Ruairi Quinn: Negative Nationalist

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Returning to the TV3 documentary on Sinn Féin the other night. Among the first figures to appear on screen, during the introductory scenes, delivering an assessment of the party, was the present Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn. He made his pronouncements to the backdrop of an Irish tricolour and a European Union flag, a sign of official gravitas accorded by the documentary makers.

It’s worth scrutinising his pronouncement. At the very least, a person who bears overall public responsibility for education should be measured against basic standards of truth. He said, of Sinn Féin, that they “have a negative nationalism. They define their Irishness in relation to how much they hate the Brits.” This remark was replayed later on in the documentary.

Is it true that Sinn Féin as a whole defines its Irishness in such terms? In a word, no. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the history of the past few decades will know that Sinn Féin’s concern is with the British State exercising jurisdiction in Ireland. If anti-British hatred were indeed the yardstick of Irishness that Sinn Féin uses, it wouldn’t be participating in government in Northern Ireland. Its party representatives wouldn’t be taking part in official Remembrance services. It wouldn’t be supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its leaders wouldn’t be shaking hands with the Queen.

Ruairí Quinn’s remarks in the programme don’t distinguish between “the Brits” as a common colloquial name for the security forces of the British State and British people as a whole. It seems fair to assume he didn’t intend any such distinction, since nationalism purely as a mere negation of military force doesn’t make much sense. Rather, he’s suggesting that ‘hating the Brits’ is motivated by racist atavism, and this relates to British people as a whole.

Let’s concede that you’ll find a degree of resentment, suspicion and animosity towards British people in certain areas of the North and in the South too. The fact that this is the case doesn’t lend any more truth to Quinn’s pronouncement. Northern Ireland is the scene of a conflict, one in which the British State exercised brute violence to subdue the population. In areas where republicanism is strong, there is no shortage of experiences of brutal behaviour by British forces. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such violence might have generated anti-British sentiment among certain people, just as IRA violence might have generated anti-Irish sentiment among other people. That doesn’t mean Sinn Féin “hates the Brits”.

In fact, there’s so much easily accessible evidence that Sinn Féin on the whole does not “hate the Brits” by any reasonable standard that it’s degrading to have to provide examples. One conceivable justification for such a claim, I suppose, would be to identify the British army and the British government as indistinguishable from the entirety of British society, and therefore any kind or resistance or opposition to the rule of the former ought to be interpreted as racism. By this token, the entire history of resistance in Ireland to British rule was racist. In fact, the entire history of resistance to domination by a foreign power anywhere could be construed as racist.

Another conceivable justification would be to identify each and every manifestation of atavistic anti-British sentiment expressed by a Sinn Féin supporter as characteristic of Sinn Féin as a whole. One might also argue, based on such logic, that since the Irish Labour Party has one or two supporters strongly committed to socialism, it is a party with a strong commitment to socialism.

I’m not concerned here with defending Sinn Féin’s reputation. Rather, it’s a question of the ease with Irish establishment figures can tell outright falsehoods about that party, and more broadly about contemporary Irish republicanism, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be held to account for their fantastical claims.

In this light, the other part of Quinn’s claim -that Sinn Féin has a “negative nationalism”- is worth thinking about. This suggests that there are forms of nationalism that are not negative, which is to say, self-made nationalisms that do not define themselves in opposition to what they are not, but rather will themselves into existence by their own bootstraps, such that there is no “them”; only “us”. Suffice to say that historically, indeed there are forms of nationalism that make claims for themselves as merely positive and tending towards the abolition of all negativity. I’ll refrain from confirming Godwin’s Law here by providing an example.

Certainly, the Irish nationalism espoused by the founder of Ruairi Quinn’s party, James Connolly, was unquestionably a ‘negative’ nationalism, in so far as it defined itself by what it was not. This is encapsulated in the famous apothegm that

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour.”

That is, Irish national liberation and liberation from capitalism and its orientation toward self-seeking greed are inseparable.

Connolly elaborates:

“They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.”

If it’s difficult to argue that Sinn Féin stands for the abolition of capitalism implicit in Connolly’s vision, it’s simply impossible to do the same for the Irish Labour Party, which has enacted one anti-labour measure after another in ‘the national interest’, and which, as part of the Socialist International, is an ally of plenty of parties which, when in government, have perpetrated not only structural adjustment plans, but massacres.

And it isn’t just impossible, but utterly ludicrous, to argue that Ruairi Quinn -a steadfast supporter of austerity across the European periphery- is a figure who stands opposed to capitalism.

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Let’s give Quinn his due, however: as an enthusiastic supporter of the European Union of capitalist member states, he does embody a particular kind of nationalism that stands in contrast to other forms of Irish nationalism. But contrary to the impression he seeks to convey, his is also a negative nationalism: one that pits the life interests of the Irish nation (as conceived by the ruling powers) against the interests of Europe’s working class, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg. Including, of course, Ireland’s working class.

And for a political representative of such a nationalism, it comes with the territory that the socialist and internationalist dimensions of Irish republicanism have to be kept hidden from view, until they are extinguished altogether. As Freud biographer Ernest Jones would have it, it is not the people we hate the most that we want to kill, but those who arouse in us the most unbearable conflict.

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