Tuesday , May 28 2024

British citizenship confounds both Irish & Scottish nationalism

One of the main benefits of travel and meeting people from different places is to discover that ideas that are almost universally shared in one place are unknown in another. There is a tendency in the West to suppose that what we think everyone thinks. Left/Liberal values are held to be universal even if some of them have only developed recently even here. Take the concept of nationality. In Britain we almost all accept that nationality is fundamentally a matter of citizenship. All British citizens are equally British. It doesn’t matter where they were born or where their parents came from. When Mo Farrar runs or Moeen Ali bats and bowls they are cheered by British supporters and treated as Brits in just the same as if they could trace their ancestry back to the Roman Conquest.  We think that this is how everyone in the world is treated. But it isn’t.

Someone born in Belarus whose parents speak Polish may well be a citizen of Belarus, but is most likely to think of himself as Polish. Someone from a Russian speaking part of Estonia is likely to think of himself as Russian rather than Estonian. Many citizens of the Russian Federation, e.g. people from Chechnya would not be thought of by other citizens as Russians. They would be Chechens or from one of the other groups that make up that country. Nationality in much of Eastern Europe is defined primarily by language and ancestry. What this means is that when the Soviet Union broke up and Russian speaking people of Russian ancestry were left in all of the former Soviet Republics these people remained Russians. They did not become Armenian, Kazakh or Lithuanian.

These two concepts of nationality matter, because they have an effect on our thinking in the real world. If nationality is a matter of citizenship it is open to all. If it is a matter of ancestry, it is not something that can be changed. More importantly viewing nationality as a matter of ancestry implies that one country has a claim on the citizens of another.

The fundamental justification for Russian actions in Crimea is that it was protecting Russian nationals. These people were not, on the whole, Russian citizens, but their ancestors were Russians and they spoke Russian, so from the Russian point of view they were fellow nationals.

Russian irredentism depends not only on the idea of reclaiming land that was lost, i.e. land that used to be part of the Soviet Union or Russian Empire, but more importantly people who were lost, i.e. Russians.

There is no question that Crimea used to be part of the Russian Empire. It was conquered by Catherine the Great. It was then part of the Russian  SSSR [Soviet Socialist Republic] until 1954 when it was transferred to the Ukrainian SSSR. It has a mixed population today, but there is no question that the vast majority of these people speak Russian, think of themselves as Russian and have Russian ancestry.

Russia held an illegal vote on whether these Crimeans wanted to reunify with Russia. The vast majority said they did. No doubt there was pressure on them to vote in this way, but this does not really change things. There is little doubt that in a free vote, observed by Western observers and conforming to all democratic norms, they still would have voted to be Russian. This follows from the fact that most Crimeans think of themselves as Russian, for the simple reason that from their point of view they are Russian. Their language and ancestry trumps their citizenship.

But does one nation state have the right to take a part of another nation state in this way? Can Russia hold votes asking anywhere it pleases to secede from its present nation state and join Russia? The answer to this of course is no. Whatever the history, whoever lives there, Crimea is part of the sovereign nation state called Ukraine. Only with the consent of the Ukrainian Government can part of Ukraine leave Ukraine. Whatever their own view of their nationality, the majority of the people in Crimea were Ukrainian citizens. Even if 100% of the people of Crimea wanted to leave Ukraine and join Russia, it would still have required the consent of Ukraine.

It is important that nation states do not settle territorial disputes in the way that Russia did by annexing Crimea. The reason is that there are just too many such potential or actual disputes. The boundaries between nation states are often arbitrary and arose out of the accidents of history. People who identify with one nation state can be found living in another. Linguistic boundaries are not always neat. But this is not just a problem of faraway places. The issues involved in the different senses of nationality are right here, right now.

