Speech by James Lawless TD at Parnell Summer School

Published on: 08 August 2016

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation” said Parnell. Yet what is a nation? What is the role of nationalism in the 21st century and indeed what was it ever?


Today brings back a special memory for me which in a round-about way is why I am here at all or why I hold the office I hold. As a boy I enjoyed an early political education as my grandfather punctuated each visit with stories of Ireland’s past.


One of the most memorable occasions was when the topic turned to what my grandfather termed the “yellow press”. One of the few times I saw him roused to anger he lambasted those media organs, the British broadsheets who had done down our great Irish hero, Charles Stewart Parnell. The tale was told of how Ireland’s great hope was done down by an alien, vindictive and ill-informed enemy.


The curious boy became the man became the Fianna Fáil TD. Doubtless it played a part. In any event we turn to matters at hand.


The Olympics have just began in Rio. The host nation, Brazil, is of course one of the BRIC which are often speculated on and sometimes feared as engines of future international growth.


In 1976 the Olympic Games were hosted by the proud Canadian city of Montreal. Montreal was a world city with a high end social and cultural scene, home to blue chip companies, two international airports and one of North American’s foremost cities. It also sat within Quebec alongside a fiercely French independence movement who agitated to break away.


As the Olympics came and went, a series of measures were passed in the 80s aimed at appeasing the separatists, such as language laws prioritising French above English. Yet the overall outcome was of further fractionalisation and a city that began to feel on edge. As the mood soured, the city began to divide socially and soon a trickle out became an exodus.


Eventually in 1995 an “In / Out” Independence referendum was held where the “Remain” side held on by just 1%. But the damage was done; the divisions had been driven. The Leave side had lost and the Remain side won but destroyed their city in the process. There were no winners. Investment fled from the province and today one of the two international airports lies in mothballs and the bank of Montreal is based in Toronto.


Post Brexit London can doubtless draw lessons from Montreal – as indeed can much of the western world if the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen and co. continues.


But International relations need not be a binary choice between closed borders xenophobia versus materially individualistic globalisation; Nationalism is a force for good when it is inclusive and when it acknowledges that issues go beyond the flag.


The theme of today is 1916 and indeed the rising, in particular its aftermath and the subsequent electoral and parliamentary exercises of 1918-21 are often held as an exemplary example of national self-determination, a grand alliance of countrymen fighting for a common cause. The reality is that, like most independence movements, the 1916-21 struggle reflected a temporary coalition from socialist firebrands to religious conservatives, feminists and farmers, workers and artists and even belatedly the merchant classes and parliamentarians.


When the war was over, attention turned to social and economic issues and they re-aligned accordingly. Indeed when Fianna Fáil supplanted CnG in the early years of the state, aside from the shadow of the gunman references, one commentator remarked that the “ass and cart had replaced the pony and trap” outside government buildings. A re-assertion of class and socio-economic factors had succeeded national struggle.




A similar pattern can be seen in post-apartheid South Africa; the peak of national struggle saw a broad church from indigenous African entrepreneurs to hard core communists allied under a common banner of independence and self-determination. And yet following the normalisation of politics, bread and butter issues resumed. The once all powerful ANC is under threat from new opponents, with the emerging “Democratic Alliance” party going head to head with it in last week’s local elections.


“For what died the sons of Roisin?” Maybe it was for very many different things.


Surely values, principles and ideas should provide a superior common cause than one based solely on place of birth? It is not enough to follow a flag; one must aspire for what follows freedom; to recognise that winning the peace is at least as important as winning the war.


Nationalism cannot become the sole preserve of an exclusionary, closed borders rhetoric. A positive force for national self-confidence and assertion of fraternity; a recognition that between the models of material individualism and xenophobic supremacy lies a third way.


Communitarian, egalitarian and continually evolving, true patriotism embraces diversity and recognises the nation as a state of mind and cultural connections as much as a physical entity bound by borders and barriers.


The progressive and open nationalism of the Catalans, the Scottish and indeed the Irish must be championed and distinguished from the narrow and often false flag patriotism of the new cheer leaders and charlatans of the 21st century.

The new divide is not left v right but open v closed societies.


Perhaps “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” – it is certainly frequently invoked as a flag of convenience and a rallying point for many other things.


If we look across the water at our brave Brexiteers – we saw the peculiar invocation of English national pride as a mechanism to unwittingly prise apart not only a United Europe but quite possibly the United Kingdom.


