist ideas. I argued that the acceptability of new ideas is conditioned by people's material conditions. The French revolutionaries popularised the concept of popular sovereignty (i.e. that political legitimacy was derived from the people - i.e. the 'nation'), but the nation was defined as simply everyone who lived within the French state. Germany, in contrast, in the early 19th century, was politically fragmented and economically underdeveloped. The German intelligentsia saw benefits in political unification and therefore developed the notion of a German nation, defined as all people who spoke the German language (irrespective of which state they lived in), with a historic destiny which could only be realised through the creation of a unified German state. This cultural definition of a nation was subsequently adopted in Eastern Europe where quite different material circumstances prevailed. Eastern Europe was dominated by large polyglot empires, and political leaders living in peripheral regions often saw material benefits in separation from the imperial core. Popular support for separation was mobilised and legitimised through the development of national identities based upon distinctive cultural traits (generally language) and an imagined common history (preferably one which included a period of independent statehood).

The situation was somewhat similar throughout most of Ireland. Material conditions throughout the 19th century were harsh, epitomised by the famine in the 1840s. Many members of the intelligentsia blamed Ireland's woes on the fact that Ireland was an exploited and peripheral region within the United Kingdom. These conditions produced a fertile breeding ground for the adoption of nationalist ideas from mainland Europe and the development of an Irish national identity which emphasised those aspects of Irish Gaelic culture which distinguished the Irish from people in Britain. Nationalist ideas promoted the belief that the historic destiny of the Irish nation could only be fulfilled by greater autonomy, and eventually total independence, from Britain.

Not everyone was in favour of independence. Many of the landed classes throughout Ireland were fearful of what the future might hold. However, the main centre of opposition was the greater Belfast region which, in contrast to the rest of Ireland in the 19th century, had industrialised and was experiencing unprecedented economic growth. Belfast's industrial economy depended upon exports to the world market, so the last thing the Belfast economy needed was protective tariffs, as advocated by Irish nationalists. Ulster Protestants, of all classes, had different material needs and consequently failed to identify with the nation-building project of Irish nationalists, leaving the latter to define Irish national identity in largely exclusive Gaelic and Catholic terms. Ulster Protestants, in contrast, tended to identify with the 'multi-cultural' British sense of national identity. When the rest of Ireland became politically independent, Ulster unionists insisted on remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The third main argument advanced in the book is that national identities are not necessarily static. If the material conditions change, then people may develop new allegiances and identities. National identities are characterised by a high degree of inertia, especially in a conflict situation, but they can change. The material conditions which created the context for the growth of Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism have long since changed. The protective tariffs established in the Republic were replaced in the late 1950s by an open economy, whilst the traditional industrial economy, which provided the basis for northern prosperity in the 19th century, has been in serious decline for most of the 20th century. The book argued that we were in fact locked into a conflict driven by ideologies which, in material terms, were historically irrelevant. Although written at a time when the conflict was at its peak, the book argued that there were grounds for optimism if people could be persuaded to think in post-nationalist (and post-unionist) terms.

Events in the period since the book was written, I would argue, support this interpretation. The removal by the Celtic Tiger of any remaining economic disparities between north and south, coupled with the secularisation of southern society, has caused many northern unionists to question whether closer ties with the Republic are actually as undesirable as they have always believed. Nationalists are increasingly becoming uncomfortable with the traditional notion of an exclusively Gaelic and Catholic Irish nation, whilst many northern Protestants are becoming more confused about whether they are British or Irish (or both or neither). However, probably the main indication that the book may have read the situation correctly has been the Peace Process. The Peace Process is open to many interpretations, and it by no means enjoys universal support. However, I think it would be totally inconceivable had both sides not begun to rethink their ideological positions as a subconscious response to the changes in their material conditions.

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