On the Threshold

Tom Nairn

  • Frameworks for the Future
    Northern Ireland Office, 37 pp, February 1995
  • Northern Ireland: The Choice by Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden
    Penguin, 256 pp, £6.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 14 023541 8

Hyndford Street is a brick-built working-class row looking like hundreds of others. Yet it is to this terrain that the almost unbearable nostalgia of Van Morrison’s music always returns. The outside world now mainly sees Protestant Belfast in terms of Ian Paisley Snr, a man who believes that bridges are built primarily to let the Devil in. But the bridges of Morrison’s music have connected Hyndford Street outwards to a strange semi-mystical realm of angels, children and (ultimately) the Calvinist Nirvana of clear water and silence – Hymns to the Silence was his last double album:

I wanna go out in the countryside
Oh, sit by the clear cool crystal
Water, get my spirit way back to the feeling
Deep in my soul, I wanna feel
Oh so close to the One, close to the One,
Close to the One, close to the One
And that’s why I keep on singin’ baby
My hymns to the silence ...

No one who knows the poems of Hugh MacDiarmid will miss the connection, a contemplative mystique of the absolute. However, MacDiarmid also tried to make himself the voice of a nation, and Morrison is nothing like that for Protestant Ulster people. He is just someone who lives in London, occasionally comes home to sell-out concerts, makes remarks about peace and brotherhood, and then goes away again. Some critics say what he is really harping back to is always that brief era just before the troubles began, when youngsters on both sides of Ulster’s religious divide discovered a musical liberation culture which could take them away from all that – from the old parochial grouses of their respective extended families.

Unlike most of them Morrison had the power to keep on flying. Yet in a sense Hyndford Street has haunted every second of his transcontinental parabola: small terraced houses still awaiting their impossible redemption, an Orangefield of all the epiphanies, beaches somewhere in County Down on which an ocean of transcendence beats.

Too long in exile
You can never go home again
Too long in exile
Too long not singing my song
Too long in exile
Too long like a rolling stone.

In Juris Podnieks’s great film Homeland we see a one-armed man returning from 47 years of American exile to a dark, ruined house in a field overgrown with weeds. He rests in it, overcome with recollections and gazing up through its shattered roof to the sky. ‘I still feel the light’ he says. Against all the odds his Latvia is still in existence, and still able to sing as he remembers from his childhood: a choir in the Baltic forest, a sort of heaven. So you can go home again: home to an imagined community with real foundations which have re-emerged from the wreckage of an empire. A few years ago he would have been forced (like many others) to ask for his ashes to be scattered with flowers somewhere in the sea outside the territorial limit. That was as near the ruined house as exiles were then allowed to go. Special Baltic cruises used to be organised for them. Mocked from both sides of the great imperial divide as nostalgic reactionaries, they crowded together and gazed over the rails at all they would ever see of their countries, a single black line on the horizon.

It is in this context, against this scale and pace of change, that the Northern Ireland peace process should be set. The whole world has changed its skin, not just Ulster. But as the world changes, so does nationalism. Too much emphasis has been placed on die latter as a phenomenon of blood and belonging. Nationalism is also a by-product of the world order itself, the system and general assumptions of the states congregated (rather than ordered) together in the United Nations Organisation. The Baltic émigrés pined for homelands of ancestral song. What brought the latter back to life again, however, was not their commemorations but an international earthquake, the shifting of the tectonic plates on which international relations had been based for half a century. Alter the Wall was demolished no other frontier would ever be the same. Five years later, the internal borders of Ireland have been drawn into the same mutation – a ‘peace process’ reflecting the true end of Cold War stability and empire.

Some verdicts on the process so far still reflect that stability, which was also stagnation. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (1994) is a good example. In a Postscript he foresees disaster for peace because no real movement in Ireland is possible at all: ‘The peace dreamed of, both by Church and State, is as always the peace of nationalist assumptions: the peace that is invariably ultimately identical with the triumph of nationalism and the coming of a united Ireland. The only road to that kind of peace in our time is through civil war ... Things are not better than they were before the ceasefire. They are worse.’