The majority of the people living in Northern Ireland are British citizens. Not only are they almost universally English speaking, the majority think of themselves as British. There are, of course, two main islands in the group that most geographers call the British Isles. One is called Great Britain and the other is called Ireland. But when people from Northern Ireland say they are British they are not confusing the island on which they live. Rather they are referring to their nationality. People from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are called British. We don’t use the words “United Kingdomer”. Likewise someone from the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar may say they are British without thinking that they are living on the island called Great Britain. For this reason although, Belfast is a city on the island of Ireland, it is a British city. It is this for the simple reason that it is part of the United Kingdom.

There is however some confusion about these issues. The Republic of Ireland, for instance, frequently wishes to conflate geography with nationality. They think that Northern Ireland is Irish and therefore hope in the fullness of time to unite the island of Ireland. But this is to conflate geography and nationality. The geographical status of Northern Ireland is irrelevant to its national status. Owing to this conflation the Republic of Ireland gives each person born on the island the right to be citizens of the Republic. But geography does not give you the right to claim a part of someone else’s nation state or its citizens. The fact that Haiti and the Dominican Republic share Hispaniola gives neither the right to hand out passports to the citizens of the other as a way of annexing by stealth. The Portuguese would think it very dubious if Spain said Lisbon was really Spanish because both were part of Iberia. Iberian or Hispaniolan nationalism would be no better than the Russian nationalism that annexed Crimea. But likewise they are also no better than the manoeuvres by which the Republic of Ireland has sought to reunify itself with a part of the UK.

It doesn’t matter whether Northern Ireland came into existence in a fair way or an unfair way. Let history debate this. It doesn’t matter if parts of Northern Ireland would like to be part of the Republic of Ireland. They are not. It doesn’t even matter if all of the citizens of Northern Ireland wanted to be part of the Republic. It would still in the end be a matter for UK sovereignty. Crimea was arbitrarily handed to Ukraine. Most Crimeans, without doubt, want to be part of Russia. It doesn’t matter that Crimea used to be part of Russia, or that all the people there speak Russian and think of themselves as Russian. None of these things matter. Russia cannot reunify itself with the territory of another nation state without the permission of that state.  

Since the fall of the Soviet Union there have been many territorial disputes, but in each case the right of the sovereign nation state has been upheld. Transnistria fought a war of secession against Moldova, but its independence is not recognised by hardly anyone else. Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia with Russian help, but nearly everyone else thinks they still belong to Georgia. There is a very good reason why next to no-one recognises such secession movements. If we did they would escalate. All over Eastern Europe there are local majorities who would prefer to be in a different nation state. In parts of Eastern Estonia there are Russian speaking majorities. Does Russia really have the right to hold a referendum asking if they want to leave?

Fundamentally the Republic of Ireland has no more right to reunify Ireland than Russia has the right to reunify Russia or Germany the right to reunify all the lands that once were German but are now in Poland. The UK may have decided to allow the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Irish affairs as a means of making peace, but this is a matter of diplomacy and calculation between two sovereign nation states.  It does not mean that the Republic of Ireland’s aims for reunification are just. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has as much validity as any other international border in Europe. Northern Ireland is as much a part of the UK as England, Wales or Scotland. We govern by consent and no doubt will always take into account the wishes of our citizens, but it is the UK that decides in the end just as it is Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia that decides in the end. The sovereignty of the nation state matters or else there is “mere anarchy loosed upon the world.”

What is most dubious about the Republic of Ireland’s attitude to Northern Ireland is that they are claiming the citizens of another nation state. The Republic think that all of the citizens of Northern Irish are Irish and that this gives them the right to a say over how they live. But this is no different from Russia claiming that that the people living in the Crimea or the Donbass are really Russians and therefore they have the right to protect them. It is likewise the grounds for Germany claiming Danzig or the Sudetenland or for Serbia arguing that where there are Serbians there is Serbia. It is essentially irredentist and destabilizing.

