Patrick Murphy: Nationalism has lost its way

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

A banner on Divis Flats in west Belfast proclaims 'A united Ireland is for everyone'. Picture by Hugh Russell
A banner on Divis Flats in west Belfast proclaims 'A united Ireland is for everyone'. Picture by Hugh Russell

Great news! All our problems have been solved. Whether you are one of the 500,000 waiting for medical treatment, a parent feeding your family from a foodbank, or a victim of the £111 million shortfall in social security benefits, your troubles are over.

Yes, all our problems have been solved by a single silver bullet from Sinn Féin. As the leader of northern nationalism, it has decided that the answer to all our social, economic and environmental ills is to request the Dublin government to create a citizens’ assembly to talk about a united Ireland.

That, they claim, will hopefully convince Dublin to ask Britain to hold a border poll by 2030 (or later), with no guarantee of a successful outcome.

Read more:

United Ireland: How a border poll will be called - an explainer

The Irish News View: Time for a Citizens' Assembly

Brian Feeney: United Ireland needed to end north's permanent state of crisis

Alex Kane: A united Ireland is not the answer

After 25 years of violence, 4,000 deaths and 25 years of campaigning, that’s the entire progress made by nationalists towards a united Ireland. (India achieved independence from Britain in half that time without firing a shot.) In the absence of any other northern policies, this is SF’s cure for all our problems.

Sadly, it is nothing new. Unionism’s electoral support is based on ignoring social and economic inequality by waving the union jack and proclaiming blind loyalty to the crown.

Nationalism is now doing the same. It waves the tricolour and urges blind loyalty to an aspirational united Ireland, as a diversion from SF having collapsed public services here during 25 years in power.

(It is tempting to wonder if the economic mess overseen by SF is part of a plan to destroy the northern state. If it is, we are now its long-suffering conscripts.)

SF has re-established political policing, was involved in killing Lough Neagh with populist farming policies and watched homelessness more than double in the past decade (while criticising the Dublin government’s housing policy).

Its popularity is based not on its achievements, but on its promises. Like religion, it teaches that suffering during the life of the northern state will reap an eternal reward in the heaven of an expanded Free State. (Never mind your need for a hip operation, close your eyes and think of Ireland.)

That makes nationalism not so much a political ideology, more a form of faith. It is old-style Catholic nationalism, without the Church’s moral teachings, but retaining the concepts of infallibility and heresy.

SF is infallible, even when it frequently reverses its policies. They used to call the EU a rich man’s club. Now it is Ireland’s holy grail. The Special Criminal Court used to be bad, now it is good. Violence was good. Now it is bad. (It’s called flexible infallibility.)

SF’s nationalism also brands others as heretics. Jeffrey Donaldson is labelled as the political reincarnation of Martin Luther. Consequently, the DUP are destined to suffer eternal damnation, on the Copeland Islands or wherever, while nationalists enjoy the heavenly pastures of a new Ireland.

Nationalist triumphalism is now repeating the mistakes of unionist triumphalism. Instead of avoiding sectarianism, it is revelling in it. As a result, both nationalism and unionism have rendered themselves irrelevant to the everyday needs of ordinary people.

They are both based on sectarian populism, which is becoming increasingly scary. (All populism does not lead to fascism, but all fascism has its roots in populism.)

It is both reasonable and rational to advocate a united Ireland, but nationalism has lost its way. The failed IRA campaign delayed a united Ireland for generations. A citizens’ assembly in Dublin, would increase unionist opposition even more.

Advocating unity while creating deeper division defies all logic. Unless, of course, the logic is that of de Valera, who used the injustice of a united Ireland to distract from his own government’s failures, while playing the role of Mise Éire. Northern nationalism is following in his footsteps.

Lead bullets failed to bring about a united Ireland. Silver bullets will do no better – but maybe the whole campaign is now more about gaining and retaining power than about actually progressing towards a united Ireland.