Violence and the Nation-Building Process-

Some Reflections on Irish National Identity:

a paper read at the AGM of the Ulster Quaker Peace Committee on 13/2/88 by Roy H W Johnston.

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to


In this paper I want to address the question of what constitutes "national identity" in the European tradition, and to examine how the idea of "democracy" has evolved within the framework of the national State. In particular I want to focus on how this concept has expressed itself in the context of the "British Isles", and in particular in Ireland.

In the process I want to touch on the role of violence in the formation and maintenance of the State, and to examine the possibility of non- violent alternatives.

I also want to develop the idea of the democratic nation-state as a "community of communities", and to suggest how this concept can be adapted to the Irish context. In particular I want to try to relate it to the question of the the national identity of those citizens who identify with the various communities labelled Protestant.

Finally I suggest some possible steps whereby Friends in Ireland might help contribute to the peaceful resolution of the problem of Irish national identity.

In what follows I am conscious that I am making many historical oversimplifications and generalisations, in what is a highly complex subject-area. Many scholars may question my right to do so, not being a historian. I would respond by urging the historical specialists to consider addressing the questions I suggest, with a view to providing fuel for those such as myself who seek peaceful solutions to contemporary political problems.

National Identity

The State is an invention of the earliest agriculturalists, who needed some system to ensure that at least a proportion of the fruits of the land was avalable to be consumed by those who planted the seed. There was an implicit social contract between a feudal aristocracy and a peasant society that the former would organise the defence of the latter from marauding nomads, in return for a contribution from the surplus produced. This contract often however assumed the form of a "protection racket", with the violence directed more towards ensuring that contributions were paid than against external enemies.

With population increase (consequent on success and prosperity) it became necessary for some to go and seek land elsewhere. It could be argued that the first recorded example of this process is the departure of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, the then centre of urban civilisation. Abraham took on the leadership of a nomad tribe which set out to seek the Promised Land, fortified by the ideology of being a Chosen People. The mostly violent history of this process of nation-building is the raw material of most of the Old Testament.

Thus it could be said that the "colonial" approach to nation-building is rooted in the Old Testament, and is typified by the process of somehow selecting, or encouraging the self-selection of, the more adventurous people in society and arranging for them to go out and find new lands for themselves. Under primogeniture, this usually meant the younger sons.

A version of this process we can label the "imperial" approach, as practiced successfully by the Romans. An energetic people extends its hegemony over other peoples, offering protection from barbarian raids in return for tribute, and rights of citizenship for their elites. Much of Western Europe was influenced by this process in ancient times, with the result that most European mediaeval States evolved on the Roman model, with languages derived from Latin, with Latin itself remaining the lingua franca of the intellectual elite.

It can be argued that the English were the first to evolve a cohesive nationhood in the modern sense, on the fringe of the European mediaeval empires. Starting as an addition to a Norman empire based in what is now France, within a relatively short time England became a cohesive independent nation with a unified market and distinctive language (a creole of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon). The building of the English nation is chronicled, with the necessary element of mythology, in the historical plays of Shakespear.

An important aspect of the English nation-building process was the imposition of the Protestant reformation by Henry VIII as the ideologial keystone of the consolidated Tudor State. Thus the centralist, top-down system of the Roman Church was taken over as an ideological weapon in support of the English nation-state.

Another important aspect of the English nation-building process was the positive attitude to technological knowhow, which laid the basis for the subsequent industrial revolution. This may in part be attributed to Norman influence, and it is important to note that in the history of technology in Ireland this same positive influence can be traced.

The Irish were never under Roman rule; they achieved some degree of national cohesion in defending themselves from the Vikings; it has been argued that Brian Boru was the first of the Irish High Kings to aspire Irish national statehood on the Roman model. After the Norman Invasion the first wave of Norman aristocracy was creatively absorbed into an already nascent centralist political culture. In late mediaeval times there was the makings of a cohesive nation-state in the modern sense; this of course the English saw as a threat, especially in the context of the struggle of the English to assert their independence from the European feudal imperial States, particularly Spain.

