Scottish ethnic vs civic nationalism


The Economist describes Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond’s latest initiative of the Scottish Government (led by SNP) to encourage pupils to attend three historic places, including the battlefield of Bannockburn, the site of Scotland’s biggest victory against Edward II’s army.

This could be seen as a demonstration of ethnic nationalism, more akin to the Balkans, than a civic nationalism, whereby all Scottish residents are seen as Scots regardless of ethnicity, argues the Economist and citing a new book by Tom Gallagher, The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism.

For me, this matters.

A Northern Ireland parallel is that you’re respected as more true Ulster-British if you have good Protestant lineage (and all the better if that’s James Knox Presbyterianism!), and the corollary: more respected as true Irish if you have good Gaelic and/or Catholic lineage.

In some ways, the Republic of Ireland has moved on, particularly considering the influx of European migrants during its heady Celtic Tiger economic boom years of the 1990s. I know, I lived there for a few years and this cosmopolitianism was reflected among our housemates.

But it’s also true that Irish nationalism has a long way to go before understanding and respecting unionism.

Within Northern Ireland, many parties acknowledge the arrival of long-standing as well as new migrants. But it’s more “How do you do?” than “How could we interest you in joining us?” Barring the Alliance Party’s Anna Lo’s breakthrough as Europe’s first Chinese-born elected representative in any European regional parliament, a limbo remains for ethnic minorities and all migrants.

Put another way, in the Republic of Ireland some parties are more prepared to accept all Irish residents as Irish — a form of civic nationalism.

In Northern Ireland, there’s no real “Northern Irish” civic nationalism. Instead, we hope for an accommodating British (Conservative) UUP accepting anyone in Northern Ireland who wishes to call himself British; and an accommodating Irish SDLP accepting anyone in the North who wishes to call himself Irish.

(Some in Alliance promote a “civic liberalism”, at the expense of the distasteful “nationalism” bit.)

Such accommodation in itself doesn’t resolve much. But at least it’s a step in the right direction, in that the less the nationalist political parties (which is what we’ve got in Northern Ireland) define themselves on exclusively ethnic terms, then perhaps it more likely that elections won’t descent into contests of ethnic out-bidding.

But are we even taking baby steps in this direction?

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