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6 March 2017

Ruth Dudley Edwards: Unionists need to start acting like patriots rather than nationalists or war will be lost

Nationalism is toxic. Itís time we learned to reject it in all its guises, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Arlene Foster handed Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein many gifts in the election lead-up
Arlene Foster handed Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein many gifts in the election lead-up

Last week I was on Talkback discussing nationalism with the eminently reasonable Dr David McCann. The topic had hit the headlines because the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan had said there was “no difference between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion”.

I agreed with Mr Khan, but unsurprisingly an awful lot of people didn’t, including Dr McCann. But then nationalism is a difficult “ism” to discuss because so few people seem to agree on what it is.

Is it a healthy pride in one’s country?

Is it “My country right or wrong”?

Is it xenophobia?

Or is it a tribal marking, as — despite my Dublin Catholic nationalist background — I came to see it in Ireland and, more recently, in Scotland.

I’ve read a lot about it in my time, but I can’t think of anyone who has better summed up the contradictions in our attitudes towards nationalism in these islands than the political commentator Andrew Marr — born and brought-up in Scotland.

A few years ago, writing about the frequently ill-tempered lead-up to the referendum on independence, he told about how Ukip leader Nigel Farage was hounded out of Edinburgh by violent protesters.

Mr Marr was particularly struck that it was “hardcore Nats who were accusing him of outrageous nationalistic sentiment”.

Yet Mr Farage was simply trying to get independence for the UK from Brussels, which was “not necessarily totally different from trying to get independence for Scotland from London”.

Mr Marr’s explanation was that: “Your neighbour’s nationalism is always toxic and xenophobic, while your nationalism is always good.”

Isn’t it strange that people talk about being a proud Irish or Scottish or Welsh nationalist, but to call anyone a British or English nationalist is a term of abuse immediately smeared as racism?

Seeing what aggressive nationalism did to the small island I love turned me against the whole “ism”.

I call myself a patriot.

George Orwell, who had an extraordinary gift for clarifying complicated issues, was emphatic that nationalism should not be confused with patriotism.

To him patriotism was “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” that one had no wish to force on others.

Nationalism, on the other hand, was obsessed with power and prestige.

The thoughts of a nationalist, he wrote, “always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliation”.

In the case of Ireland, that was historically evident in Anglophobia and deep hostility to any of the island’s inhabitants who did not share nationalism’s prejudices and aspirations.

Sadly, some hardline Scottish nationalists — many of whom have Irish origins — think the same way.

It’s not that I see anything ignoble in wanting independence and self-determination. I know many good people — like my brother — who support the Scottish Nationalist Party and I have several friends who passionately want a united Ireland.

Yet while most Irish people have outgrown the worst manifestations of the nationalism Orwell described, the leaders of the Sinn Fein cult have not.

The dreadful Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign was well described by the SDLP’s Alex Attwood as being “in big part about bogeymen and who was top dog...”

Having set a trap for Arlene Foster and licked his lips as she obligingly marched into it and gave him a plausible excuse to pull down Stormont, Gerry Adams had the pleasure of watching her demean herself by playing the ethnic card badly.

If she had been taking lessons on how to enrage nationalists and get them voting greener, while driving despairing unionists into the arms of the Alliance Party, she couldn’t have done better.

I regard Gerry Adams as a power-hungry, toxic menace to Ireland north and south. I like Arlene Foster personally, and I agree with her that concessions to his party only make it hungry for more, and that most Sinn Fein grievances are manufactured, but her crocodile analogy was one of the many gifts that she gave Mr Adams.

The DUP has (just about) won the election.

If its leaders don’t learn to be patriots rather than nationalists, unionism will lose the war.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards