There are a number of hard questions republicans should pay more attention to and discuss more thoroughly. The first one is the concept of the nation. For Des Dalton:
The Republican position is based on the premise of the existence of the historic Irish nation. Documents issuing from the Irish College in Louvain, in what is now Belgium, 400 years ago used terms ‘naisiun’ with regard to Ireland and ‘Eireannach’ instead of ‘Gael’ and ‘Gael-Ghael’ in reference to an Irish person. We are not a revolted colony nor as Thomas Davis said ‘a sandbank thrown up by caprice of wind and wave’, but an ancient people. - (Sinn Fein President address university conference, Saoirse, April 2014).
But what is this ‘historic Irish nation’? In Des Dalton’s speech, it appears as a quasi-biological entity. But there is nothing natural about the nation. One has to ask if the nation is a product of nationalism rather than the other way around. Like Irish republicanism is an ‘invented tradition’, the Irish nation is an ‘imagined community’.
Far from being ‘ancient’ it is a product of modernity. It is no accident that the documents from the Irish College in Leuven mentioned by Dalton are the first printed Irish ones; as Benedict Anderson has shown the development of nationalism is dependent upon things like printing. The issue of how many nations there are in Ireland is also a vexed question. On the basis of six different frameworks it is possible to answer that question with anything from zero to three. (Michael Gallagher (1995), How many nations are there in Ireland? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 18 :4, 715-739).
It is interesting to note that in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal of 20 June 1916, Father Michael O’Flanagan (vice-president of Sinn Fein from 1917 and president of the party in 1933-35) wrote :
Geography has worked hard to make one nation out of Ireland; history has worked against it. The island of Ireland and the national unit of Ireland simply do not coincide. In the last analysis the test of nationality is the wish of the people.
O’Flanagan concluded by stating that as Antrim and Down looked to London as "the centre of their patriotic enthusiasm", it would be wrong to compel them to love the rest of Ireland by force.
A tentative republican concept of the nation would be a political community organised around universal values. All cultural and ethnic aspects are subordinate to the political one. It is not based on the so-called rights of an allegedly ‘ancient people’ but on universal values. (Terry Eagleton, Nationalism and the Case of Ireland, New Left Review, Issue 234, March-April 1999). It is no accident that under UN laws of self-determination, the international community has opted to define the ‘self’ entitled to self-determination in terms of a territorial criterion rather than an ethnic or cultural one.
Which brings us to the second hard question; that of the relation between nation and state. There are currently 195 independent states, 60 dependent areas and 5 disputed territories in the world; but if every nation was to be entitled its own state there would be hundreds more. While the nationalist militant writes about the ‘eternal nation’ the materialist historian only writes about how the idea of the nation can mobilise certain social groups at specific times and how this can in exceptional circumstances lead to the formation of a state. The island of Ireland is divided between two states, but there is nothing that entitles it automatically to one state -Hispaniola, Tierra del Fuego, Borneo, New Guinea and St Martin are also cases of islands under divided sovereignty. Republican Sinn Fein organised a campaign last year on "Derry is an Irish City" – "Derry is as Irish as Cork, Dublin or Belfast". (We must prove ourselves worthy of the historic title deeds of nationality, Saoirse, September 2013).
In a geographical sense Doire is an Irish city, however there is nothing anomalous with Londonderry being constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. The reconcilation of southern Irish nationalist identities with the 26 Counties state rather than a 32 Counties one should also be emphasized. In the early 1960s, Eamon de Valera commented that 'France was France without Alsace and Lorraine, Ireland is Ireland without the north.' (quoted in : John M. Regan (2007), Southern Irish Nationalism as a Historical Problem, The Historical Journal, 50 :1, 218).
Republicans have not paid sufficient attention to the issue of a growing proportion of people seeing the Irish nation as co-extensive with the 26 Counties. In 1988 Danny Morrison declared:
People of the 26 Counties that don’t want the 6 Counties, let us know. If they’re telling us to fuck off, telling us they’re happy with the state they’ve got and fuck 1916, then tell us … If they think the’ve got an Irish nation inside the 26 counties they should build a wall and lock us out. » (quoted in : Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion : Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland, London : Hutchinson Radius, 1989, 206).