Roddy Doyle’s Ireland may (O’Brien admits) look different to outsiders, and be notable for an absence of ‘wild Serbs or furious Croats’. Be not deceived. Just beneath this secular and European veneer dwells the ancestral dark: ‘God Land is in there, deep down. It whispers to us in the watches of the night. Our ancestors, faithful to God and Mary, once held this whole island before the foreign heretic took it from us.’ And they will have it back again come what may. The long-awaited Framework Document for a new Northern Ireland states that die Republic intends renouncing its constitutional claim on the whole island, in order to encourage a settlement. ‘As part of the agreement ... the Irish Government will introduce and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution reflecting the principle of consent in Northern Ireland and demonstrably be such that no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland contrary to the will of a majority of its inhabitants is asserted.’ Don’t believe it, especially if you are a Unionist. Blood will out, in this case with the vestment of faith. Hence the Protestants must not lower their guard for a second. The only reply to nationalist assumptions is anti-nationalism, Britishness. But what appears as ‘anti’ on the local scale is of course itself a grander version of nationalism: the culture and assumptions of ‘the Brits’. What about their ancestral voices? O’Brien never says much about that, as if on his terrain only the ethnic and the sacral deserve to be taken seriously. The world stands both judged and condemned with reference to a changeless Irishness.

Thus the only road ‘in our time’ leads through civil war. But whose time? Verdicts like this have not been lacking since the calamities of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda, as well as of pre-1994 Ulster, Is there really no other nationalism than the ancestral-voice, blood-sacrifice sort? That philosophy perceives nothing but abscesses beneath the old skin, hopeless and incorrigible instincts which left to themselves will foster a world of predators and carrion. Such a world can never heal itself. Hence hope lies solely with larger-scale civilisation, whatever metropolitan tolerance is still available in North America, the United Kingdom or the new Europe. Humankind’s inherent variety – its eight thousand languages and hundreds of ethnies – is the equivalent of original sin, good for play but not politics, indulged where absolutely necessary but otherwise repressed for the spirit’s sake.

Like South Africa and Palestine, Northern Ireland may be turning into a testbed for these broad assumptions. Will ancestral voices never learn a different song? Are favourite places like Protestant Hyndford Street fated never to be seen through different eyes, or to attain to their own healing and permanence? Are they incapable of taking over the universal and, in time, lending it their own imprint?

How these questions are answered depends partly on how the causes of the post-’89 great change are understood. Was it descent into atavism, or ascent to democracy? The easiest reply is ‘both’, and in many cases both did obviously apply. Over most of Central and Eastern Europe peoples did recover their nations and discover democracy simultaneously. However, it does not follow that both were equally important. Still less that both will be of equivalent weight in (say) ten or twenty years’ time. The decisive issue is where the emphasis is put. In the short run nationality-politics may be salient; but over a longer period either democracy or its failure will fix their shape and meaning. One must distinguish between initial shock waves and the longer-term pressures for change which are inherent in the move towards a more global and single-system society. When an old order dismantles itself, Ernest Gellner has written of Eastern Europe, ‘nationalism emerges with all its vigour, but with few of its rivals.’ The rival forces of civil association, representative politics and local government were more severely repressed and take far more time to build up. In spite of which, he continues, ‘it remains to be seen whether irredentist nationalism, or massacres and population movements, or a diminution of ethnic conflict in the interest of a federal-cantonal co-operation, will predominate. Each of these elements is present, and no one knows which one will prevail.’

The same can be said of Ulster. ‘It seems clear that Ulster Protestants form an ethnic group and that the Northern Ireland conflict is an ethnic conflict,’ Steve Bruce concluded in The Edge of the Union (1993). ‘The depth of the ethnic divisions in Northern Ireland is such that it is almost impossible to think, and harder to act, in any other terms.’ Since the Sixties depth has become abyss. Twenty-five years of warfare have brought about a situation where three out of five Catholics but only one in fifty Protestants call themselves ‘Irish’. More astonishingly, die ideological variance is now reproduced in terms of social geography: ‘The 1991 census revealed a degree of residential segregation that surprised even many people in Northern Ireland. Half the population now lives in areas that are more than 90 per cent Protestant or 95 per cent Catholic.’ Ethnic self-cleansing: a war to unite the Irish nation has generated this cantonal reality of physical separation. The maintenance of central authority prevented large-scale ‘massacres and population movements’ like those of Bosnia, but could not stop a capillary movement in the same direction. These communities have decided to live apart. The major surgery of redrawn frontiers and expulsions was averted, but nothing could arrest a micro-surgery of mutual aversion, ‘peace walls’ and patchwork division.

The consequences have been outlined and commented on in another admirable analysis which appeared just before the Framework Document, Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden’s Northern Ireland: The Choice. The authors point out that any new agreement on governing Northern Ireland hinges on a choice between fully acknowledging this existing separation or trying to wish it away by administrative magic. Either the communities can be treated as two ethno-religious cantons sharing some common services, or an overarching ‘community’ can be imposed where inevitably the ideas of one or other actual community will end up prevailing. For the second category traditional ethnic criteria offer only two candidates: O’Brien’s Irish ghost-voice nationalism, bent on imposing a unification within which Protestants who resisted exile would end up as a dubious minority; or a smaller Protestant-dominated Northern state where the Catholics would end up similarly reviled, probably in the aftermath of a Bosnia-style war. In his States of Ireland, published 23 years ago, O’Brien provided a famous complete scenario for both ugly solutions. These are quoted almost in their entirety in the conclusion of Ancestral Voices.

Boyle and Hadden, however, argue that the first choice is preferable, and might now be realisable. The Downing Street Declaration and the stalemate of the peace process could bring about a novel sort of civic-national administration: a ‘Swiss’ governance of what would (in relation to the traditional ethno-national alternatives) effectively become a no man’s land. Unthinkable? A few years ago, were Mandela’s South Africa or the Israeli-PLO accord any more thinkable? They were as conceivable as an independent Latvia anguishing over what to do about its Russian minority.

The clear choice is between ‘policies based on the acceptance of separation and policies based on the objective of sharing’. Both ethno-nationalism and official government policy stand ‘committed to the objective of greater integration and sharing between members of the two communities’, goals endorsed by a thousand sermons, humane exhortations and committee reports. But, these authors ask, ‘would it not be more realistic to accept that the forces of communal separation are irresistible and that official policy should be altered accordingly to provide for a deliberate move towards developing structures for separation?’ Cantonal arrangements are still not literally possible everywhere in Ulster, they concede, but could be complemented by functional cooperation over the provision of services like education, health and welfare. Belgium and Switzerland both show how communal separation can be combined with a broadly confederal authority over such shared concerns. A ‘power-sharing’ centre regulates common affairs which cannot be left to the separate localities, guarantees community and individual rights, and represents the state in most external relations. The result would of course be a state-nation, a country defined by its institutions and laws rather than by its ethnos or imagined kinship. The only nationalism it can lay claim to will have a civic character, and political history must take the place of common descent or language. Time alone will turn such history into something like instinct, the mutuality of an inherited common culture. For Belgium the time has been short, only since 1830; for the Swiss, it has been long enough to create a powerful political entity out of lour nationalities and languages and 28 cantons.

I’m a dweller on the threshold
And I’m waiting at the door
And I’m standing in the darkness
I don’t want to wail no more ...
                              Beautiful Vision

The incomparable voice of Ulster Protestantism has no political significance for that community, because no nationalist culture of the usual sort lends it that sort of meaning. Protestant Unionism traditionally clung to Britain, and being British in that sense was like a cargo-cult. Among the treasures guaranteed was the common culture of the first Elizabeth and all her successors. If Shakespeare is yours by right, what use is Van Morrison? The national question has already been answered by incomparable endowment: the culture-laden Crown of a pre-eminently civilised state whose riches eclipse all meaner forms of ideological cement. Only lesser breeds need incantations of a community to come. It is the protagonists of a confined and ethnic cause who require idioms and songs to keep their collective spirits up, or the antics of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Those born to the Law can do without such heroes, and often despise them.

