The Failure of Stormont Hasn’t Been Inevitable Since 1998. It’s been inevitable since 1648.

The faultlines for the collapse of Stormont were laid along time ago. Not in 1998, or in 1985, or even in 1921.

It all began in 1648.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the 30 Years’ War. Widely regarded as the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the treaty guaranteed that each German prince could determine the religion of his own principality. International relations theorists point to this as the origin of state sovereignty: each state territory should be considered a sovereign nation and no other state has the right to interfere with its domestic affairs.

In 2018, the nation-state system is so ubiquitous we don’t even think about it. If I am a member of one state (say, the US) and I want to travel to another state (say, to study abroad in Belfast), I depend on my state to negotiate with the other state to allow me in (issuing me a visa). It is a matter of course that I must show my passport (or state-membership card) when I cross the border — a border which I may have otherwise have missed but for the rather bored customs agent, nobly defending the State.

The nation-state system is everywhere and we don’t even notice it.

Of course, once you start to look closer at the state system, its problems become glaringly apparent. States that believe in democratic representation, for instance, have trouble capturing the preferences of each individual citizen. States are too big. So, they delegate — in the UK, like in the US, there are different municipalities, regions, city councils, and local institutions that try to take into account individual citizens’ preference for how they wish to be governed. But capturing everybody’s preferences is challenging.

States are also too small. In a globalized world, sovereign governments struggle with issues that cross international borders. How should states govern companies (like Google) who could be American businesses, storing information about British citizens, on servers located in Chile? States struggle to govern and regulate issues that cross borders (US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer even wrote a book about it).

But the biggest problem with states is you. What state should you be a part of and why? What makes you distinct from members of the UK, US, Germany, France, Angola, Thailand, Egypt, South Africa, Burundi, China? Your birth? Lineage? Residency? What makes those states distinct from other states? Why should the lines of states be drawn here, and not there?

Why should you be part of us, and not them?

The problem of uniting a large group of people within a specific territory has long been a problem, even before 1648. But the modern states have come up with a solution: nationalism.

You’re not just part of a state, of course — you’re part of a nation. A nation is defined by more than just arbitrary borders; it is defined by a shared history, a shared identity, a shared National Myth. To be German, or Italian, or Serbian is not just to have been born or have lived in a place — it means being a part of a people, being the inheritor of an historic legacy, being culturally distinct. Even states without a shared ‘ethnic’ identity can create a national myth — in the United States, for instance, the Founding Fathers and the Constitution is the past that all Americans can look back to. It is the story that keeps us all together, that shows how we are us — and not you.

But what happens if you don’t quite fit in with the myth of a nation? And what happens if a lot of people don’t quite fit in with the myth of a nation?

The Nation or the Egg?

It is no surprise that Westminster has always had trouble understanding Northern Ireland — or that newspapers in England write tone deaf articles which fail to capture the intricacies and nuances of the negotiations at Stormont. Northern Ireland, in many ways, baffles people who buy into the national myth of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland sits at the interface of two states engaged in nation-building. In the Republic of Ireland, there is the honoring of Irish culture, and intellectuals, and artists, and the shared history of the uprising. In the United Kingdom, there is the honoring of British culture (complicated though it might be by the constituent ‘nations’ of England, Scotland and Wales), and intellectuals, and artists, and the shared history of the monarchy. In Northern Ireland, both states and national myths are equally compelling and equally impossible.

So what is Northern Ireland? Irish (as Nationalists and Republicans claim)? Or British (as Unionists and Loyalists claim)?

In many ways, this is an exasperatingly irrelevant question to many outsiders (It’s both! It’s neither! It’s a combination of the two! Who cares?! Its people should decide!). The issue, they argue, should be pragmatism. Which state will give it the best deal? (Just as those discussing Scottish independence often point out that Scotland benefits from fiscal transfers from Westminster).

But, of course, pragmatism has never been what is really important. The story is important. England and Wales showed themselves to be just as susceptible to the myth nationalism at the expense of pragmatism in 2016. Those shocked by the economic consequences of leaving the European Union shouldn’t be — this was never about the money. It was about the story. It was about being a part of a sovereign state.

It is no surprise that the forces of globalization, and large population movements of diverse people throughout our world, have caused cracks in the binding myths of nationalism that underpin the state system. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump understood this, just as they understood the power of calling on nationalism to unite people. States exist through hard borders and nationalism relies on exclusion.

So, don’t blame the chicken for the egg. The collapse of Stormont has not shown how impossible Northern Ireland is. Northern Ireland has shown how impossible the nation-state system is.

The problem of Stormont has been inevitable since 1648, and that is precisely what the creators of the European project understood. The state system is unravelling and supra-national, quasi-state systems like the European Union are simply attempting to salvage its remains, preserving the integrity of both the local states and the global system.

How will we govern ourselves in an increasingly globalized and localized world? Well, at the moment, clearly not through Stormont.

Originally published at Northern Slant.



PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford.

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