In this week’s edition of Limerick Life our columnist Joe Haslam reports from Madrid, Spain, where he has been following the news of the Catalan region’s bid for independence.
He describes an uneasy atmosphere with flags in windows and “police in riot gear at polling stations”. Thousands of people have taken to the streets, some marching for independence for Catalonia, others celebrating its unity with Spain. Each protestor is demonstrating their identity with flags, shirts and face paint.
It sounds not unlike the scenes described in the latest instalment of the Through the Ages series, in which we recall Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Liberator’. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people – most of whom would have had little in common with the wealthy gentleman barrister – united under his banner of radical reform. They allied themselves with this man, who was Catholic like them, but moved – and advanced – in an arena dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy.
The issue of identity and politics has sharpened in recent years. In a lonely world of constantly shifting sands, people are desperate to be part of something – an ideological group, a community, or a political party. Subscribers are using their votes to push their chosen group’s aims and goals into mainstream politics. This has always been the case, but now, with fringe elements such as the ‘alt-right’ gaining traction, it can have a chilling effect. Brexit taught us that one ostensibly homogenous society can contain groups with vastly different self-identification methods. As Greg O Shaughnessey points out in his contribution this week, certain politicians vacillate between these sections of society, delivering tailored speeches designed to attract those restless, lost souls who just want to belong.
This has led to a narrowing of ideas, the distillation of multifaceted issues into crowd-pleasing soundbites or populist positions. Complex issues such as the abortion debate, which Mary O’Keeffe tackles in her column, are being hammered into simple yes or no boxes. Such black and white views are not compatible in a thoroughly grey society.
In the US, the divisions between the two political parties have become so entrenched that they have given rise to extraordinary personal animosity between voters. Millions of people who live in shared communities, drive similar cars, and go to work in the same places feel so diametrically opposed to supporters of their rival party (whether it be Republican or Democratic) that they respond with ostracization, online vitriol or even physical violence.
In Europe, a more balanced solution is emerging, with modern citizens recognising that identity is not binary. Martin Mullins writes this week that “many Spaniards now opt for multiple layers of identity. In Vigo in the north-west many are Galician first, Spanish second and European third. This relatively new politics of having complementary identities is common across Europe and is one of the most valuable achievements of the European Union.”
As the saying goes, more unites us than divides us.