Unionism’s version of national self-determination was not a form of nationalism. The principles of the old international order acknowledged it none the less, as equivalent to a claim for independence or self-government. But such equivalence depended entirely on one thing: the willingness of the host-nation to reciprocate. Already low in a psychological sense, that willingness was formally withdrawn with the Downing Street Declaration, and the decisive phrase has reappeared in the Framework Document:

The British Government reaffirm that they will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, they reiterate that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.

Selfish strategic and economic interests define nations. In this instance, for example, they obviously separate Ulster from Scotland and Wales. The British Government appears to retain a strong ego-investment in the latter two and (as John Major and Douglas Hurd have repeatedly said) would feel ‘diminished’ if they turned away from England. Ulster Unionists are right to stress the importance of such feelings. They register what is really happening – a psychological withdrawal from Ireland prefiguring political and military disengagement. The Framework Document’s committee-speak envisages an alternative of extraordinary and convoluted length: a proportionally-elected Belfast parliament to take over the functions of the Northern Ireland Office, and an array of ‘cross-border’ initiatives and bodies to be sponsored equally (in a formal sense) by Dublin and Belfast. Its emphasis is significant too – much more on the cross-border authorities than on the new government in Belfast. Unionists have not misread this and are right to object.

On the other hand, only they can do anything about it. It is they who have (as the same song says) ‘crossed the burning ground ... and watched the great illusion drown’. Here, one side’s ‘betrayal’ is the other’s rational interest in limiting its Irish commitment. An O’Brienite perspective sees genuine (in the sense of ethnic) Ulster nationalism as following the burning ground. The view suggested by Northern Ireland: The Choice is that only an unusual form of civic nationalism can possibly be appropriate in Ulster. The Protestants are an unusual kind of nation. Their historical formation has turned them away from the standard version of nationality-politics found in Sinn Féin and the SDLP; but it may have equipped them quite well for post-standard nationality-politics: that is, for a more civic and institutional nationalism of the sort which the post-’89 longue durée will surely favour. In their actual evolution all countries have to make strengths out of weaknesses, or convert retardation into unexpected ways forward. It is true that in the past Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy and Islam have often provided a more cohesive foundation for ethno-linguistic nationalism than Protestantism, but the latter’s hour may still come in an age of generalised civic nationalism.

Sometimes the post-’89 transition has been read as implying the decline or moderation of nationalism as such. The normal implication is that the term really denotes wild Serbs and furious Croats, who may get meeker and milder as things improve. The heroic world of the ancestral dark will give way to 40-watt uniformity (out in the sticks, at any rate: the metropolitan standard remains at 100 watts throughout). However, this interpretation rests on an over-narrow understanding of the subject. Nationalism has always been about modernity as well as about ethnos and inheritance. It has fallen back in order to fall forward, or modernise. Accidents in which the ancestral dark is eternalised are failures, not successes (and the longer duration deals with thousand-year eternities). ‘Ethnos’ was what happened to be around when modernity struck, a once-off inheritance; but ‘modernisation’ itself is only another word for ‘for ever’ – the ongoing processes of industrialisation through which in time far greater human and cultural variety will certainly be produced.

Feel the angel of the present
In the mighty crystal fire
Lift me up and soothe my darkness
Let me travel even higher ...

The ‘angel of the present’ also tends to be short-sighted. She sees mainly encroaching uniformity, Fords and Burger Kings everywhere, a Bali only climatically different from Ballymurphy. In his essay (in Zones of Engagement) on Fukuyama’s The End of History Perry Anderson has analysed the 20th-century genealogy of ‘this collective vision of a stalled, exhausted world, dominated by recursive mechanisms of bureaucracy and ubiquitous circuits of commodities, relieved only by the extravagances of a phantasmic imaginary without limit, because without power’. Phenomena of transition, the ‘catching up’ inseparable from the formation of new plateaux of development, are projected endlessly forward into a vision of brain-dead sameness.