The rose tinted glasses of that halcyon, bygone age were actually chronically out of focus as England as a separate nation state has never really existed barring two brief periods in history. And that same empire of Boadicea and Queen Victoria was a product of Scottish invention, Welsh industry and Irish energies, as much as anything from the flag of St. George.

Across the bigger pond we see similar calling cries, “Make America Great Again” is now trumpeted from the grand old party, or at least will be for another few months.


What exactly is the golden age which is being summoned up by these cries?


Delegates attending the recent Republican conference were unable to answer this question when asked by CNN. Was it the days of racial segregation? The days when slavery was normal? The days of the cold war? The great depression?


Is it possible that today’s putative independence movements, these agents of nostalgia, are actually substitutes for a greater gap, which they cannot or will not articulate?


Technology, automation, globalisation and the shift in jobs overseas, these all combine to the greatest period of insecurity the west has ever seen. The middle class has greatly expanded but no longer enjoys security. When a good education and a solid work ethic may no longer be enough, this represents a failure of the entire Western dream. Home ownership, permanent employment, the financial means to start and raise a family – these staples are all under threat and no longer guaranteed, and with that, the centre begins to crumble. And if the centre cannot hold, then the falcon will seek a new falconer.


But the demagogues have no solutions. As President Obama so pithily described Mr. Trump “The Donald ain’t really a plans guy”. It is obvious, on the potential ascent of Trump Towers to the White House, there isn’t even a plan A, never mind plan B.


Meanwhile our Brexiteer friends patently had no plan. Winning was not expected – the campaign was satisfaction enough. But having dragged, not only a nation but a continent, over a cliff with it, the swash buckling buccaneers lost their appetite. Within a week of ballots being counted, there was barely a one left on stage.


What distinguishes the leaders of 16 and 21 and beyond is that they had a plan. They stuck with it, put it into practice and followed it through. Those that survived, rather than fleeing the stage in the immediate aftermath, not only led from the front during the ensuing wars of independence but went on to lead the new state.


Indeed a direct predecessor of the office I now hold, as Fianna Fáil TD for North Kildare, was Thomas Harris. As a teenager he walked from Maynooth to Dublin where he saw action in the GPO; after embedding himself in the rising, the war of independence and its aftermath he went on to serve in Dáil Eireann until 1957 as a Fianna Fáil TD.


He was typical of that generation and fundamentally understood that Independence is an enabler rather than an endgame and must include social and political change.


The 1916 leadership and those that followed planned meticulously and acted decisively. From the ballot box in 1918 and the convening of the first Dáil along with functioning Republican courts up and down the country. A broad program for government was enacted and an alternative native administration became accepted de facto based on competence, popular support and grasping the nettle as much as whether the harp or the crown marked its pillars outside.


Theirs was also an inclusive vision. “Conscious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government” and determined to overcome them. Of the 7 signatories to the proclamation, 2 were born outside of Ireland and 4 had lived substantially abroad already in their short lives. Of the surviving veterans, Aiken, McBride and DeValera are just three prominent examples who strode large on the world stage.


We first imagine Irish unity manifesting at the battle of Clontarf when the chieftains came together under Brian Ború. Although in reality Gaelic chieftains also allied with the high king’s opponents and he even had some Vikings in his own ranks. The island has since absorbed heavy plantations from England and Scotland in particular and in more recent years welcomed migrants from Eastern Europe and further afield. Our scholars tell us the early inhabitants of the island included Milesians, Fir Bolgs and Tuatha de Dannan. And that the Irish language has roots in Indo­-European, Sanskrit and the Celts of Gaul. Irish nationalism has never been about a narrow isolationism or a closed border policy. Rather we welcome diversity and recognise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Governments today have a responsibility to follow that lead. Real plans are required to confront the actual challenges, rather than obfuscating behind smokescreens of past imagined glories. Scapegoating minorities or creating divisions for the sake of mass market electoral support are no substitute for pragmatic, principled political planning. The leaders of 1916 and the revolutionary era which followed it were a broad church with a radical and egalitarian agenda into which all were invited.


My grandfather could never quite comprehend how a man named Cascarino could play on the Irish soccer team. Yet he was a devotee of a Spanish-American leader called De Valera. And I know he would have cheered whole heartedly as a Latvian born rower pulled closer to Irish gold during Rio 2016.


Good Luck to Team Ireland and all who sail on her.

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