Deciding what is best for future patriotism

Patrick Murphy. Irish News(Belfast). Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whatever happened to Irish patriotism? The question is prompted by this week’s launch of the debate on British membership of the European Union.

While most British battles have been about capturing territory, this one began with ownership claims over what is seen as the debate’s most strategically important word: ‘patriotism’. In the forthcoming referendum (and we will be part of it) will patriotism require Britain to remain within the EU or to leave it? It all depends on what you think patriotism is.

So how should we define it? Why is it no longer significant in Irish politics, even though it is a live issue in Britain and what part will patriotism play when the EU debate reaches Stormont?

If patriotism is love of one’s country, it raises the question of whether it inevitably involves loving those who politically and economically control the country. (No, you may not make a comment. Today’s is a very patriotic column.)

In Britain patriotism has traditionally meant invading other countries, stealing the land and beating into subjection those who lived there. In that case, would dissent have been more patriotic – and is it patriotism or treason for the Scots and Welsh to seek independence?

In Ireland it has generally meant dying a violent death at the hands of the British or, more usually, encouraging others to do so. (In fairness to the British, they generally facilitated that form of Irish patriotism and they have made an immeasurable contribution to many a bad ballad.)

Today things are different. The British still enjoy invading foreign parts (it can be hard to break the habit of 800 years) and in ‘Rule Britannia’, they insist that they never, never, never shall be slaves. (They might like to add a verse apologising for making slaves out of other people, but I suppose that would be unpatriotic.)

In Ireland, however, dying a violent political death is now unfashionable. It is a bit like an embarrassing family scandal from years ago, which no one likes to talk about – except when it comes to elections.

One reason for the change may be that the historical definition of the country has largely been abandoned. Modern nationalists in Sinn Féin and the SDLP accept partition and insist that Unionists are not Irish. (Presumably nationalism without the historical Irish nation is now just ‘-ism’ and nationalists are just ‘-ists’.)

So do Sinn Féin and the SDLP believe that it is patriotic to pledge allegiance to Stormont and, God preserve us, even the border? Or is it patriotic to oppose both?

As the patriots in Sinn Féin and the DUP showed on Tuesday, by voting down a bill to reduce the salaries of special advisers, love of country means love of money. Or maybe, as Yeats might have said, romantic Ireland is dead and gone, as would-be patriots fumble in Stormont’s greasy till.

So how will Stormont handle the EU referendum? Presumably the two – ‘ism’ parties, will argue it is Ireland’s patriotic duty to promote Britain’s interests by keeping it in the EU.

Many unionists will argue for leaving the EU, while not wishing to alienate the subsidy-dependent farming community. (Think of it as patriotism conditioned by cows – a sort of bovine patriotism.) Maybe Stormont should just skip the patriotism bit in the referendum campaign.

These contrasting views reflect the evolving differences in patriotism in Ireland and Britain. A significant body of British opinion, which has presumably been conditioned by pro-imperial patriotism, believes that EU membership deprives them of their freedom.

The Irish, who were deprived of freedom for centuries, happily gave up what independence they had to join the EU. They even paid £64 billion in the bank bailout to remain there – a wonderful example of EU patriotism.

Maybe national patriotism has no role in the EU. Perhaps modern Ireland is not so much a country, more a tax avoidance scheme for multinational companies?

The EU’s secret negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) reinforces this view. The talks are designed to open up Europe’s public health, education and water services to US companies and they show that nation states are increasingly irrelevant in influencing today’s global economy. Maybe patriotism is dead, sold off in Ireland as part of the NAMA sale?

The English spy, Edith Cavell, who was executed 100 years ago this week said that patriotism is not enough.

Well, we have had enough of what passes for it in this country. Perhaps the most patriotic thing we can do now is to teach our children how to think.