Were such sameness a real threat, I suppose wild Serbs and furious Croats might be preferable. Fortunately it is not, and ‘recursive mechanisms of bureaucracy’ or a democracy boringly identical in all climes offer few clues to the present, let alone to a future world of reborn city-states, regions restored to life and imploded metropolitan fragments – post-ethnic communities with limits and powers. Some perceive only the accidents attending this process, like spectators at the Ancien Régime’s prodigious firework displays who complained of their train of deaths and injuries. But even the accidents are not always unfortunate. The opportunity given by the Downing Street Declaration and the new Framework is indeed partly accidental: military stalemate, coinciding with a conjuncture of interests between a failing metropolis and its former colony, now enjoying a European florescence. Major’s shrivelled UK and Mary Robinson’s Ireland are unlikely progenitors of a new Ulster state, but I think Boyle and Hadden may be right: this accident may have come at the right time, and may predispose the Protestant community towards a European formula of their own.

A few weeks ago new leaders of Ulster Unionism like David Ervine, Chris McGimpsey and Ian Paisley Jr attended a Glasgow conference sponsored by Scotland on Sunday. Articulate, aggressive, yet in search of compromise, their collective voice sounded to me like that of a new civic nationalism which could in time easily be ranged beside those already functioning in Scotland and Wales. None wanted the old Stormont parliament back. More surprisingly, none wanted the old Unionism either: ideas of an impossible integration – the equivalent of Algérie française – had vanished along with the dependency cargo-cult. Instead, the British Union was depicted variously as an umbrella or an external guarantor of Northern Ireland’s autonomy: roles in the long run probably better played by Europe than by Britain. In sharp contrast, the Sinn Féin oratory on display at the same event did appear as unchanging in more or less O’Brien’s sense, its peace policy simply another version of assimilative nationalism.

Arriving at a better answer than that could be long and difficult. But even this may have some advantages. It has taken two years to get this far, and another two could elapse before the Framework’s proposals, or a version of them, are in place. But by then it could also be very difficult for the paramilitary forces to resume their activities on anything like the 1994 level. The wave of popular revulsion against atrocity-politics shows no sign of slackening on either side. There should also be a rising level of commitment to the new institutions – among the Protestants, obviously, but possibly also in that substantial part of the Catholic population which has always hedged its bets about staying within the UK, wanting to combine being Irish with the advantages in certain areas of being British. ‘On some matters,’ Boyle and Hadden write, ‘the two communities overlap to such an extent that it becomes questionable whether it is not better to say that there is a large community of opinion in the centre and two much smaller communities with sharply polarised views on the extremes.’ The Framework plans allow for this going on provided the new institutions are given a chance.

In two years’ time there could also be a very different government in London, more pro-European and more interested in serious constitutional reform. Both these factors will count in Ulster. The SDLP has consistently pleaded for a direct European part in the changes, but there can be no hope of that as long as the Conservative regime persists in its current creeping anti-Europeanism. On the wider constitutional front the Tories have succumbed to an obdurate negativism: intensified centralism everywhere but in Ulster, withering scorn for the tentative stirrings of English political regionalism. They perceive Ulster as unique, and justify the Framework ideas entirely in terms of provincial exceptionalism. The Labour Party has changed its attitude towards the Province in any case, but its evolution on these two grander issues might be even more important in supporting whatever formula finally emerges. Together, European regionalism and a long overdue political restructuring of the United Kingdom’s periphery could then support the consolidation of the new Ulster sub-state.

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (1983) contains one of Morrison’s daftest and most Sixtiesish lyrics, ‘Rave on John Donne’. It rambles pretentiously over theosophy and the Golden Dawn with occasional compliments to past ravers like Walt Whitman, Omar Khayyam and W.B. Yeats. Mercifully, the words give way at last to music of the heart, the nostalgic splendour which has made Morrison into a sui generis world figure. ‘Hyndford Street, Abetta Parade. Orangefield, St Donard’s Church’: this is the nation from before the world was made, all countries apprehended as emanations of the one from which the singer came. Nostalgia is not only for the past, it looks for horizons yet to see, for revelations in the order of the world. Such parochial universalism does far more credit to the spirit of Orangefield than ‘The Sash My Father Wore’. I like to think that a great non-ancestral voice may yet bury all those inherited curses in the watches of the night.