In the time of Shakespear and Elizabeth I, the English attitude to Ireland was dominated by the alliance of the emerging Irish nation-state with Spain. The dread of Catholicism which is embedded in the English psyche goes back to this period, when the survival of the newly emerging English nation was dependent on the defeat of Spanish imperial aspirations. Protestantism, in the form it took under the Tudor monarchies, became in effect part of the English national ideology.

The first plantations in Ireland, which took place not only in Ulster but also in Cork, Laois and Offaly, were consciously organised by the English State on the same lines as in the American colonies, in order to set up a loyal colonial population on land from which the native populations had been dispossessed. In both cases the dispossessed populations were regarded as sub-human and the policy if implemented today would be described as genocidal.

This colonial approach, of which the roots may be traced to the Old Testament, was subsequently developed further in America and repeated in Australia, where it resulted in the virtual extermination of the aboriginal populations, as a result of the width of the technological and cultural gap. Access to the colonial philosophy of the Old Testament was undoubtedly helped by the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the European vernaculars.

In Ireland the natives were not easily exterminated; after all they had a literate and cultured ruling elite; they was not "aboriginals" in the sense met with in Australia; they had a complex culture with strong European links, and had absorbed the positive Norman attitude to technology. There was the makings of a nation-state in the mode which subsequently was to become the European norm.

In other emerging European nation-states (eg Germany, Scandinavia) the translation of the Bible into the vernacular had a unifying effect on the language and constituted a stimulus to literacy and technical competence. When the Bible was translated into Irish in the 1620s by Bedell, it might be said that here was a unifying force for Irish nationality on the European pattern. Yet this did not take place. The Reformation in Ireland was seen from below as an ideological weapon of English rule, expressed in a centralist alien State power. Rome on the other hand was remote, supportive and non-threatening. Bedell's Irish Bible never became the national unifying force for the Irish to the extent that King James Bible was for the English, or the 1588 William Morgan Bible for the Welsh. The aboriginal, ethnic Irish remained Roman Catholic, though it could be argued that their Irishness was primarily linguistic, cultural and economic, and that their Catholicism was not fundamental, more a political convenience or an overlay.

There had been an embryonic democratic ingredient in the Irish nation-building process, clan chiefhood being elective, though from an aristocratic panel. Effective democracy on universal suffrage, with a literate and educated population that is well-informed and understands what is going on, is a modern invention, still in its infancy.

The English nation-building process began to develop a democratic component in the Cromwell period (the names of Lilburne and Winstanley spring to mind) though the ideologies expressed in the democratic process were couched in the language of the various reformed religious sects. The Quakers may perhaps be regarded as a sort of "anarchist fringe" of this process, precursors of the more advanced secular democracy of the 18th century. The rejection of the use of weapons was a direct attack on the very basis of the State as organised violence; this was a precursor of the most advanced 19th and 20th century political thinking.

Cromwell's political thinking in the 1640s was primarily English nationalist rather than religious, though he used religious language. Practically his first act was to fight a war against the Dutch, fellow-Protestants, who were sheltering the exiled King. Ireland was low on his agenda. When he finally got round to it, in 1649, it was under the stimulus of the need to get land with which to pay his army, and this he did at the expense of the native Irish, who otherwise might have been on his side in the putting down of the old English Catholic Royalists who garrisoned Drogheda and Wexford. This must count as one of the great missed opportunities for the developing of a peaceful alliance between English democracy and the emerging Irish nationhood.

It is of interest to note that the early Irish Quakers were part of this process, and that William Penn attempted to put down roots in Cork before going to America. In Cork he encountered the problem of colonial land ownership in the presence of dispossessed aboriginals, but perhaps he decided that so much harm had been done that the situation was beyond recovery and a fresh start was necessary(1). This fresh start subsequently emerged in the form of the Pennsylvania Constitution, with its respect for the rights of the aboriginal Americans.


