Thursday, 24 December 2015


An ideology that does not have all the answers.

I  was in Asia when I read the New York Times obituary of Benedict Anderson posted above.

I confess I had never read any of his books but was struck by the huge contemporary relevance of the quotations from him in this  fascinating obituary.

Many of the disturbances in the world today are driven by the phenomenon Anderson spent his life analysing.....nationalism.

For example,
  • it is nationalism that lies behind the tension between China and its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea.
  • It is English nationalism that lies behind the UK effort to detach itself from the EU, while still enjoying its benefits.
  • It is French nationalism that is fuelling the growth in support for the Front National.
  • And it is, of course, a particularly virulent form of  American nationalism that lies behind the anti Muslim, and anti Mexican, rhetoric of Donald Trump and friends. 

Nationalism frequently defines itself by the people it is AGAINST, rather than by the values it is FOR.

US Senator Cruz exemplified  this aspect of nationalism when ,in a recent speech, he called for "moral clarity" in US foreign policy, defining moral clarity as knowing how to identify America's enemies!

Unfortunately nationalism often has to pick on violent events to provided cohesion for the "imagined community" that is the "nation".

In Ireland, for example, we are embarking on a year of celebration of killings and death, in the Dublin rebellion of Dublin in Easter Week 1916,  and this rebellion, and the Proclamation that launched it, is being presented as the  "founding event" for the Irish nation. 

This is historically inaccurate.

The Irish national identity was built,  much earlier, by peaceful agitation, by people like Daniel O Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and others, much more than it was, by the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period. In fact O Connell's movement was arguably the first peaceful mass democratic movement in the world. 

But I fear that will not be not the message that will be conveyed to Irish school children during 2016. 

One interesting thing about nationalism is that is so un self critical.

It does not examine the assumptions it makes, whether about
+ who belongs to the nation,

+ who can opt out of the nation,
+ whether a nation is about territory or people and
+ whether the nation comes before the individual or vice versa.
Another thing to note is that nationalism is modern, and not an ancient, ideology.

It came about, as Benedict Anderson says, because  the other forces, that  previously sufficed to persuade people to cooperate such as a shared religious belief or a shared allegiance to a ruling dynasty, had lost their force . Nationalism has replaced Communism in Easter Europe since 1989.

Nationalism also uses simplifications of history, and mysticism, to  avoid asking difficult questions of itself.

This is evident in Japan, in its approach to China and to the legacy of its  war in China from 1936 to 1945.

Similar over simplifications and blindness to the other side are also present in the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms.

These conflicting interpretations of history make it difficult for people, whose objective interests may actually largely coincide, to cooperate fruitfully with one another.

That is why I believe there should be an open debate about what nationalism really means.

The 150 traditional "nations" of the world ,who met in Paris on our global climate,  are all  of them far too small to cope on their own with the  challenges of global interdependence, global waste, and global environmental degradation. Nationalism does not have an answer to that problem.

While nationalism will always be with us, it needs to accompanied by other, more global, foci for loyalty and common action.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


I recently read  “Irish Hunger and Migration......Myth, Memory and Memorialisation” which is edited by Patrick Fitzgerald, Christine Kinealy and Gerard Moran and published by  Irelands Great Hunger Institute,  in Quinnipiac University in Connecticut


A number of years ago I visited the Museum Exhibition on the Irish Famine in Quinnipiac University. 

Having grown up in Ireland, and read Cecil Woodham Smith’s seminal work on the Irish Famine, I was well aware of the drastic impact the Famine of the 1840’s had had on my own country, and how the strict application of free market economics had needlessly increased the appalling death toll when the potato crop, on which the majority of the Irish people survived, failed in 1846. 

But I was puzzled as to why a University in the United States, the home of free enterprise, would be devoting so much attention to an event, however appalling, that had occurred on another continent, 150 years previously, given all the other horrors that had occurred elsewhere in more recent times.