The reason that the IRA could continue their long fight to overrule the wishes of the British people in Northern Ireland is fundamentally because they knew they had the tacit backing of Dublin. If you succeed in your armed struggle we’ll back you up with the diplomacy. The whole conflict would have collapsed if the Republic of Ireland had not conflated geography with nationality. There would have been no conflict at all if the Republic of Ireland had never claimed Northern Ireland in the first place. Without diplomatic support for their aims the IRA’s armed struggle would have been seen by the IRA itself as hopeless, just as the hope of the irregular militias in the Donbass is sustained by Russian diplomacy and sympathy with their aims. The fundamental reason for past and potential conflict in Northern Ireland is that the Republic of Ireland has never accepted that the people in Northern Ireland are not its citizens. The Republic has no legitimate right to claim either them or where they live

Imagine if the British Government had never accepted the independence of the Irish Republic but sought “peacefully” to achieve reunification of the British Isles. Imagine if terrorists bombed Dublin and other cities in the Republic for decades in order to bring about this aim. Imagine if the Republic tired of this bombing decided to make peace by granting the British Government the right to pursue its aim of reuniting the British Isles by means of consent. But what sort of consent is it that furthers its aims by means of bombs? Sorry folks if the British Government had the aim of uniting the British Isles and did so on the basis of the possibility of a renewed terrorist campaign the Republic of Ireland would consider the British Government to be a hostile power illegitimately claiming its territory. The whole world would then condemn the British Prime Minister in the same way that they condemned Putin. But the Irish Taoiseach can aim to take a piece of UK territory and can use the implicit threat of armed struggle to further his aims. Moreover, he has the support of lots of his fellow Irish citizens who appear unable to see the connection between the aim of reunifying greater Russia, greater Serbia, or dare we say Großdeutschland, with the aim of establishing a greater, i.e., united,  Ireland.

What matters then is nationality defined by citizenship. Northern Ireland is full of British citizens and the territory is British. The same goes for Crimea being Ukrainian. It doesn’t matter what identity or language the people in these places have or speak. Nationality is not a matter of geography or history. It matters not at all that Crimea was once a part of Russia or even if some geographers define it as still being part of Russia.

The mistake on the part of the Russians is to think that it matters that people in Crimea have a Russian identity, i.e. an identity that differs from their citizenship.  But the people in Crimea are living on Ukrainian territory. They are Ukrainian whether they like it or not.

To suppose otherwise is to suppose that what matters is not citizenship but rather identity. The Russian Government thinks that the people in the Donbass and Crimea are really Russians because they speak Russian, are ethnically Russian and can trace their ancestry back to Russian people who settled in these lands. But this method of determining nationality is quite different from the one that decent people commonly use in the UK and the West in general. 

But this has some quite interesting consequences. If people in Crimea are Ukrainians no matter what they think, then so too are British citizens British no matter what they think. Ukrainians in Crimea cannot justify their secession on the grounds that they don’t feel themselves to be Ukrainians. But then neither can British citizens living in Northern Ireland use their feeling of being Irish to justify reunification with the Republic of Ireland. It doesn’t matter that you feel Irish just as it doesn’t matter that a Crimean feels Russian.

For the same reason British citizens in Scotland cannot use their feeling of being Scottish to justify secession from the United Kingdom. It is completely immaterial. These British citizens too are British no matter what they think. To argue that such people are not British but really Scottish is to depend on an identity sense of nationality rather than one based on citizenship. Civic nationalism depends on citizenship, but it collapses as soon as someone asserts their identity as being more important than their citizenship. Civic nationalism therefore is self-defeating.  

If what matters is citizenship, and this has to be what matters if we are to base nationality on something that is open to all, then it turns out that there are no grounds whatsoever for dividing what is the same. After all, in England there are British citizens, but so too in Scotland there are British citizens. We are all British citizens equally.