The democratic nation-state in the modern sense can be said to have originated with the American and French Revolutions. An essential feature was the decoupling of Church from State, and the establishment of equal rights for citizens regardless of religion. The American Federal system brought democracy closer to the colonial people, but disregarded the rights of the Red Indians, Penn's prototype constitution by then being defunct. The French system however was centralist and immediately took on an imperial role, for example with regard to the Bretons, then (like Ireland) a peripheral emerging nation with aspirations to independent statehood. This laid the basis for the subsequent imperialist phase under Napoleon.

Irish aspirations to democratic nation-statehood reached a peak during this period. They expressed themselves initially in the 1793 Petition to George III for reform of the Dublin Parliament, enfranchising Catholics. A unified Irish identity, embracing (in the words of Wolfe Tone) "Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter" was then a real possibility. The leadership of the reform movement was in the hands of Protestant radicals, who were confident that they would retain the lead in the desired democratic nation-state. Once Catholics were enfranchised, it was expected that they would vote in accordance with their economic class interests, rather than according to religion.

We never had the chance to try this democratic experiment. William Pitt, the then English Prime Minister, looking after English strategic interests, and fearing the threat of an independent Irish republic allied to France, unleashed a ferocious repression and successfully goaded the Irish to a doomed uprising in 1798. He also, with strategic foresight, put English money into founding Maynooth College, with emigre French priests, so as to ensure that Irish Catholicism would develop as an anti-democratic force and pillar of English rule.

The 1798 rising was suppressed and the Act of Union was imposed, so that all during the 19th century no independent decisions could be made in Ireland to defend Irish national interest against natural disasters such as the Famine of 1846-48. Creditable efforts were made by the Royal Dublin Society in support of industrial and agricultural development, under the leadership of progressive Protestant landlords, but this was no substitute for a national State when it came to the question of disaster managment. In all other European States there was failure of the potato-crop; only in Ireland was there a famine.

Repeated attempts were made to assert nationhood, always with a strong Protestant component in the leadership: one thinks of Thomas Davis, John Mitchell, William Smith O'Brien, Isaac Butt, Joe Biggar and others. The most effective was that led by Parnell, and it was non-violent, as had been the 1793 Constitutional Reform movement of Wolfe Tone. It had substantial support from Ulster, although the re-emergence of the Orange influence, with the Brunswick Clubs, dates from this period, as a means of motivating Protestants against Home Rule. This process was actively supported by the English Tories when out of office, as a means of putting pressure on the Liberal Government.

Democratic advances in Europe began to make possible nation-building by a bloodless process. The secession of Norway from Sweden, which took place in 1905, was an example of this phenomenon, which was a natural development in the framework of European constitutional democracy.

Thus when Irish Home Rule again came on the agenda before 1914, it was in the mainstream of advanced European democratic thinking, and a substantial proportion of the Northern Protestants accepted it, including my own family. The names of Ernest Blythe and Bulmer Hobson also spring to mind. Sinn Fein, as founded in 1906 by Arthur Griffith, was primarily a movement to promote Irish manufactures. It ran exhibitions, in which Northern manufacturers participated. (For example, one of the highlights of the 1911 Sinn Fein exhibition, in the Dublin Rotunda, was an aeroplane, the first in Ireland, produced by Belfastman Harry Ferguson, who subsequently revolutionised tractor design(2)).

This peaceful, democratic nation-building process was disrupted by the arming of the Orangemen, using guns brought into Larne (from Germany, in 1914!), by a group of English Tories with a view to subverting by armed conspiracy the elected Liberal Government. The consequences of this action were outlined by my late father Joe Johnston in his 1914 pamphlet "Civil War in Ulster"(3). The present violence in Ireland is rooted in this 1914 action, with continuity of experience and organisation. The 1914 Ulster Volunteers became the B-Specials, who ultimately became the UDR. The Larne gun-running provided the pattern and rationale for the subsequent Howth gun-running and the 1916 Rising, from which the Provisionals claim direct line of descent.

