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“Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts”: Tom Nairn and Northern Ireland’s English Question

Colin Coulter revisits Tom Nairn's predictions for the fate of the six counties, and reflects on their position in the union today. 

6 May 2021

“Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts”: Tom Nairn and Northern Ireland’s English Question

Nearly half a century after it first appeared, the apostate energies of The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism remain entirely palpable. In often sumptuous prose, Tom Nairn takes aim at a whole host of inherited pieties of the political tradition from which he sprang, but he challenges with particular relish those on the Left who divine a universalising agent of progress in what is, Nairn insists, the ‘indefensible and unadaptable relic’ of the British state. The frailties evident in how socialists choose to approach the United Kingdom reach, he suggests with no little cause, a ‘nadir of facility’ when they turn to consider what has traditionally been considered its most precarious region.

When the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland, most on the Left shared the popular assumption that the seemingly sectarian bloodletting was a baleful anachronism. Many also sought to attribute it to a partition settlement presumed to originate in the imperial machinations of a metropolitan elite. Nairn has little time for either of these cherished shibboleths. The partition of Ireland, he suggests, should not be seen as a ‘mere conspiracy of empire’ but rather as a political manifestation of the uneven development of the island. While the specific delineation of the border certainly represented ‘crude surgery’, its existence simply acknowledged the critical spatial disparities between the advanced industrialisation of the north-east and “the ‘backward’ Ireland of the peasant, the priest and the potato.” 

Nairn suggests that it was the attempts of the Unionist regime to mimic the Wilson administration and unleash the ‘white heat of technology’ that would accelerate the disintegration towards what was at first described, rather genteelly, as ‘civil unrest’. The era of ‘modernisation’ would raise expectations and enlarge horizons and, in doing so, render the nationalist minority unwilling to accept their circumstances even as they promised to improve. While many commentators sought to depict the outbreak of violence as a hereditary blood curse, it was instead ‘multinational corporations and state subsidies [that] reanimated the nationality struggle’. 

Once we acknowledge the specific origins of the Troubles, what appears at first glance a very local and distinctly anachronistic blood feud begins to take on a rather more universal significance. The violence that would consume Northern Ireland for three decades was prompted not by some atavistic ‘ancient gene’ but rather by the uneven development central to the entire process of capitalist modernisation. As a consequence, a society whose ethnonational schisms often appeared ‘an outlandish exception to the rules’ may well simply be forging a path that others are fated to tread. 

While the Northern Irish conflict was routinely dismissed as a relic, Nairn is quick to point out that it would in fact transpire to have been a portent. Looking across a Europe in which Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia no longer exist and in which the current boundaries of Belgium, Spain, and, needless to say, the United Kingdom might not exist for too much longer, it would be hard to disagree. The reappearance of nationalist movements marked not ‘merely the recrudescence of a barbaric past’, Nairn insists. New nationalist and regionalist identities were instead ‘likely to resemble other varieties of nationalism in this at least, that positive and negative potentialities are mixed up together in their progress’. 

Although the conceptual model assembled in The Break-Up of Britain allows its author to discern the universal among the maddening idiosyncrasies of Northern Irish political culture, it also, ultimately, blinds him to something critical that is altogether particular to the region. In more specific terms, Nairn’s resistance in principle to the notion that the United Kingdom might represent a universalising force for good means that he cannot acknowledge those admittedly rare moments when that might just be the case in practice. One of the graver ironies of the modern British state is that over many decades it was prepared only to contemplate the decentralisation of power to the one region that was entirely unsuited to its exercise. The creation of Stormont institutions, inevitably monopolised by an initially very emphatic Protestant majority, was only ever going to foster nationalist alienation and sow the seeds of renewed violence. And so it was to prove. 

It is tempting to speculate what other course the six counties might have taken had the British state respected its own engrained universalising impulses and decided to govern the region like every other. Over time, might the secular impulses and imperatives of the Westminster party system have become the centripetal force that would draw Northern Irish people away from their notoriously fractious ethnonational political affiliations? We will never know. While Westminster resisted calls for devolution for Scotland and Wales for several generations, it was only too willing to wall Northern Ireland into the secret garden of a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ that would condemn the region to an entire generation of violence.

