Showing her usual disregard for her duty in managing the domestic affairs that her office of First Minister demands (and indeed the provisions of the 1998 Scotland Act which state that foreign policy is a matter reserved to Westminster), Sturgeon’s latest trip has taken her once again to Ireland.
The SNP have an odd fascination with our neighbours across the Irish Sea. They love to talk about the importance of building ties with our closest neighbours and to emphasise all the cultural and historical ties which we share – unless of course that neighbour is England. It was in Dublin that the SNP-led Scottish ‘Government’ (as it now styles itself) chose to set up its first international quasi-embassy earlier this year. As international diplomacy is the sole preserve of Westminster, and the establishment of Scottish Government embassies abroad would therefore be illegal, the SNP opted instead to call it a business and development “hub” dedicated to fostering Scottish-Irish relations.
In this latest trip to Dublin, Sturgeon spoke at the Seanad Éireann. As the upper house of the Irish parliament, it is roughly equivalent to our House of Lords, and there Irish senators fawned over Sturgeon and her drive for independence. “Speaker after speaker has stood up in the Irish Parliament and expressed support for Scottish independence” tweeted one journalist. Senator Frances Black wished Sturgeon all the best in “fighting for independence for your country” while Senator Mark Daly asked what Ireland could do to help her achieve this goal. Others praised Sturgeon for emulating the militant nationalism of the 1916 rebels; journalist Michael Gray tweeted that independent senator Alice Higgins referenced James Connolly, and that one senator went as far as to tell Sturgeon that “the nationalism you espouse is very similar to the men & women of 1916”.
Perhaps enthused by this outpouring of nationalist support, Sturgeon commented that “Ireland is a living, breathing example of positive nationalism”. But it is very odd for a Scottish nationalist to take inspiration from the Irish example, especially when the events of 1916 are mentioned. In the 1916 uprising, nationalist militants launched an unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in which 116 British soldiers were murdered. Scottish soldiers were amongst those killed, including David Wilson who was born in Glasgow and who served as a Rifleman in the 3rd Battalion of The Royal Irish Rifles, and his fellow Glaswegian William Walker who served as a Private in the 5th Battalion of The Royal Irish Lancers. The ordinary Irish people of the time rejected this extreme nationalism, and indeed at the same time that the failed rising took place, 210,000 Irishmen fought for Britain after they volunteered for service in WWI (conscription was never introduced in Ireland).
But rather that remember the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who served alongside their Scottish, English and Welsh compatriots in the trenches of the First World War (not forgetting the people from many nationalities and faiths from across the British Empire who also served with them), Sturgeon instead chooses to take her example from a small band of rebels, unrepresentative of the general Irish population at the time, who killed Scottish soldiers. Sadly, it seems that for Sturgeon, her contempt for the British state and all that it represents is such that she is happy to do these mental gymnastics in order to build ties with those who share a similarly anti-British worldview.
The particular events of 1916 aside, the very divisive and often violent nature of Irish nationalism, things for which it is well known in the popular imagination, make Sturgeon’s fleeting comment that it is a positive force seem either incredibly ill-thought out or deliberately provocative. Ireland’s nationalist-led wars of independence divided not just nationalists and unionists, but led to a bloody civil war between pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions within the nationalist camp. While shocking incidents like the murder of 122 Protestants in Cork by the IRA are well known, the longer-term decline of Ireland’s (then the Irish Free State’s) Protestant population from 10% to just a fraction of that in the decades following independence shows that nationalist Ireland was far from a tolerant or inclusive place. Gaelic was enforced in schools and public life, British symbols were removed (does any of this sound familiar?) and claims of a non-sectarian civic nationalism quickly lost their credibility. If Sturgeon’s nationalism is indeed of this ilk as the Irish senator suggested, we should be very worried.
The strength of Irish nationalism was such that some (though to their credit, by no means all) people in Ireland viewed Hitler as a lesser evil to the British, and it was only a matter of three years ago that the Irish state finally pardoned those soldiers who had left Ireland to serve in the British Army in its fight against fascism – soldiers who returned home to shame and humiliation, who were barred from holding jobs paid for by the state and who even lost their pension rights. Irish President de Valera famously offered condolences to Germany's representative in Dublin following the death of Adolf Hitler. His sentiments were perhaps shared by Scottish nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who said that he did not care if Hitler bombed London and that Scotland would be better off under Nazi rule. This is the man who the SNP’s 56 MPs chose to commemorate during the Queen’s Speech by wearing the “little white rose of Scotland” which he spoke of in his poems.
Perhaps more than anything else the Troubles highlight the dark side of nationalism. As in the 1916 Rising, Scottish soldiers were often the victims of nationalist terrorism; most famously the Three Scottish Soldiers who were murdered on the 10th March 1971. Thousands of people, most of them civilians, lost their lives in this nationalist war to unify an Irish republic against the wishes of Northern Ireland’s unionist majority.
From the 1916 Rising, to the Wars of Independence, to the cordiality shown towards the Nazis in WWII, to the horrors of the Troubles, it is clear that Irish nationalism, like any nationalism, can be an extremely dark and dangerous force. All this makes Sturgeon’s apparent identification of it as a singularly positive force very alarming. If Ireland is an example of anything, it is an example of the progress a country can make when it moves away from the animosities of the past and begins to build relationships with the wider world and heal its own internal divisions. Ireland is now a modern country where people vote for parties which will serve the country best and not along nationalist identity lines. It has moved on from the dark days of the early Twentieth Century; Sturgeon should learn from that lesson and move on as well.