Birmingham is many things, but as a city to visit, I have yet to find its attraction. It is home to one of the biggest Irish populations in Britain. In the pretty run-down inner suburbs of south Birmingham, the Kerryman and the Dubliner pubs face each other on either side of the road from the airport. When my dad was a kid during World War II, most of the working population of Dun Laoghaire worked full time – but they worked full time in Birmingham not Dublin. Much to Mr de Valera’s chagrin, they worked in the factories of the RAF producing planes for the eventual Allied victory over Germany.
Most stayed on after the war and Birmingham absorbed one-third of the 500,000 Irish people who emigrated to England in the 1950s. In fact, the one really compelling tourist attraction in Birmingham, the canal tour, owes its existence to Irish workers.
The network of canals in Birmingham built in the Industrial Revolution spawned the term “navvies” to describe Irish workers. “Navvies” is short for the term navigators, and it was used to describe the soaking wet Irish builders who waded through the freezing water to dig the canals – the navigators who navigated the canal and never saw the sea.
The Birmingham they built was destroyed by German bombers as the Luftwaffe tried to flatten England’s industrial capacity in 1940-41 and, architecturally, the place hasn’t really recovered. Today, it is a vibrant, unbelievably multicultural place where the Irish form one proud section of a diverse ethnic quilt and it was Birmingham, not London that spawned the first popular multi-ethnic band in Britain, the Specials.
In this multicoloured city, where “going for a curry” is the local dish for everyone, it seemed odd to be discussing nationalism, yet nationalism has taken Britain by storm and it perplexes lots of the natives – who’ve never really contemplated what “Britishness” means until recently. Yet on Friday, here in the epicentre of the west midlands, former home to Britain’s formidable car industry, the upcoming election is making many people nervous.
The British are not used to coalitions and they are not used to nationalism either. The surge of nationalist and by definition, anti-British parties, is forcing the two big beasts the Conservatives and Labour to contemplate deals. These deals will have significant ramifications for Ireland, yet they are hardly being discussed in the media here.
The common thread in both nationalistic narratives is referendums. The first one is a re-run of the Scottish referendum, which the rampant SNP will demand if they hold the balance of power and twist the arm of Labour.
The second referendum will be the one on Britain leaving the EU and this is being driven by English nationalism and will be introduced by the Tories who could be propped up by Ukip and the DUP.
One thing is clear from the polls. If the Tories lead the next government, there will be a referendum on Britain staying in the EU and if Labour lead the next government there will be another referendum on Scotland leaving Britain.
In terms of what follows what, if Labour wins and Scotland leaves, following a referendum, the rump Britain of a withered union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland will almost definitely leave the EU in time. This is because of the political dynamic of the Scotland defeat. One form of nationalism tends to fuel counter-nationalism and if the Scottish leave, the English will want to have their say.
Unlike the Scots, whose target is Westminster, the focus of English nationalists’ ire is Brussels.
The fact that the Scots and the English have much more in common with each other than they have with anyone else matters not. Nationalism is a strange beast that gives the permission for miniscule differences between both close tribes to be amplified to the point where they become unbridgeable.
This development is what Sigmund Freud referred to as “the narcissism of small differences” – something we know all about in Ireland.
Speaking to investors on Friday, I was surprised at how concerned they were about the chances of a complete disintegration of Britain. Up to now, the average English person never really contemplated what it might be like to live in a post-British England. It seems far too extreme.
However, this is the thing about crises, whether they be political or economic: before the crisis, radical change seems just that, radical. However, as the crisis gathers pace, what was formerly radical becomes mainstream and what was mainstream becomes redundant.
In Ireland, we saw this shift happen in the two years between 1916 and 1918. Who is to say something like this could not happen in Britain in the next few years?
If Scotland left Britain, how long could the North remain in a union of Wales and England? Five years? Ten years?
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the 26-county Irish Republic on the 100th anniversary of the Rising were forced to contemplate seriously the implication of the 32-county state aspired to by Pearse and his lot, not because of the success of Irish nationalism, but because of the triumph of English nationalism?