The Steep Price Of Nationalism

It has not been a good week for those who are convinced that "Europe" is a synonym for tolerance, modernity and sophisticated democratic habits. At the eastern end of the European Union, Austria welcomes into government a party whose leader--at the very, very least--has an unsavory past. At the Union's western end, the Northern Ireland peace process appears to be in deep crisis because the Irish Republican Army will not "decommission" any of its arsenals of weapons and bomb-making equipment.

The phenomena are linked--in everything but the reaction to them of the outside world. The other 14 member governments of the Union have determined that they will suspend normal bilateral business with the new coalition in Vienna. The United States has withdrawn its ambassador for urgent consultations. In the Irish case, unless I've missed something, there has not been a peep of official protest at the IRA's plain determination to hang on to its weapons even as members of its political wing--Sinn Fein--sit in the Northern Ireland executive. Forceful condemnation from Washington? A statement of outrage by German Foreign Secretary Joschka Fischer? Please...

Yet in many ways, it is the IRA's actions that are more disturbing. However distasteful its platform might be, Jorg Haider's Freedom Party won 26.9 percent of the vote in last year's Austrian election. Sinn Fein won just 17.5 percent of the vote for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and a mere 8 percent in the most recent elections in the Irish Republic. For nearly two years, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the British and Irish governments, and the political parties of Northern Ireland, have moved fitfully to find political structures that satisfy both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Yet the institutions that share power between the two communities in the North--and which link their fate to the Irish Republic--are in place. Still, the IRA refuses to accept a hallmark of civilized discourse: that the gun has no place in modern politics. In a magnificent editorial last week, The Irish Times, Dublin's leading newspaper, called this for what it is: "the fascist stance of running political and paramilitary options side by side."

Sinn Fein/IRA can nit-pick with the skill of an overpaid patent lawyer. A ceasefire has held for four years; the Good Friday Agreement's only deadline for decommissioning is in May. Yet the unionists--and the British government--have made concession after concession to nationalist demands, most recently in agreeing to reform the Northern Ireland police service root and branch. Sinn Fein/IRA knows very well that if it does not throw a bone to David Trimble, the unionist leader, he will be replaced by someone far less amenable to such compromise. The fact that the hard men refuse to take even a step toward decommissioning is powerful evidence that they cynically desire just such an outcome. They want to keep their guns, one is forced to conclude, because they want to use them again.

Haider and his party do not have guns. They do, however, demonstrate a xenophobia that makes nonsense of the EU's commitment to open borders and the free movement of its peoples. They are true nationalists. So, of course, is Sinn Fein/IRA. Sinn Fein (Gaelic for Ourselves Alone, which says it all) was the only Irish party to campaign--unsuccessfully--against the Union's Amsterdam Treaty in the 1998 referendum. The party is currently making a great song and dance about neutral Ireland's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative. For Sinn Fein/IRA, internationalism is limited to undying friendship with the Basque terrorists of ETA and the ability to raise funds from foolish romantics in the bars of Boston and the Bronx.

This, like the Freedom Party's ill-disguised hatred of immigration from the east, makes a mockery of modern Europe's more grandiose claims for itself. For significant blocs of voters, nationalism continues to exercise a powerful appeal. It is perfectly true that only in Austria have such sentiments found their way into government, and true, too, that the French National Front is in crisis and that German nationalism, as a political force, has no heft. But relatively small groups of nationalists can do a country and its prospects much harm.

This is true, beyond anywhere else, of Ireland--north and south. Northern Ireland desperately needs the foreign investment that will arrive only if firms are convinced that it is a peaceful place. Since 1973, the Irish Republic has remade its image, casting off its obsession with Britain (and the United States) and becoming, instead, the most proudly "European" country of all. All this would be threatened by a return to violence in the North--not just by the possible actions of Protestant paramilitaries in the republic but by a revival of the gangsterism with which the hard men refill their coffers. IRA sympathizers in the United States and elsewhere have always been delusional about this. It is not Britain, the old enemy, that would be threatened by any new violence with its roots in Ireland; Britain is just too big for the occasional bomb to be more than a tragic irritant. It is the republic, the Gaelic Tiger, one of the true successes of the modern world, that has most to lose if the gun makes it return to Ireland.

That is the lesson, the price of nationalism; it consumes its own. Austria stands vilified for shutting its collective eye to the horrors of its past; Ireland risks much for the sake of those who will not extend the hand of peace to their neighbors. "A terrible beauty," William Butler Yeats called the IRA's uprising at Easter 1916, that orgiastic moment of Irish nationalism. Terrible, yes. But nationalism is rarely beautiful.

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