Sadiq Khan (the Lord Mayor of London) in a recent article was not wrong to compare Scottish nationalism to racism or religious intolerance – the same can be applied to Irish nationalism – at least, not entirely. Someone had to say it: the parallels are clear. There is an obvious overlap between nationalism and racism: both mentalities are defined by a politics of us and them. Equating racism with nationalism is a massive false equivalence, yet both perspectives are reliant on a clear distinction being made between those who belong and those who are rejected on the basis of difference.
In Ireland Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Provisional IRA) is constantly talking about a fairer Six Counties (Northern Ireland) playing on their official propaganda that Nationalists are by nature more egalitarian then Unionists. In order to validate the Six Counties, to present it as some sort of progressive movement, nationalists must emphasise the difference between themselves and their next door Unionist neighbours. The myth of nationalists as a friendly, compassionate people is maintained with fervour – like any other fairy-story, it needs heroes and villains. And the idea of a nationalist six counties as a land of tolerance – is a fairy-story. It is what allows the nationalists hold England and the Unionists accountable for all the wrongs past and present.
Irish nationalism, or at least the stated principle of its political wing in its present form rests on a fundamental contradiction: seeking separation from the United Kingdom, the reunification with the 26 counties and unity within the European Union. If a referendum is held, as Sinn Fein constantly moots, it must address how the six counties aims to integrate and build new political ties while actively dismantling their longest and somewhat fractious relationship with another country. There is a contradictory streak to Irish nationalism, small and inward-looking despite Sinn Fein’s talk of a global united Ireland. This showed this week when Martina Anderson ranted to an empty European Parliament .“What British armoured cars and tanks and guns couldn’t do in Ireland, 27 member states will not be able to do. “So Theresa (the UK Prime Minister I assume), your idea of a border – hard or soft – stick it where the sun doesn’t shine because you’re not putting it in Ireland.” Some commentators replied that this demonstrated the respect that Sinn Fein have been “preaching about” in recent weeks. They said: “It shows that although Sinn Fein use the language of equality and respect, when it actually comes down to it they never actually practice it themselves. It highlights once again how duplicitous Sinn Fein are. Now it seems that Sinn Fein’s enemies are not just the UK but all of Europe and the rest of the world.
Commenting on Khan’s article there was a lot of “How dare you call us racist?” and very little reflection on the possibility that nationalism could actually contain racism. As is often the case, talking about racism became more controversial than racism in itself. Indeed, many nationalists are so deeply invested in the narrative of Irish exceptionalism that they are unwilling to have a frank conversation about racism in Irish society.
Nationalists are quick to comment that they have many followers & friends and have never heard or read a racist comment from any of them! This approach brings to mind the “tree falling in a forest” – if intolerance occurs and another person isn’t around to hear it, has intolerance still occurred? Comments such as this only make it harder for people of differing politics to come forward about the discrimination they face, increasing the risk of them being disbelieved if they do speak out.
Khan judged it appropriate to draw a comparison between nationalism and prejudice in order to highlight the risk carried by the politics of division. For that he cannot be condemned, just as we cannot condemn those people of who criticise him. Zeal for national identity invariably raises questions of who belongs and who is an outsider – even “civic-minded” nationalism needs a “them” to create a cohesive idea of “us”.