The latter was carried out by a group of national-minded Protestants (Erskine Childers, Mary Spring-Rice, Cruise O'Brien and others). I have heard it argued that perhaps the hand of the British "dirty tricks department" was behind this as well, though this point of view is unpopular with those who adhere to the romantic view of 1916. (There is a parallel in the way the late Lord Mountbatten encouraged the partition of India, arranging for the arming of both sides of a fomented inter-communal dispute. Had Ghandi had his way this would have been resolved peacefully within a united federal India.)

Had neither gun-running taken place, and had the Home Rule process been allowed to take its natural course, there would perhaps have evolved a united independent nation-state out of a process of opposition to conscription and withdrawal from the 1914-1918 war, an inter-imperial struggle in which Ireland as an emerging nation had no interest.

Nations and Communities

There are as yet few good models of the nation-state as a community of communities. However there are some: the Swiss seem to manage it, with their cantonal system uniting peoples speaking 4 languages and professing many religions into a single visibly successful political entity.

Finland manages to exist as a nation-state with an aboriginal community (the Lapps) and an ex-colonial community (the Swedes) co-existing peacefully with the Finns. There are organised cultural links between the Finnish Swedes and Sweden; these do not give rise to political tension.

At the other extreme is Israel, where the Old Testament approach has been tried on its home ground in modern times, and found wanting. The Amalekites may be smitten, but like the Croppies they refuse to lie down.

It can be argued that the problem of finding a political framework in which a planted colonial and a dispossessed native or aboriginal population can co-exist is intrinsically impossible, and that the analogous problems of Israel and Ireland are therefore insoluble.

I dispute this, on the grounds that in modern times the proportion of wealth directly due to working the land is now quite minor: possibly 10% or less. Most wealth is due to value added through knowhow, and this is not land-related. It depends primarily on the mastery of scientific technology.

It should therefore be possible, once the political consciousness is there, for a political entity to be set up (for example) in Palestine, giving equal rights to Jews, Arabs and Christians as citizens, in which all would be better off, engaged co-operatively in a complex productive process, once they do not have to devote energy to defence or repression.

Such a political entity should not involve any hegemony of one group over another, expressed in priority access to jobs or services. The existence of such priority rights by one community over another was at the root of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 60s.

To attack priority rights implied attempting to reform the political structure. Those who had the priority rights in the unreformed structure felt threatened, as no doubt Israelis would if subsumed in a reformed unified Palestine. To establish a just political entity in a post-colonial situation is therefore fraught with great difficulty.

The United Kingdom is not a good model for such a political entity. There is in the UK an implicit Roman Empire style of South-East English or "Anglian" hegemony over the other submerged nationalities. These include Scotland and Wales to begin with; possibly Cornwall, Yorkshire and other entities would begin to emerge if Anglian hegemony were to crumble.

The English have invented the label "British" to cover up their hegemony. The Scottish and the Welsh don't identify with this label; the only people who parade themselves as British are those who feel themselves as planters in a colonial situation (whence the idea of the "Ulster British"). The ordinary people of England think of themselves as English, not British. The label British is used for things like the Army and the Empire. Those Irish Protestants who see themselves as "Ulster British" I suggest have an identity crisis.

This I must say is not helped by the Dublin Government, which is seen by Northern Protestants as centralist, alien and threatening. It has taken on this role, I suggest, largely because it has inherited, unreformed, all the features and ideologies of the centralist system set up under British rule, in the Roman imperial tradition.

Indeed, British-imposed categories are now so deeply rooted in the Dublin psyche that in the media, and in the political vocabulary, the term "unionist" is used in situations where "Protestant" is meant. Senator John Robb recently had to write to the Irish Times objecting to a journalist's description of him as a "unionist". The idea that Irish Protestants, once rescued from the sterility of unionist politics, have a positive future in the building of a pluralist Irish nation, has been lost to the political currency. It must be revived.

Dublin is seen as an imperial threat to Belfast, just as London is seen as an imperial threat to both Belfast and Dublin. We are dealing with an unreformed top-down imperial system, modelled on the ancient Roman. It should however be understood by Northern Protestants that Dublin looks equally hostile when viewed from Cork or Galway; like London or Rome it is a remote decision-centre whose ways are mysterious.

