New nationalism risks going the way of New Labour

Posted By: May 15, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, May 14, 2016

The only surprising thing about the decline in the nationalist vote during the assembly election was that anyone was surprised by it. New nationalism, as this column has called it, is a bit like Tony Blair’s New Labour, which was dressed-up conservatism.

New nationalism (also inspired by Tony Blair) is now apparently seen by an increasing number of the nationalist electorate as just dressed-up unionism.

By supporting the political conditions for peace in 1998, Irish nationalists accepted the legitimacy of what had been traditionally called the British presence in Ireland. Led by the SDLP and Sinn Féin, they voted by a huge majority to support unionism’s veto on ending partition, an unforeseen reversal of the 75-year anti-partition campaign.

The inevitable outcome was that political nationalism had to change its content and language. (Cultural nationalism remained largely unaffected.) The traditional aspiration of an all-Ireland republic was redefined as a theoretical state towards which nationalists could strive, confident in knowledge that they would never get there.

In the recent assembly election, for example, one poster read: “If you really want an Irish republic, vote Sinn Féin”. (It was disappointing that an SDLP poster did not reply: “If you really, really want an Irish republic, vote SDLP.”) SF also promised to “build momentum towards Irish unity”, an electoral pledge which elevated vagueness to a new level.

Instead of momentum (or maybe in addition to it), the SDLP promised a Commission (yes, capital ‘C’), which will try to work out “what a reunified Ireland will look like”. (It won’t have a border. There, that didn’t take long, did it?) This idea reflects SF’s Dáil manifesto promise to establish a Green Paper on Irish unity. It looks like nationalists are trying to bore the British into leaving.

(“Right, lads, here’s the plan: the Commission will outflank the British on the right and the Green Paper will come at them from the rear. They’ll surrender in no time.”)

You might reasonably argue that the demise of old fashioned nationalism is no bad thing. For example, it tended to be largely associated with Catholicism, to the exclusion of most Irish Protestants. (Mind you, new nationalism is fixated with British royalty, which, dare we say it, is not a million miles from religious exclusion and nationalism is now effectively a sectarian designation in Stormont.)

Its critics would also argue that traditional nationalism formed the bedrock for most republican political violence in the past two centuries, up to and including this week. Others would suggest that without it, 1916 would never have happened.

Critics of new nationalism (and there have not been many) point out that it has gone too far. For example, if we are to believe the British government, an armed PIRA currently controls SF’s policy-making, which advocates support for Stormont and thus partition.

This means that the traditional “cutting edge” of nationalism, is now fighting to maintain what it used to call the British presence in Ireland. This argument concludes that votes for SF and the SDLP effectively preserve partition.

Presumably many nationalists would be prepared to accept all this if Stormont could deliver something tangible. Its failure to achieve anything of substance and the DUP’s power to defy democracy with a petition of concern, has effectively returned the anti-partition case to the 1920s.

Whether you think that new nationalism is good or bad is your own business. The question is: can it survive? Unless it starts to deliver soon, either in terms of all-Ireland progress, or through social and economic advances in the north (or both), it risks going the way of New Labour.

The evidence is that an increasing number of disillusioned nationalists are opting for one of three choices, in descending order of preference: abstain from voting; voting for the non-sectarianism of the Greens and the left or, for a tiny minority, supporting the running sore of republican violence.

The failure of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to recognise this pattern cost both of them votes and seats in the recent election. They will find it difficult to reverse the trend, because by accepting that unionists are British and not Irish, they abandoned the political argument for Irish unity. The two-nations theory is now the bedrock of the border.

Following the collapse of New Labour, the party swung sharply back to old Labour values. New nationalism is  nowhere near that stage yet, which gives its leaders time to act.

However, apart from flag-waving, they have little room for manoeuvre, which means that we may be about to witness a sudden outbreak of momentum building.