This book answers the questions that were on my mind back then
Beyond Ireland itself, the Irish Hunger, and the wave of immigration to the Americas that it caused, had a huge impact on the psyche, the demography, and the religious diversity of North America itself.

It provided much of manpower that fought the American Civil War.

Its memorialisation provides a shared source of identity for generations of Americans of Irish ancestry.

 Initially, the memories of the starvation in Ireland were suppressed by the Irish immigrants, whose immediate goal was to fit in as Americans, and indeed to maintain their sanity, by not dwelling too much the horrors they had left behind.

By the early 20th century the situation had changed, and Irish Americans were ready to talk about  the Famine. But they tended to do so in a simplified way, which highlighted British neglect , as proof of the case that Ireland should separate itself from Britain politically and economically.

For example, the Famine was remembered as if all its victims had been Irish Catholics, and as if Irish Protestants had escaped. As this book shows, that is simply false. The death rate in many Protestant areas of Ulster was just as great, but it suited neither the Unionist nor the Nationalist myth makers to emphasise that.

This reminds us that memorialisation of any historic event serves a different function in each succeeding generation. The way we commemorate an important event in the past, tells us what it is about the past, that we regard as important (and unimportant ) today, and thus how we see ourselves now and in the future. 

If, for example, we only commemorate the dead on one side of a conflict, that shows us that, for us, the conflict is not really over at all.

As our current needs change, so too will be the way we commemorate the past.

This point is brought out very well in one of the essays , by Catherine Shannon,  which describes  how a  coastal community in Massachusetts  commemorated the fatal shipwreck of 99 Galway and Clare emigrants fleeing famine at home in 1849. The way the local commemorations of this shipwreck changed, in tone and format over time, showed how the Irish community in that part of Massachusetts  made the transition from marginalisation and obscurity, to  noisy self assertion, and then ultimately to complete and contented integration.


This collection of essays also deals with the integration of Irish Famine immigrant in the French speaking community of Quebec. Much help was given to the starving Irish by French speaking Catholic orders of nuns. But eventually the Irish settled down  so well in Quebec  that a concern grew that Irish influence might displace the French in the hierarchy of the local Catholic church!

The vitally important role of the Quakers in famine relief in Ireland is described, as is how the Quakers drew on their Irish experience, in helping in famine relief in Finland in the 1850’s.


The part played by Irish immigrants in the defence of the Confederate States of America is described by David Gleeson. Here the Catholic and Protestant Irish made common cause. 

Forinstance, Randall McGavock of Nashville, a planter and proud of his Ulster Scots roots, was happy to emphasise his Irishness when seeking a command in the Confederate Army.

This was presumably because this would make it easier for him to recruit the post famine Irish immigrants to his command.

Randall, one of whose descendants is a good friend of mine, lost his life at the head of his Irish troops at the battle of Raymond in Mississippi in May 1862. I have seen the standard of McGavock’s regiment at my friend’s home in Franklin Tennessee. It features a harp on a green background
Another Irish supporter of the Confederacy was the Young Irelander, John Mitchell.

A Derry Presbyterian , Mitchell was an opponent of the constitutional politics of Daniel O Connell and  had taken part in the 1848 Rebellion in Ireland.  In America, however, he became a strong supporter of slavery. 

Writing in the Richmond Examiner, of which he was editor, he justified secession on the ground that the North has broken the compact establishing the United States by its attack on the “God given” institution of slavery. He also criticised the statement in the American declaration of independence that “all men were created equal”.


For me, the most interesting of all the essays in this book is the one by Gerard Moran on the forgotten Irish famine of 1879 to 1881.

This later famine was also due to potato blight, but its effect was confined to the western seaboard, and to some poorer inland counties like Monaghan and Longford, because it was only in those parts of Ireland that exclusive dependence on the potato for food had persisted, after the terrible experience of the 1840’s.

