The concept of nationalism has been influencing domestic and international politics for centuries in various aspects. The predominant role of nationalism and the high interest in it has led to extensive literature on the topic and many scholars published works and studies on it in a number of other fields besides political sciences such as psychology and sociology. As is the case with many political concepts, there are a number of approaches to the topic of nationalism.
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The case study shortly discussed here will focus on nationalism in Northern Ireland. Nationalism had a major impact on Northern Irish politics and life during the second half of the twentieth century, a time when the rest of Western Europe did not have to face such problems. In a recent issue of The Big Issue journalist and Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan writes about how growing up in Belfast during the Troubles meant being used to an environment of “checkpoints, steel barriers, the army on the street” (Murnaghan, 2011). Only after moving to England to study did he realize that the situation in “Northern Ireland wasn’t normal, it was actually very strange.” (Murnaghan, 2011)
Nationalist tendencies continue to influence actions, behaviour and policies in many – if not all – parts of the world. A thorough understanding of nationalism, its sources, workings and possible consequences thus is crucial. In the following, this paper will first discuss the concept of nationalism. The distinction between different usages of the term will be highlighted and the variety of approaches be acknowledged. It will then go on to consider how nationalism influenced the developments in Ireland. In its last part, the essay will conclude with an answer to the essay question whether nationalism is an extremist and exclusivist political ideology that tends towards violence.
Modern nationalism was born out of anti-enlightenment thought. While ethnic groups have long existed, nations were an invention of a time when big empires gave place to the rise of these and the theory of national sovereignty arouse in Europe. In his very influential book Nationalism Elie Kedourie actually describes nationalism as just that: “a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century […that] divides humanity into separate and distinct nations and claims that such nations must constitute sovereign states.” (Kedourie, 1961: 9, 73) As is the case with every political concept, there are a number of approaches to the topic of nationalism. Arguably the most influential at the moment are the modernization approach, Marxist/neo-Marxist models and postmodernist ideas.
The Dictionary of International Relations names two usages of the term ‘nationalism’: as a characterization of an ideology and a description of a sentiment or attitude (Evans and Newnham, 1998: 346 ff.). The second usage of nationalism describes a “sentiment of loyalty towards the nation which is shared by the people.” (Evans and Newnham, 1998: 346) Religion and language may be possible examples for elements that provide such communality. The first aspect of nationalism can further be divided into two connotations: it could either be used as an ideology, “a political theory joined to a programme incorporating ultimately attainable goals” (O’Leary, 1981: 4), or political movements and actions motivated by said ideology.
Also acknowledged should be that nationalism is only one form of how ethnic groups may react; other options include – but aren’t limited to – assimilation or seeking a place within a political system with “distinctive ethnic rights and resources.” (O’Sullivan, 1986: 6) Furthermore, the manifestation of nationalist tendencies differs from the social status of said group. Whereas in an already existing nation-state a nationalist group would work towards maintaining strong boundaries, nationalist movements such as the Irish Republican Army work towards separation and independence (O’Sullivan, 1986: 5).
While in earlier times nationalist tendencies regularly ended in wars, the expression of radical nationalism in the Western world of today has become terrorist attacks, much as the IRA used to operate in Northern Ireland; the potential of gaining much public attention with bombings and similar attacks is high.
As mentioned before, nationalism has been the object of much scrutiny. To name only one of many critics of the notion of nationalism, Sir Lewis Namier wrote that “nationalism, from the outset, was the expression of social and political maladjustment and has since been at least as much the vehicle as the source of destructive passions” (Namier in Kenneth, 1960: 499). However, considering its nation-building process and its quest for self-determination, in its chapter on nationalism the Dictionary of International Relations describes nationalism as “not only the most potent force in world politics, it is also, judging by mere numbers, the most successful.” (Evans and Newnham, 1998: 349)
The case of Northern Ireland
To understand the current situation in Northern Ireland it is absolutely essential to consider the impact of historical events and developments on the Irish island. English invasion of Ireland can be dated back to as early as the twelfth century. Bringing the island both progress but also suppression, opposition to English occupancy can be traced back to these times as well. In the centuries to follow a number of wars strained the region and while most of Britain converted to the Church of England under the rule of Henry VIII, many Irish men and women remained Catholics. Up until the Troubles and possibly sometimes today the religious split of the Northern Irish society is partly to blame for the extent to which attacks were committed. This “long history of contact, conflict, and accommodation between the two major ethnic groups” (O’Sullivan, 1986: 2), here the English and Irish, is crucial to acknowledge because it lay the groundwork for nationalist feelings that would result in radicalism responsible for the violent clashes and attacks of a time that today is called the Troubles.
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Struggle for freedom from English intervention highly influenced developments on the island ever since the beginning of the last millennium. The long on-going struggle had also hardened the fronts on both sides; on the side of the Unionists that would prefer to stay loyal to the Crown and whose nationalist feelings are for a future as part of the United Kingdom, but also on the sides of the Republicans fighting for a separation from the UK and a subsequent reunion with the Republic of Ireland, their nationalist feelings being for a united Ireland.
In her book First World Nationalism, Katherine O’Sullivan See writes that “neo-nationalism movements among Ulster’s working class Protestants and the separatist efforts of the Irish Republican Army [â€¦] belie any claims that increasing modernization and secularization of the state and economy will moderate ethnic cleavages.” (O’Sullivan, 1986: 102) A little more than a decade after the publication of this book, however, the Belfast Good Friday Agreement was considered by many to have ended the Troubles. Although violence sporadically still shocks the nation, most paramilitary forces that had previously been involved in violence ceased armed fighting.
In answer to the essay question whether nationalism is an extremist and exclusivist political ideology that tends towards violence it seem of great importance to mention that under the term nationalism much can be understood. There is no such thing as one single ideology of nationalism; each nationalist group is characterized by certain historical backgrounds and other factors that have an influence on their goals and proceedings. In terms of being exclusivist, it can be said that even though the idea of nationalism is supposed to embrace the people of one nation, the whole concept of it is without a doubt aimed at achieving at least a certain degree of separation from another ethnic group, either building up boundaries or focusing on maintaining them. With reference to extremism, for an incident to make front page and come to the attention of many, it has to have reached a certain degree of tragedy. Much more rarely do meetings of peaceful nationalist groups get covered in the media.
However, it is undisputed that in a great number of cases in- and outside of Europe nationalist movements led to violence and loss of innocent lives. Nationalism seems to be an ideology more prone to the use of brute force than other political believes are. But as with every ideology, eventually the degree of commitment to and the exclusive belief in the ideals proposed by the ideology and the readiness to use violence of group members decide the outcome.
As to the case of Northern Ireland, the Stormont Assembly has been back in legislature for a couple of years know and although not all violence has ceased, the situation definitely has improved greatly compared to a couple of decades ago. Also, devolution processes in the United Kingdom are ongoing and the Assembly in Northern Ireland has a considerable amount of executive and legislative power today.
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