The island of Ireland is a political straitjacket

One of the great ambiguities about modern Ireland is the confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the independent state. Both officially go under the same name, although one can often avoid ambiguity by using prefixes (Republic of Ireland, island of Ireland). This actively contributes to Ireland’s political problems, because it closes one of the escape valves normally used to resolve ethnic conflict – redefinition.

When Austria-Hungary was divided up into its component parts after WWI, the border between Austria and Hungary was redrawn. A sliver of land which was traditionally part of Hungary had over the years become majority-German speaking. On independence, this area (today known as the Burgenland) was transferred to Austria so that the border more closely matched the ethnic divide. Effectively, the words “Austria” and “Hungary” were redefined to suit changed reality.

That option is not open to Ireland. Unlike land frontiers, coastlines cannot be altered at the stroke of a pen. The Ulster Unionist movement redefined the boundary between the UK and newly-independent Ireland by creating a Burgenland of their own, Northern Ireland. But the escape was not clean – the word “Ireland” stubbornly remained in use for the entire island, and was included in the name of the new state (despite the efforts of many to adopt “Ulster” instead).

To confound matters, the sea boundary between Ireland and Scotland also forced NI to be defined maximally so as to ensure a viable territory – by contrast, the Burgenland is only 5km wide at its narrowest point. If NI had been created merely as a two- or three-county state the ethnic balance would have been much more equitable, but politically it would have been less stable. Consider a counter-factual – if Scotland and Ireland were connected to each other by a land bridge, it is likely that the frontier between them would have shifted back and forth several times in history. The plantation of Scots in Antrim and Down would have been expansionism, not colonisation. An eventual redrawing of the Ireland/Scotland frontier a few miles further into Irish territory would likely have been (reluctantly) accepted as the price of peace, as it was in Hungary.

But the North Channel is an immovable frontier, and Ireland’s status as an island is thus a political straitjacket. Its extent is fixed by the sea in perpetuity, and an equitable repartition would leave NI as an unviable state. In addition, the island as a “natural” political unit has both an economic logic and a romantic appeal – it is no accident that ethnically-divided islands provide more than their fair share of the world’s intractable conflicts. Ethnic nationalism can sometimes work if practical frontiers can be found. But islands frustrate this process, and in Ireland no such practical frontiers are possible.

One cannot define an ethnic Irish identity, because the geographical Irish identity is in conflict with it, and cannot be altered to match. Ethnic nationalism is thus doomed to failure in Ireland, because ethnic-Unionists (“Huns“) cannot submit to an Irishness based on ethnic-Nationalist (“Taig“) identity, but neither can they escape it. Political and cultural neurosis is the inevitable result.

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