In resisting the conclusion that the centralised power of the British state might have proved a palliative political force in Northern Ireland in the decades after partition, Nairn invoked the ire of a group that shared many of his revisionist instincts, the British & Irish Communist Organisation. That very public difference of opinion would be sharpened further by the political prognoses and prescriptions set out in The Break-Up of Britain

In a book frequently enlivened by an irreverent turn of phrase, Nairn describes Northern Irish Protestants as ‘embarrassingly different’, and, borrowing a phrase from Ulysses, a ‘particular band of tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts”. While those designations might well disclose a political antipathy that was prevalent then, as now, throughout the Left, Nairn is in fact sympathetic to the unionist community – not to the ‘odious’ and discriminatory pre-Sunningdale regime built on the Orange Order, nor to a political culture that often centred on caricatures of a collapsing Britishness, but to the need for the Protestant majority to overcome these deformations and develop a ‘true national identity’. If there is to be a solution to a conflict that often appears to have none, it must come from among their ranks. The Protestant community must come to embrace an Ulster nationalism presumed to have found a nascent expression in the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike that ended the region’s first experiment in cross-communal government. While the project of establishing a new homeland comprised principally, perhaps even exclusively, of erstwhile unionists has been ‘uncertain, hesitant’ to date, its realisation is held to be imminent nonetheless:

It is more likely than not that the E.E.C. and U.N.O. will be graced before the end of the present decade by an improbable newcomer with about two-thirds the size and population of the existing Northern Ireland. 

The conflict was out of control, he argued, and the only remaining possibility was ‘that of making the miserable best of an extremely bad job’. It was pointless and self-serving for intellectuals to sermonise from afar about multi-national modus vivendi. Why should Ulster beat a ‘nationalism free’ path out of its difficulties when major Western states had done no such thing? ‘The failures of the great families are visited upon their distant minor relatives’. 

By way of conclusion, Break-Up poses the general dilemma of how nationalist revolts against large existing states can ‘be prevented from assuming catastrophic forms’. A brief Postscript then weighs the significance of the Peace Movement that formed shortly after publication of Nairn’s original text in the spring 1976 edition of Calgacus magazine. ‘Does it contain the seeds of a new, non-sectarian society capable of building a new identity beyond the terms of the old dilemma’, he ponders? If not, all the ‘bleak predictions’ for Northern Ireland’s future remained in play. 

While Nairn brings rather more nuance to the discussion of Northern Ireland than many of his contemporaries on the Left, his prognostications about the region’s future are made with an equanimity that could only come from someone living a safe distance from the front line.  The complex political geography of the region ensures that the creation of an independent ‘Ulster’ would require wholesale repartition. Despite insisting on the need for ‘political appreciation of Ulster’s realities’, Break-Up seems largely unaware of how genuinely catastrophic the transition would be. In Belfast, in particular, the establishment of the fledgling independent state would have entailed ethnic cleansing and sectarian murder on a scale that would have eclipsed all of the outbreaks of violence the city has endured. Moreover, the political entity that would have eventually emerged from all that needless bloodletting would have lacked the economic resources to survive in an era of terminal industrial decline. It is scarcely surprising then that the notion of ‘Ulster’ independence has found little traction in mainstream debate on the future of Northern Ireland, appearing principally in the fevered doomsday fantasies of the more exotic fringes of loyalist paramilitarism and in the puerile war games of British military intelligence.

The course that Northern Ireland has taken has, thankfully, been rather different to that mapped out in The Break-Up of Britain. After the apocalyptic violence of the early 1970s, the Troubles would settle into the seemingly endless, entirely pointless, ‘long war.’ In the more amenable geopolitical context signalled by the end of the Cold War, Northern Ireland would become one of several regions in which seemingly intractable conflict edged towards something that at least resembled resolution. While the Good Friday Agreement would be celebrated around the world as an exemplar of peace-building, its preoccupation with ‘the two communities’ has often threatened to condemn Northern Irish politics to a state of suspended animation. Even that sectarian stasis could not prevent the emergence of a ‘peace generation’ of younger people who often do not recognise themselves in their parents’ ethnonational affiliations and aspirations and whose interests are close to those of their peers in other late capitalist societies. For a time, the imposition of the Welfare Reform Act on one of the UK’s poorest regions even promised, finally, to move class issues to the centre of political debate. That this slow, progressive cultural arc might now have run aground owes much to a recent reactionary shift in the political climate, one that originated not in Northern Ireland, but in another, supposedly more ‘mature’, region of the UK.