Still reliant on the potato, the population in these counties had increased  in the 1861 to 1881 period, whereas population had been allowed to fall in the rest of the country. This meant that when, in 1879 after a series of earlier poor harvests, blight struck, starvation was  immediate  in the counties still that were still unsustainably dependent on the potato.
This time , however , relief was provided with greater speed that it had been in the 1840’s.

The Lord Lieutenant’s wife, the Duchess of Marlborough, wrote a letter to the “Times” newspaper  in December 1879 drawing attention to the famine. Her letter sparked the formation of the Mansion House Relief Fund and also to a fund bearing her own name.

Gerard Moran alleges that the Land League “was a reluctant participant in relief operations because it diverted  its activities away from  its main functions as a political and agrarian organisation” and he  quotes Parnell as launching a blistering attack on the Mansion House Relief Committee and its chairman, Edmund Dwyer Gray, which led to Irish Americans contributing to the Land League’s political fund, rather than to the direct relief of starvation through the Mansion House Fund. 

This, perhaps, points up a deeper conflict of interest between the west and the east of Ireland.

In the west, the priority was simple survival, whereas in the east, the priority was wresting the ownership of the land from the landlords, and transferring it to the Irish farmers. 

This book enables the reader to understand the global impact of the Irish famine, and  it acts as an antidote to the misuse of famine memory in the service of contemporary identity politics.

Monday, 14 December 2015


The news that Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator, is beating Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in the latest polls in Iowa, increases the possibility that he will be the eventual Republican nominee.

Iowa will host the first contest of the Primary season. It will be followed by New Hampshire where Trump still leads the Republican field by a large margin.

Also according to the latest research, Cruz would be 2.5 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton is a General Election contest confined to the  two of them, and probably further behind if Donald Trump were to enter the race as a third party candidate. Trump would be even further behind Clinton in a two candidate race.

The  potential Republican Presidential candidate  most likely to beat Hillary Clinton is a head to head is Ben Carson, and that is by just 0.4 percentage points over a range of polls.

Senator Rubio of Florida has also been ahead of her in some polls.

Jeb Bush would lose to her but by a narrower margin than most of his Republican rivals, but the early primaries are not ones in which he can be expected to do well.

Cruz has a poor record of working with fellow Senators and some Republican leaders have suggested they might not even vote for him in November.

He gave a speech in the Heritage Foundation recently which sets out his foreign policy approach.

He wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and raised the spectre of “terrorists swimming across the Rio Grande”. He says that 40% of illegal immigrants in the US are visa overstays.

He says the US needs “moral clarity” in it foreign policy. “That starts with defining our enemy” he claims. 

This is a mistaken view. Moral clarity, I would argue, starts by defining one’s OWN values rather than by defining ones enemy. But defining one own values is much harder work, than is picking an enemy.

He argues for a foreign policy based on pursuit of America’s interests, and against making democracy promotion a central goal. He is thus critical of US support for regime change in Egypt, Libya and Syria. “We do not have a side in the Syrian Civil War” he states frankly.

In many ways Ted Cruz is appealing to the same core views as Donald Trump. Both are addressing anxieties among the American middle class that America’s standing in the world, both materially and psychologically, has diminished.  

It is something that is important to them, and goes to the heart of their identity. This sense of decline is accentuated by the fact that middle class incomes in the US have stagnated, while the top tier of society has gained.

Hillary Clinton would like to address this question, but many of her financial backers would lose if she did so. While she is well ahead in most Democratic contests, she could lose to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. Sanders is from the neighbouring state of Vermont. 

She also has to cope with the conclusion of the FBI investigation into her use of a private email for State department business.  Disclosure of classified information to outsiders would be a serious matter if it is found to have occurred, inadvertently or otherwise. Evidence of any subsequent attempt to cover up mistakes would also be a big problem.

One has the sense, at this stage, that the Presidential Election next November  will not settle things, and the United States will remain deeply divided, with at least  one house of the Congress continuing to resist the President of the day.