I’d just been rereading this review of John M. Regan’s book Myth and the Irish State, which in reviewer John Dorney’s words “warns of the dangers of history being contorted to serve the agendas of the present”. And then I stumbled across an article in the Financial Times (not my normal choice of reading material) which does exactly that.
It’s behind a paywall (though a paywall with a free option, it should be noted), so I’ll quote some of the main points below.1
The subheading runs “A nationalist state has carved itself out of the UK before. It was a disaster, writes Kevin Toolis”.
The target is, of course, the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. The author offers the creation of the Free State as a warning about nationalist separatism with the multi-national entity of the United Kingdom.
We do have one good historical model of what it is like to carve out a nationalist state from within the political union of the UK but it is not one the SNP is keen to cite. […] the Irish Free State that arose in the 1920s was a parochial disaster – a backward step even from English rule, which was far from benign.
This comparison has some superficially attractive parallels: an independent Scotland would still be linked to England and Wales through allegiance to the monarch, currency, as well as less visible cultural and economic ties, just as the Free State was at its inception. The SNP’s emphasis on Scots’ separate identity is also similar to the primacy given to the Gaelic past by modern Ireland’s founders. And I do agree with the writer that nationalists of whatever type often present ‘independence’ as a panacea for all ills. Much of the writer’s criticism is directed at the SNP’s blind economic optimism. Here the spectre of Ireland from the thirties to the sixties is invoked: separation leads to economic stagnation and mass immigration to, of all places, the country of the hated ex-colonial master.
Single-party misrule was to last for decades. Economic fortunes sank. Irish Taoiseachs – prime ministers – such as Charles Haughey almost openly looted the state’s treasuries. Far from being economically independent, the Irish punt was slave-pegged to the English pound. In all but name Ireland remained an economic vassal of the UK Treasury.
Yes, it’s a caricature, with some notable inaccuracies,2 and it’s understandably produced quite a backlash in the comments and in the letters pages. (You can read those for yourself if you want – I’ve only skimmed them.)
The author then goes on to discuss in some detail how the Scots cannot hope to extricate their economy from that of the rest of the UK. I’m not going to comment on any of that. I have my opinions but they’re not relevant to this blog.
More interesting is the author’s own background (“born in Edinburgh of Irish parents”) and his comments on the often simplistic exclusivity of ‘nationality’.
In creating its new Gaelic-Irish identity the Free State cremated its own twin British-Irish identity, constructed out of 400 years of colonisation and cultural exchange. Whole chapters of Irish history, such as the 200,000 Irish who fought in France in the first world war, just disappeared.
I suppose some might quibble over “cultural exchange” as a euphemism for something less benign but nonetheless I think he has a point. After all, identity for many people isn’t unitary, and a lot of Ireland’s problems (particularly in the north) have been derived from just this insistence that one is either British or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, unionist or nationalist. Such a manner of thinking is there within the very name Sinn Féin. These binary oppositions and the reading of history they enforce seem to be weakening in the Republic, as events such as World War I commemoration show; on the other hand, a criticism of the political settlement of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland is that in ensuring equal treatment of both communities it reinforced that very division.
Whether any of this applies to the Scotland of today, I frankly can’t tell. I’d say file this one under “Uses and abuses of history”.