Where Nairn is at his sharpest, is undoubtedly in his portraits of the nature of the British state and his predictions of the forces that will lead to what is presumed to be its inevitable decline. The Break-Up of Britain persuasively casts the UK as a polity whose position as the original (quasi-)modern state-form, coupled with its facility to forestall domestic decline through imperial plunder, have ensured that it remains unevolved, its ‘hopelessly decaying institutions’ often vestiges of a previous feudal age. Even a quarter century after the devolution of power to the ‘regions’, those relentless satires of the ‘senility’ and ‘paralytic over-stability’ of the British state have lost little of their force. The ideological construction of a sense of community that conjoins all of the constituent parts of the UK has historically rested largely on the institutions, traditions and, indeed, population of its largest nation. Given the apparently interchangeable relation between Englishness and Britishness, it is perhaps appropriate that Nairn identifies the former as the force that will ultimately seal the fate of the UK. While expressing doubts about the facility of the ‘narrowest, most dim-witted of nationalisms’ to rise to its historic task as pallbearer, he would in time, of course, prove to be entirely right.

The driving force behind the decision of the UK to leave the EU was a revived English nationalism that, at a popular level at least, appears to have only an attenuated sense of connection with the other regions of the British state. Nairn counsels, famously, that all nationalisms have the capacity to be progressive and reactionary in the same breath. This maxim has been borne out, time out of number, and is certainly apparent in a Brexit project that is not so much Janus-faced as positively bipolar. Those at the helm of the campaign to ‘take back control’ have, after all, sought to play with the cultural signifiers of Britishness while tapping into an exclusive sense of Englishness. They have spoken of Making Britain Great Again while disassembling the only institutions that ever promised to make good on that deluded claim, and advanced an economic model that presumes the continued dominance of the City while ‘forgetting’ to include financial services in future trade dealings with Europe.

The impact of the referendum on EU membership has of course been felt most gravely in the region that barely featured in the discussions that preceded it – an oversight encoded in the formulation of ‘Brexit’ itself. Over the last five years, we have seen nationalists alarmed at the prospect of a hard border running through the island of Ireland and, more recently, unionists enraged by the reality of a trade border running through the Irish Sea. Against a backdrop of widespread rioting in loyalist neighbourhoods, relations between the Stormont partners in government have become so poisonous that perhaps only the pandemic has been sufficient to prevent the institutions falling once more, barely a year after their restitution. 

Political tensions in Northern Ireland would be heightened further should, as expected, the parties supporting the cause of independence win a majority in the imminent Scottish parliament elections, potentially paving the way to a second referendum. The latter development would inevitably make the calls for a ‘border poll’ on the future of Northern Ireland even more insistent. While survey data suggest that any constitutional referendum would affirm the status quo, the potential margin of victory is likely to be a great deal closer than would have been imaginable before the advent of Brexit. As Northern Ireland reaches its distinctly muted centenary celebrations, its future appears rather more precarious than at any time since its creation.

In the historical moment in which The Break-Up of Britain first appeared, it would have seemed that the passions of the ‘Celtic bloodstream’ were most likely to become the agents of such an eventuality. Tom Nairn proves astute enough, however, to look beyond that obvious line of development. The ultimate demise of the UK would, he argues, arise out of the ‘slow foundering of the British state’ and its gravediggers would be an English people seemingly least given to belligerent forms of national feeling. And he appears to be in the process of being vindicated. It was not Northern Irish paramilitaries, nor Welsh arsonists, nor indeed Scottish polemicists, who would bring the first (not quite) modern state form to the verge of extinction, it was instead old Etonians, former City traders and faceless operators on the international dark money market. And it will not be a ‘motorized wheel-chair’ that conveys the British state to a ‘decent funeral’, as Nairn recommends, but rather a big red bus traversing England, its livery carrying promises of greater funding for the NHS from political forces that would, given the opportunity, privatise it in a heartbeat.


Originally from Belfast, Colin Coulter is Professor of Sociology in Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland. He is the editor of Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, the Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Politics of Punk (Manchester University Press, 2019) and co-author of Northern Ireland a Generation After Good Friday: Lost Futures and New Horizons in the ‘Long Peace’ (Manchester University Press, 2021). 

This article is part of the Verso Roundtable on The Break-Up of Britain. Follow the link for other articles in the series.

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The Break-Up of Britain

The Break-Up of Britain

In this classic text, first published in 1977, Tom Nairn memorably depicts the ‘slow foundering’ of the United Kingdom on the rocks of imperial decline, constitutional anachronism and the gathering...