‘Tell us’ and ‘let us know’ got its answer in 1998 when the people of the 26 counties voted 94.4% in favour of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, partition if not embraced was recognised.
If 26 counties voters have effectively ‘built a wall’ and ‘locked out’ the six counties, it is also worth noting that the republican struggle in the north was much more a case of "ghetto corporatism" (Henry Patterson, op.cit., 207) and specific northern phenomenon than a national project. In 1989, Danny Morrison was arguing that:
the IRA doesn’t claim to be representing the people in the 26 Counties … the IRA isn’t killing people in the name of the people of Limerick or Dublin.
In 1993 Morrison wrote from prison that 'no one I know in this jail has lifted a gun or planted a bomb in the name of the people of the 26 Counties.' (quoted in : Brian Hanley, Attitudes to the IRA in the Irish Republic since 1969, Irish Historical Studies, 38 :151, May 2013, 455). With re-unification now a low-intensity aspiration in the 6 Counties and the reconciliation of a sufficient proportion of nationalists to its state institutions, partitionist identities have never been stronger. The difference between nation and state has not lead to a legitimacy crisis for state institutions either north or south of the border.
The third difficult question is that of self-determination. Who has the right to self-determination and what is the legitimate unit for its exercise? (Michael Gallagher (1990) Do Ulster Unionists have a right to self-determination? Irish Political Studies, 5 :1, 11-30) The prevailing interpretation of the principle of self-determination is that it is the right of the majority to establish an independent state within any area administered as a political entity by a colonial power. For republicans, Northern Ireland was an artificially created entity; its genesis was illegitimate not merely because it partitioned the island but because of the particular boundaries drawn. Consequently Northern Ireland’s inclusion within the United Kingdom constitutes a denial of the right to self-determination of the majority within the island. But after the 1998 Belfast Agreement in terms of international law it is no longer possible to argue that London denies the Irish people the right to self-determination:
Both the Irish and British governments have accepted Northern Ireland as the appropriate unit for the exercise of the right of self-determination based on the principle of consent. As the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent referendums firmly established, there will be no change in the legal status of the jurisdiction unless such changes are premised in a majority democratic vote by referendum. In short, the historical claims of alien occupation, or a de facto war of national liberation is likely to be dismissed in the Northern Ireland context. (Fionnuala Ni Aolain, The Politics of Force, Belfast : The Blackstaff Press, 2000, 237)
Post-Belfast Agreement it is difficult to argue in terms of international law that self-determination is denied to the Irish people or that there is still a conflict about it. The problem for republicans is to prove that the 32 counties is the legitimate unit for self-determination. How can the 32 counties be the legitimate unit when the 6 counties is the internationally recognised one? Some say that partition was ‘artificial’ therefore implying that a united Ireland is somehow ‘natural’. But:
There is much to substantiate tbe Irish nationalist claims…that the administrative boundaries of the Irish colonial state constituted the obvious historical (not natural) unit within which the exercise of self-determination should be decided. (Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 34)
How one can move from the historical unit to the legal unit is still to be determined.
Some serious thinking by republicans is required on the concept of nation, the relation between nation and state, who has the right to self-determination and what is the legitimate unit for its exercise and on what grounds. But above all, how do these issues relate to emancipatory politics and the project of universal liberation and freedom? If they are not connected to something universal, then the national question in Ireland becomes just another border dispute and is no more significant than say the South Tyrol problem or the issue of the Comoros islands. What Edward W. Said said in a Palestinian context also applies to an Irish one:
It struck me as implicit in the Palestinian struggle … that we from the very beginning as a movement said that we were not interested in another separatist nationalism. That’s when I joined the movement. We were not interested in just anothern nationalism, resisting theirs in order to have ours, that we were going to be the mirror image of them … But rather that we are talking about an alternative in which the discriminations made on the basis of race and religion and national origin would be transcended by something that we called liberation. That’s reflected in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That, it seems to me, is the essence of resistance. It’s not stubbornly putting your foot in the door, but opening the window. (Edward W.Said, The Pen and the Sword : Conversations with David Barsamian, Edinburgh : AK Press, 1994, 165-166)
How to ‘open the window’ should be the first thing on the agenda for Irish republicans today.