The phrases “culture wars” and “identity politics ” are comparatively recent imports from America but people are using them as if they’ve been around forever. On the whole they are pejoratives, used by rightwing politicians to denigrate or “gaslight “ the slow march to freedom of women however described, and ethnic and social minorities, by creating “wedge issues” to stir up alarm and so divide and rule.
Ireland as a whole was ahead of the game long ago. The rise of Gaelic culture was a precursor of the political struggle, the only argument, quickly abandoned, being over whether Irish should replace English entirely in the the public and private realms. To be sure the British were reluctant to surrender a sense of superiority entirely, Churchill’s dismissal of Irish neutrality during WW2 as “at war but skulking” being a case on point.
But as between the UK and Irish states the old culture wars based on historic grievance are all but dead.
If you’re not convinced how dead, consider Ukraine by comparison, as discussed in this week’s “FT lunch” between a Russian speaking staffer and Ukraine’s premier historian
There are not many people in the world who have dedicated vast amounts of time to the study of the medieval east Slavic state of Kyiv an Rus. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy is one. Vladimir Putin is another.
In Ukraine it is not just two armies, but two historical narratives that have collided. In the narrative to which Plokhy has dedicated his career and more than a dozen deeply researched books, Ukraine has a long and meaningful history as a nation and an independent state. The other, a darkly manipulated version propounded by President Putin, denies Ukraine its national identity. Ukraine, that narrative goes, has always been part of a greater Russia, ever since ancient Kyivan Rus. To quote Putin, it is “not even a state”, and has no right to exist….
Moscow’s leaders — from tsars to communists and beyond — have long treated the idea of an independent Ukrainian history as a threat, and sought to suppress it.
Today, “we have an imperialist narrative, written by Putin, and his. . . ” Plokhy begins to say “. . . and his inner circle”, but then wonders aloud whether there is one left. In Ukraine, that view of the world, and the distorted historical story that underpins it, is being defeated, Poky says. “It’s just being crushed.”
The fall of empire is not a particularly Russian phenomenon. We are in London now after all,” he says. Portraits of British and Polish royalty hang on Ognisko’s walls. ( the Polish Centre where’s they’re having lunch) “And the wars that accompany the fall of empires are not unique as well.” But normally, when empires fall apart, the old imperial powers reinvent themselves, finding a new identity as nation-states, he says. This hasn’t happened yet for Russia….
Ploky is arguing that even if Putin wins the war in some sense, he has lost the cause. And that, for the future, is the more significant.
In Ireland of course you can select the genocidal narrative from at least the times of Elizabeth 1 and Cromwell. But all but the most fanatical would agree that it ran its course long ago.
In the North it may seem that issues of substance remain but how substantial really? With institutional discrimination removed, nationality is now a matter almost of consumer choice and the product of a struggle for power largely along traditional lines in a system that perpetuates it. Cross community cultural diversity has not yet arrived but it is getting there.
Ah, I hear you cry, what about Brexit and its product the Protocol? The argument is not as one way as some think.
The case is made that Brexit expresses the basic core behind each state’s identity politics, the fair if awkward choices of different nationalities. How can Irish nationalists object if English nationalists make a different choice based on their own self interest?
In reply Irish nationalism advances the difficult argument, that Brexit has increased the appeal of Irish unity and yet has made it more difficult to achieve by settled consent. To cut through the dilemma they promote the appeal of the more prosperous south with clerical control removed. Unionism – and the wider pro Union opinion – are plainly floundering and have yet to devise an answer. It is staring them in the face. Prof Peter Shirlow is fleshing it out In the Irish Times recently fought back against the idea of David McWilliams, that partition always was and remains an economic disaster not only for the or the south – the traditional argument – but for the North as well
David McWilliams’s “Truth is the union with Britain has been an economic calamity for Northern Ireland” (Opinion, June 18th) is riddled with wearied tropes and an unfortunate use of terms such as “we”, “it” and “them” in a manner replete with binary thinking. The article misses Northern Ireland’s transitions. Agribusiness feeds 10 million people in the UK, and the new economy around cybercrime, fintech, legal services and cultural production drives up skills and wages. Belfast, a city in which around a quarter of the retail space was bombed, was in 2017 ranked seventh for gross value added out of 179 local area regions in the UK. The idea that unionists are “fetishising long-defunct industries, snarling at the modern world” is risible. Leadership from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness imagined and delivered the new economy. The majority of pro-union people support marriage equality and abortion rights, snarling only at those who oppose them. Many unionists know and articulate the NI protocol as a unique opportunity while others have taken a hapless and distorted route. David McWilliams permits no space for critique of Ireland’s GDP figures and the pernicious role venture capitalists play upon the housing market. He opts for the notion that Northern Ireland is akin to East Germany in which hapless citizens, watch West German TV and dream of swapping the Trabant for a BMW. That is not to deny that median wages are higher in the South but comparison has to factor in Ireland as the most expensive country in the EU, with living standards depressed by fees for public services.
David McWilliams sees only politics and spreadsheet economics. He does not account for post-conflict change. Since 2005, for example, sectarian crime has fallen by some 60 per cent. Investors, entrepreneurs, community leaders and researchers drive change and think not of sectarian ways. Irrespective of background they contribute to wealth creation, social economy and anti-poverty campaigns. Knowing what is happening beyond the spreadsheet and the travails of identity politics advances reasonable understandings of the North. I would encourage McWilliams to join those who favour interdependences across the island. Forgo outdated identity labelling and aid the mapping of trade, cultural and R&D linkages. That is the path to meaningful change and not the stereotypical language of “we’”, “it” and “them”.
To be sure by itself this is not an argument for maintaining the Union. But it is certainly one for raising morale. And note the support for some of the successes of power sharing.
In an age which praises diversity as the new norm, a binary choice of nationalisms is looking dated. To be sure core sovereignty has to exist to raise and disperse revenue and maintain law. But that leaves an awful lot of room for achieving interchangeability. The GFA expresses it. It deserves to be promoted by the centre ground as the settlement for our time and not merely the accommodation m. Alliance party this means you. Why so mealy mouthed? Loyalists are the Forlorn Hope mounting feeble charges. The border poll campaign languishes. Many nationalists fear the turmoil that a constitutional campaign would generate but need a platform to stand on. They won’t get it from Boris or from Micheal, Leo or Mary Lou. It has to come from within. How much consent does a majority need?
As a history enthusiast the story of Ireland is my history but not my cause. I’m by turns fascinated, absorbed and often appalled. I dream about counterfactuals almost every other day. I am convinced that Brexit although a real pain will not throw us back to the old antagonism any more than war with France is likely. If only we can see clearly now the old war is over, we can experience the new world that is emerging.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London