Nationalism vs. Liberalism in the Irish Context: From a Postcolonial Past to a Postmodern Future. (1)

By White, Timothy J. | Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies, Fall-Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Nationalism vs. Liberalism in the Irish Context: From a Postcolonial Past to a Postmodern Future. (1)


White, Timothy J., Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies


 
   "Nationalism is all too often the enemy of democracy." (2) 

THE re-emergence of ethno-nationalism and the increasing strife seen in many parts of the world arising from nationalistic tensions has quieted those who had predicted the end of history or the end of ideological conflict. (3) The ability of nationalistic and ethnic conceptions of identity to persist in the modern age has surprised those who believed nationalism to be a nineteenth-century ideology. Instead, the study of national identity continues to be an important means of understanding the political dynamic of change and continuity in many states. (4) With the decline of totalitarian ideologies, the resurgence of nationalism in the post-Cold War period is often presented as the greatest threat to the supremacy of liberalism as the ideology or philosophy of choice in the world. (5) While the confrontation of liberal values and ethnic identities is all too apparent in many regions, the Republic of Ireland provides an interesting and subtler example of the complex relationship that exists between nationalism and liberalism. Unlike the nationalism that emerged from a liberal tradition in many European states, Irish nationalism emerged first as an anticolonial movement. After independence Irish nationalism was quite conservative as the leaders of the postcolonial state sought to re-create a premodern and pre-liberal past. Thus Irish nationalism persisted as a parochial political identity far longer than others in the European context. While there has been a clear decline in nationalism in most member states of the European Union in recent decades, Mattei Dogan found Ireland still to be "the most traditionalist country in Europe" in terms of the intensity of the nationalism of its citizens. (6) Despite the persistence of nationalism in the Irish context, liberalism has begun to intersect with Ireland's traditional sense of national identity, revealing contradictions and tensions as Irish society transcends its postcolonial past and increasingly incorporates liberal postmodern values.

The origins of the tension between liberalism and nationalism in Ireland begin in a sense with the arrival and mobilization of nationalist forces in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Until that time the values associated with liberalism and nationalism did not seem to be in conflict. (7) As nationalist movements became increasingly mass-based, however, they began mobilizing the entire society behind the nationalist cause. In doing so, modern states exhibited an assimilationist tendency, striving for social homogeneity. (8) The Irish struggle to achieve independence and fulfill national aspirations in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries followed this pattern. The nationalistic political culture that emerged in this early postcolonial state reflected the conservative agenda of restoring Ireland's Gaelic past, preserving its Catholic traditions, and isolating itself from the perceived threat of an alien culture in Britain and the outside world. Increasingly, this traditional political culture has been challenged by liberal democratic values in the past several decades. Liberalism means more than support for democratic political principles. It also emphasizes individual rights, tolerance of diversity, and material prosperity. In the Irish context historic conceptions of identity continue to play important symbolic and emotive roles in political life but are increasingly at odds with liberal values and beliefs that have become more dominant. After a period of inward-looking nationalist policies, the Irish, like other postcolonial peoples, have found that isolation and autarchy cannot provide the material prosperity that those societies seek. By opening their economy to the outside world and especially to their fellow Europeans and by liberalizing their economic policies, the Irish have incorporated many Western cultural values as well.

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