Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Has Ukraine’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest done as much to secure its status as a free and independent nation as all its political and military efforts up to now. The Scottish parliamentarian Andrew Fletcher of Sautoun (1653-1716) wrote, ‘Give me the making of the songs and let he who will make the laws. Fletcher’s claim professes that it is in the imagination evoked by popular expression that people live, it is here that resistance to overt political, legal and physical force can be found. The Soft Power of culture played out over generations will outlast any one tyrant, dictator or empire.
It is a little known fact that Giuseppe Mazzini, considered the father of modern European nationalism, thought that the Irish were not different enough from our ‘fellow British Islanders’ if you will, to warrant Irish independence in the era of the Young Europe nationalist movements in the Nineteenth century. It presages the argument of President Putin that Ukraine doesn’t exist and is merely part of Russia. After Mazzini’s pronouncement Irish cultural nationalists spent another 80 years deliberately defining the boundaries of difference to meet the sufficient requirements for recognition as a distinct nation deserving of the status of independence and self-determination. This project of cultural (re)habilitation, or the Invention of Tradition, took place at the time when the Irish language, the identifier of ‘otherness’ par excellence, went into serious decline from which only now it is showing signs of rallying. But it does beg the question about the arbitrary nature of nationhood and its necessary relational determinant ‘international recognition’.
Think of the agglomerations of people seeking to define themselves as an Imagined Community as Benedict Anderson puts it, who fail to get international recognition for one reason or another (the Kurds, Catalonians, Scots etc.,). The cause is usually the reluctance of the dominant partner to let the ‘other’ go, and we see the workings of history get played out in the present with consequences such as the one which is wreaking havoc now in the south east corner of Europe.
‘When…two nations understand one another,’ D. P. Moran wrote ‘there is from that moment on only one nation. International misunderstanding is one of the marks of nationhood.’ Moran provides a formula for interpreting the process of national identity politics, i.e. deliberate antagonism. What we see happening is the slow, painful and contested separation of colonies from their imperial rulers. Letting go is never easy, especially when there are residual populations who see in separation annihilation or at least loss of privilege. However, letting go and separation are necessary psychological developmental steps on the road to return and reconstitution on equal terms for nations as well as individuals (as any parent knows). Mature relationships based on mutual respect and protected by the rule of law was the prospect held out in the West in the ‘post-nationalist’ era of globalisation.
In the reconfiguration of former colonies with their ruler the example of Anglo-Irish relations is telling. Only nine years ago, in 2013, Queen Elizabeth II visited Ireland, the first British monarch to do so in over a century. Her speech in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin and the handshake she had with Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin politician and former active member of the Irish Republican Army, would testify that the relationship between the two countries had never been better. Healing was taking place. Britain was basking in the aftermath of what had been reckoned by many to be one of the most successful modern Olympic Games, British culture was riding high and its influence was being felt right around the world. The reach of Britain’s Soft Power at the time was truly global. We in Ireland felt the psychological relief that came with the dismantling of the border on the island that came out of the Good Friday Agreement and membership of the EU. Since then, rapprochement has gone into retreat. English nationalism, Irish nationalism, British nationalism (if there is such a thing) have struggled with borders and boundaries.
That is why Brexit is so painful for a lot of people in Ireland. Until Brexit Unification or Reunification, became less urgent, the Irish Republican nationalist cry of ‘tiocfaidh ár lá’ (our day will come)’ could be postponed indefinitely. The dilution of national identity by pooling resources into the wider polity of the EU would over time, it was hoped, allow reconciliation to continue and gradually in a couple of generations perhaps normalise relations between the two ‘tribes’ living in that one space, united in a European identity. Having experienced this short-lived hope the fear that comes with the reimposition of a border in Ireland or that felt by Northern Irish Unionists that they have been amputated from the rest of their country by Brexit’s shortcomings highlights the limits that borders place in our imaginations.
There are lessons from Irish and British history for whatever settlement comes out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are lessons regarding Partition, Gerrymandering, residual populations and their accompanying grievances real or imagined, loss and hope. One of the great lessons though is in the dissolution of identity. For a while you didn’t have to choose, the citizen of the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland could be British, Irish, Both or Neither. The realisation that this was possible came out of the Troubles but even more-so from the aftermath of WWII and Europe’s awakening to the futility of wars fought out of the mis-guided narrative that ‘my culture is better than yours, my history is better than yours, the place where I accidentally was born into this world is better than the place where you likewise were accidentally born into this world’ is all so much empty thought in fact anti-thought. Feeling without thought. Allowing ourselves to be manipulated by pedlars of historical fantasy who are only in it for their own gain. This is the failure of nationalism as communities of the imagination, once the idea is made real it stops us from imagining other ways of being.