Perhaps it may be possible to develop a demand for cantonal politics on the Swiss model, adapted to the Irish context, and to build up a sense of confederation or networking in the mutual interest, thus developing a pluralist Irish nation from the bottom up.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement is largely rejected by the Protestant community because it appears to constitute an arrangement between two top-down centralist States jointly to rule them, without political feedback. I say "appears to", because the actual Dublin input is negligible, a sham. An alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be some transitional arrangement allowing the development of cantonal politics, with option to confederate on an all-Ireland basis with the blessing of the London government, provided the all-Ireland system was itself cantonal. I would envisage an Irish political entity consisting of about 16 cantons, of which possibly three or four might cover an area consisting of the 9 counties of historic Ulster.

If a politics of European Confederation emerges in the EC, and if this reflects itself into a politics of dismemberment of Britain, and the larger post-imperial States, into several manageable-sized nation-states, each itself composed of several cantonal units, then it would make sense for the Irish to make common cause with the neighbouring island in European confederal politics, provided there were no question of accepting remote top-down rule from London. Unionism in the old sense would no longer be relevant. This vision of the development of European democratic politics in the 21st century will not happen automatically; it needs to be made to happen.

I suggest that Friends, given that they have a non-violent political tradition going back over 3 centuries, are well placed to initiate this process, with Ireland as pilot-project.

An Irish pilot model, if successful, may find applications elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East where at present national and ethnic conflicts are leading to violence (Palestine, the Basques, the Kurds etc)

Protestant National Identity

I suggest that in the cantonal system all people would have several levels of loyalty: first to the consensus politics of one's own canton, second to the network of cantons closest to hand (namely Ireland), third to the all-European network and finally to the emerging global network of which the UN is the embryonic embodiment.

In this system of loyalties there would be no place for loyalty to any imperial hegemonistic system, embodied in a centralist bureaucratic State (whether Dublin or London), modelled in the image of the Roman Empire.

Irish Catholic rejection of top-down London rule is at heart the same political instinct as Irish Protestant rejection of top-down Rome rule. Both rejections are equally valid. Irish Catholic and Protestant political aspirations can converge in a common rejection of Rome, London and Dublin, insofar as both represent the Roman imperial tradition.

Even in the relatively primitive post-colonial democratic structures of the Rpublic, it has emerged that Irish Catholics are perfectly capable of evolving a healthy independence of contemporary Roman Catholic doctrinal interference with politics, once they see the need for it. The substantial (over 30%) vote in favour of removing the constitutional ban on divorce was a very positive signal in this direction. Identification with a remote source of power is a symptom of local political impotence. Strengthen regional and local democracy, and the need to look to a remote power-centre will fade away.

What Irish Quakers can do

In the short run it is perhaps possible to take up opportunities as they arise for strengthening the local and regional democratic network.

An important area is education policy. Here the issues differ basically in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.

In Northern Ireland the State system is secular nominally, but Protestant by default, as the Catholics have opted out. The Catholic system sees itself as the guardian of Irish national cultural tradition, in terms of the teaching of Irish history and the Irish language. In the State system it is policy to deprive Protestants of access to Irish history and culture.

Would it be feasible for Friends to work at community and regional level for an integrated public (ie not fee-paying elitist) second-level education system, which taught Irish history sympathetically, giving appropriate emphasis to the Protestant contribution to Irish culture, and which taught the Irish language as a common heritage, emphasising the linguistic link with Scotland of the early planters?

In the Republic the State system is secular and technical but is seen as a "B-stream" by the upwardly-mobile. The Protestant system is fee-paying and elitist, and is supported by many Catholics who aspire to elite status. The Catholic system is mostly non fee-paying, but puts emphasis on verbal rather than parctical skills. Both Protestant and Catholic systems could be rendered obsolete and by-passed if the State secular technical system were to become the preferred system. Would it be feasible for Friends to work at community and regional level to bring this about? Friends could, perhaps, become the "fashion-leaders" here, and incidentally help to re-develop their innovative industrial skills, in which a century ago they excelled.

