Northern Irish politics have always been dominated by the competing agendas of the Catholic/Irish nationalists and the Protestant/Unionist communities. In practice, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are nationalist parties, though the former does not see its Union Jack-waving version of British identity as being “nationalist”.
But there are lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland as a place where super-heated nationalism is the order of the day. In the coming general election, for the first time in British history, it is nationalist parties that stand a good chance of making a clean sweep in the UK as a whole. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has turned into an English nationalist party whose main policy is seeking self-determination through leaving the EU. The SNP are likely to win almost all the parliamentary seats in Scotland. In Wales, 41 per cent of the electorate say they would opt for Welsh independence within the EU.
Not that the pursuit of self-determination is in any way wrong: it is a natural human instinct to seek control for good or ill of one’s own future. The Remainers have done themselves a lot of self-harm by seeing English nationalism as somehow illegitimate because is tainted by racism and imperialism and therefore less justifiable than Kurdish or Vietnamese nationalism. Liberals and left-wingers often see English nationalism as a diversion from real economic and social ills, propelled by nostalgia for the world of Kipling. This may or may not be so, but the history of nationalist movements shows that they are ignored at one’s peril and it is never enough to prove the falsity of nationalist promises of good things to come just over the horizon.
Remainers frequently sound baffled at the failure of intellectually convincing studies showing that Britain will be economically worse off outside the EU to have any impact on Leave supporters. This may be because the strongest Leave support is in places, from the de-industrialised Welsh Valleys to decayed English coastal towns, where people never saw EU membership doing them much good.
Remainers would have been less surprised if they had considered that nationalist movements have a track record of promising that everybody’s troubles will be resolved once national independence has been won. People have fought and died heroically for these dreams from Algeria to Zimbabwe and Baghdad to Manila, only to find that they have enabled a corrupt elite to clamber into power and exploit it to enrich themselves.
A reason this grim lesson is never learned is that nationalist leaders invariably claim that their nation is, or ought to be, different from others. Failure and betrayal in other less blessed countries is of no interest or relevance. Belief in national exceptionalism is particularly strong in England because of its largely successful history over the last two centuries: no world wars lost, no foreign occupations, no civil wars or revolutions. For many in England, particularly among the older and less educated generations, this is the natural order of things.
Failure to deliver on their promises seldom capsizes nationalist leaders because they double down on putting the blame on minorities, the media and foreign states. This was true of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in the past and is true of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey today. When the supposed threat to the national community fails to silence critics, they can be jailed or their media outlets taken over.
Brexit supporters are contemptuous of the idea that any of these grim examples may apply to them or their country since part of their mantra is that Britain is different, meaning superior, to other countries. But, though authoritarian populist nationalism comes in different flavours, the ways it seeks and exercises power, whether it is in the US, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India or Brazil, has strong parallels. A paradox of the Brexit project, is that in wanting to make the British more British it has made them less so by developing an English nationalism similar to stereotypes in other countries.
Remainers as well as Leavers often have an ingrained sense that such nationalist excesses “can’t happen here”. But in Northern Ireland, a place that used to be called “John Bull’s political slum”, such things have already happened over the last 10 years. Government may have been dysfunctional and self-serving but the DUP exploited Protestant/Unionist communal solidarity to excuse its failures.
Just how this happened is explained in fascinating detail in Sam McBride’s recently published Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite. Keep in mind that the DUP, the main political vehicle of this elite, was the party that kept the Conservatives in power after 2017 and the DUP’s own community still votes for it despite its calamitous record.
The scandal that was to destroy the power-sharing government at Stormont began with what was sold as a green energy Renewal Heat Initiative (RHI). It was introduced in 2012 by the current DUP leader Arlene Foster, then Northern Ireland’s enterprise minister. The benign intention was for businesses to switch from old-fashioned oil and gas heaters to boilers using recycled, environmentally friendly wood pellets. But the Stormont version of the legislation passed by Westminster mysteriously missed out the section on cost controls. As a result, Northern Ireland’s government was paying £1.60 for every £1 of fuel burned by those taking part in the scheme which may eventually cost £1.2bn.
Anybody who bought a boiler could automatically make money. Hotels opened all their windows and turned up their heating full blast to produce “the ash for cash”. Farmers heated empty barns and cowsheds and made more money out of the scheme than they could growing grain or raising life stock.
The abuse of the scheme was soon detected but it was four years before it was stopped. By then Arlene Foster had become first minister of Northern Ireland, refusing to step aside during investigations, leading Sinn Fein to withdraw from the power-sharing government that collapsed in 2017.
Events in Northern Ireland are usually discounted in the rest of the UK as being toxic but atypical. The DUP’s hyper-British nationalism used to seem a bizarre throwback to pre-1914 Britain that could be safely ignored, but over the last two years it was in and out of Downing Street and won praise from the ERG for being true to the old British values. Populist nationalism in the past has been typified by corrupt elites using national or communal self-interest to excuse their looting expeditions. As Britain enters an era of resurgent nationalism, Northern Ireland is an ominous pointer to what is to come.