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Making Nationalists

The world is divided into almost 200 different countries and most of them celebrate some type of annual ‘national’ day.

The most widely known examples are the 4th July Independence Day of the United States and Bastille Day on 14 July in France. Mexico has its ‘El Grito’ in September which celebrates the beginning of its struggle to end Spanish rule and Cuba has its Liberation Day to mark the advent of the Castro regime. Britain is unusual in not having any widely recognised national day although the Queen’s Official Birthday and St. George’s Day (at least in England) partly fulfil the role. In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day on the 17 March is generally accepted as the national day (especially in

the Republic) although Easter Monday (the date of the Rising in 1916) is also a calendar date of importance. National days usually commemorate the formation of the country in the sense of gaining ‘freedom’ from a governing colonial power, as in the case of the USA, or else mark some major change (erroneously called a revolution) in the social structure of a country as with France. Sometimes they have their roots in and take their context from cultural, religious or historical events. For countries that have experienced much social and political upheaval over the last 100 years, such as Germany or Russia, the day considered as the national day, has changed many times over the years.

In Ireland, this year being the centenary of the Easter Rising, the day was given a more pronounced significance. For the previous year, the government planned a whole series of ceremonies with the major commemorations held on Easter Sunday and Easter Monday; 27 and 28 March. What’s a socialist perspective on this? As the articles in the March Standard suggested, in spite of all the rhetoric of the state and media, there really is very little tangible to see in the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the Republic of Ireland that is connected to the Rising apart from the fact that most major railway stations in Irish cities are named after some of the leading participants.

It’s interesting to compare this centenary celebration with the commemoration that occurred in 1966 on the half centenary. The centrepiece on that occasion was a traditional old style military parade of the Irish Army down O’Connell Street in Dublin whilst being reviewed by Eamon De Valera and other elderly survivors of the Rising. Watching old film of it is very reminiscent of observing the May Day parades that the leadership of the Soviet Union indulged in with the massed ranks of marching troops, the armoured columns and the flypasts of combat aircraft. Of course for  Ireland, the military hardware on show was on a much smaller scale.

For this year’s anniversary, the aim was to be much more ‘inclusive’ with family events, educational lectures, historical re-enactments, street festivals, etc. Of course the underlying nationalist message was still present though in a more muted form; an example being that in the weeks prior to Easter, the Proclamation was read out in all school playgrounds under the Tricolour.

The correct attitude to adopt to the Rising has always been somewhat problematical for Irish Governments. While Irish Independence is nominally taken to have begun with the rebellion, in fact the origins of the state really date from the unplanned and erratic series of events that occurred from the Conscription crisis of 1918 to the end of the Civil War in 1923.

The undemocratic and vanguardist nature of the military operation of Easter 1916 has unpalatable parallels with the more recent campaign of the Provisional IRA. In fact during these more recent troubles, apologists for the Provisional movement liked to justify their struggle against claims that it had little popular support by reference to the minority action of 1916. The authorities in Dublin were keenly aware of this and certainly during the 1970s and 1980s there was little official observance of the date on any grand scale.

The participation of James Connolly in the planning and execution of the Rising has always given it left-wing appeal even though he was in a clear minority in terms of his political outlook compared to the other leaders. Connolly had an admirable record prior to the Rising as a social agitator and resolute campaigner against capitalism and militarism. The other leaders, while some of them had vaguely progressive ideas, were more straightforward cultural nationalists who envisaged the new state that would be formed as replicating other nascent European nation-states. For many of them, the aim of the Rising was to give Ireland its own lag, anthem, currency and  language; the usual trappings of a sovereign capitalist nation. A well-known phrase from the Proclamation ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ has since been used to vindicate the claim that it was a progressive event even though that wording was placed there more for grandiose political purposes than a call to any specific programme of social action.

What’s the view from today? It can be debated over and back whether the 26 counties that eventually went on to form the Republic of Ireland would have been better or worse off if they had remained as part of the UK. It’s a calculation that has been and continues to be put forward to the Scottish people by the governing SNP in Edinburgh. To an extent it’s similar to the current debate in the UK about its own membership of the larger European political union.

While we constantly hear that we live in a globalised world, national sovereignty still resonates with many people. As socialists we reject the concept absolutely. The delineation of national boundaries within a system of world capitalism is just a reflection of the nationalist consciousness that currently prevails amongst the people of this planet. The celebration of national days, the supporting of the national team at international football tournaments, the organised remembrance of common history etc. are all manifestations of the constant encouragement to us to make identification with our fellow countrymen as the primary determinant of our political consciousness. This is a false proposition. The problems of the Irish people were not solved by independence; the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who left Ireland since 1922 are proof of that. The same will hold for the Scottish people. In the long term, the maintenance or relinquishment of membership of the EU will not improve or worsen the overall position of the majority of the people of the island of Britain. As socialists we say the only political allegiance we should give is to our fellow workers and our objective should be to finish with countries and their bogus ‘national’ days.

KEVIN CRONIN