Transcending the UK and the Republic is European regional development politics, as it is emerging in the Community framework, with the Hume Report receiving unanimous support in Strasbourg. Special consideration is on the agenda for the "less-favoured regions" (eg in the STRIDE programme). The key to regional development is the Regional Technical College.

Would it be feasible for Friends to work for a consensus politics of cross-border regional development, based on networks of Regional Technical Colleges, and border-crossing Regional Development Agencies? I am thinking in terms of regional networks like Derry-Omagh-Sligo-Letterkenny, or Dungannon-Armagh-Dundalk-Monaghan(4).

The Hume Report suggests that political frameworks for such initiatives are feasible within the European Community, without reference to London or Dublin. Is this perhaps a further opportunity for Friends in Ireland to pilot a peaceful political initiative? I suggest that there is here the possibility of far-reaching global consequences, in the sense of the undermining of the power of the centralist State as an embodiment of organised violence, and substituting a system of local and regional consensus politics, capable of networking in the mutual interest.


The problem of violence is intrinsic to the nature of the State. The problem for those seeking political reform is how to react when support for the reform is developed, to the extent that the State itself (as in the 1790s), or agressive conservative elements on the fringe of the State (as in 1914, or indeed in 1969), initiate violence. The solution to this problem lies in the development of non-violent action with mass support, in the tradition of Ghandi. The Civil Rights movement was beginning to move in this direction in the period 1968-72, but was frustrated by the fact that the armed Orange counter-attack of August 1969 triggered the process that led to the Provisionals. The problem is still with us.


1. William Penn's Irish Journal, edited by Isabel Grubb (Longmans, 1952) has an introduction by Henry J Cadbury. I quote from the editor's outline of the historical backkground: "..(Penn) was probably quite unaware of the high state of civilisation which had been destroyed by the coming of the English. He learned later to be more tolerant of the Catholics than he was at the time. After all a young man of 25 could not be expected to have as mature a judgment as he had when he founded Pennsylvania. Possibly one effect of this visit (ie his visit to Ireland RJ) as to make him realise later that his action in these matters had not been for the best, and this led him to give toleration to the Catholics in Pennsylvanis and to treat with the Indians......Penn's work in Ireland from October 1669 to August 1670 undoubtedly produced seeds which bore fruit in his later life in America."

2. I picked this up from Sydney Gifford Czira's memoirs 'The Years Flew By', published in paperback in Dublin in 1974 by Gifford and Craven. She was one of the national-minded feminists of the 1920s, a friend of Constance Markievitz. Up to the 1940s the Ferguson aircraft was the central motif on the headed notepaper of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union; by this time it looked quaint and old-fashioned, but in its day it must have represented something of the thinking of Connolly, along the lines of unificiation of technological and social progress, in a nation-State developing progressively under Home Rule.

3. This was published by Sealy, Bryers and Walker (Dublin) in 1913, at 6 old pence in paperback; there was significant input from my uncle James, then in the Indian service. The thinking was in terms of the positive potential for Home Rule within the Commonwealth, and the disruptive effect of the Tory armed conspiracy on imperial security, in the presence of the perceived German threat. It has since been argued that the Kaiser thought he could get away with going through Belgium because the British had their hands full with containing this subversion. So the Larne gun-running conspiracy, and the Tory plotters behind it, should go down in history, not only as the principal source of the violence in Ireland in this century, but also as significant contributory factors to the triggering of World War I.

4. A 2-day conference on "Integrated Economic Development in the Border Areas of the North-West" was organised by the London-based Regional Studies Association in Enniskillen on February 23-24 1989. This involved EC speakers from Belfast and Brussels, local authority speakers from Sligo, Fermanagh and Omagh, academics from Dublin, Galway and Belfast, as well as a Dublin environmental consultant's report. This constituted an opportunity for contacts to be made in the spirit of the arguments of this paper.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999