It matters not at all where you live. Geography does not come into it. What matters is citizenship that is shared by people with multiple origins and from everywhere. If you say that my identity trumps my citizenship, then you obviously go down the same route as the Russian concept of nationality that is based on language, ancestry and ethnicity. What’s more because your identity is not grounded in your citizenship you’ll find that it either has no ground at all or else it is grounded in your ancestry. But if this is the way that we are going to calculate nationality, then Mo Farrar will have to base his nationality on ancestry too. Unfortunately this will mean that he is not British, but rather Somalian.

From this it follows that because Scots have no basis for their claim for secession or Irish for reunification on anything other than an identity that is derived from ancestry, these claims can be ignored by anyone recognising the multi-ethnic, multi linguistic natures of our modern nation states. Neither the Republic of Ireland nor Scotland have any more right to change international boundaries than do the people of Crimea. The UK might grant such a right, but the UK can also withhold it in the exactly the same way that Ukraine has done.

In a modern state where we are all mixed, identity grounded in an ancestry dependent on ancient symbols and flags that are not everyone’s should not be the grounds for political decisions about how we are ruled. Identity is not a reason for secession. Once we realise that we are all citizens equally the reason for dividing us dissolves. Why should it matter that I live in Aberdeen, but you live in Belfast? Why should it matter that my ancestors came from this village and spoke this language, while yours came from another village and spoke differently. It doesn’t matter where we were born or where are parents came from. This is the real difference between those who believe that nationalism is the solution and those who think that nationalism is the problem.

There are no Scottish citizens. The reason for this is that there is no sovereign nation state called Scotland and therefore no Scottish passport. The grounds for asserting Scottish identity as more important than citizenship are the same grounds by which Crimeans think their Russian identity trumps their citizenship. But if we go down that route, then we are in trouble, both in terms of our attitude to other people in other nation states and the people in our own nation state. If identity is what matters, then Russia was right to protect its fellow Russians in Crimea and moreover Russia is right to say that people in Russia who lack Russian ancestry are not really Russians. This is where nationalism leads. 

I do not want nationality to amount to who my parents were or where I was born. But this is the grounds for Scottish claims to independence (I descend from a place that once was independent and it should be so again) or Irish claims to reunification (those people living in Northern Ireland are Irish, descending from a place that once was independent, so their territory should be mine). But none of these things matter. What matters is a shared nationality which depends only on a shared citizenship.  

There are two forms of nationalism. One is based on secession (Scottish, Catalonian, Crimean etc.), the other is based on unification or reunification (EU, Russian, Irish). Each seeks to destroy a nation state as it is. European nationalism is the process by which EU nationalists hope to remove national borders and create a new nation state called the European Union. Wishing to maintain your nation state within its current borders is, of course, neither to wish to unify nor to secede. It is therefore not in any meaningful sense of the word “nationalism”. To claim that this is nationalism is to claim that all the nation states of the world are nationalistic. This is to make the word “nationalist” trivial as it would then fail to distinguish between the nationalist and the non-nationalist. Obviously the desire to unify separate nation state into one should naturally not be described as internationalist. Internationalism is the cooperation of sovereign nation states. It is not the process by which they cease to exist in a new unity. This means, self-evidently that Brexit is the opposite of nationalism. It is no more nationalistic for the UK to maintain its existence as a nation state than it for the United States to do so. 

Conflict arises when the unifying or seceding forms of nationalism come up against a sovereign nation state that wishes to maintain its own borders. It is nationalism that is the source of the conflict, whether it is Russian nationalism seeking to annex Ukrainian territory with irregular forces or Irish nationalism seeking to annex British territory with irregular forces. The way to ease conflict and tension is for nationalists to cease focussing on identity, language and historical wrongs and instead to focus on the citizenship of sovereign nation states. It is this citizenship that gives us equal rights wherever we were born and wherever are parents came from. When we focus on citizenship rather than origin nation states can cooperate and nationalism ceases to have any foundation intellectual or otherwise.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2017/08/british-citizenship-confounds-both.html

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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