One regret, one hope with Alvin Jackson

Reading time: 4 minutes
In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.

This week Mona’s guest is Alvin Jackson, Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology.

Mona Siddiqui: Let’s start with explaining your role at the University and also your current research.

Alvin Jackson: I hold the Sir Richard Lodge Professorship of History. This is a Chair that is traditionally associated with the history of these islands, so British and Irish history. My own research territory has been principally with modern Irish history but over the years I have extended it to look at modern Scottish history, and indeed these islands as a whole.

At Edinburgh I’ve held a variety of administrative positions within the School, including the headship of the School for a period, between 2010 and 2013, and I’ve also served as the Dean of Research for the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, as well as the Deputy Head of College.

In terms of my own research interests, I have been focusing throughout my research career on multinational union states and on unionisms within those states. I’ve been working lately on a research project that focuses on the history of these multinational unions on a comparative basis, focusing a bit on Europe, but also globally as well. But the origins of all of this, I suppose, began in Northern Ireland.

MS: Do you think that we’re at a particularly interesting time when it comes to issues of either nationalism or unionism in the UK?

AJ: Yes I absolutely do think so. Six or seven years ago my answer to this question would probably have been very different. I think that the Brexit referendum and Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has had much wider implications in terms of the unions of the United Kingdom and indeed British-Irish relations as well.

MS: As someone who has studied the history of unionisms, internationally but also focusing on Ireland what happens historically do you think that makes people want to assert their identity in a different direction?

AJ: It is a global question that you’re offering me – let me try to approach it incrementally. I think that the consolidation of identity politics is an astonishingly interesting and complex phenomenon which impacts upon overarching issues of union and unionism. My core feeling is that the consolidation of identity politics plays well to national and nationalist conviction but much less well to overarching unionisms, overarching supranationalism identity such as unionism. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the identity politics of our age and national conviction. But by extension I think those identity politics rest in a more difficult relationship with supranationalism forms of identity such as unionism.

MS: Do you think as a scholar, but also looking at it from within Scotland and at a distanced Ireland, do you foresee an independent Scotland? Or a united Ireland?

AJ: You are tempting me into wonderfully controversial territory Mona. Of course I can see the circumstances in which each of these ends may be delivered, whether or not they come to pass of course is a different question.

I do think, along with many others, that the chances of each of these denouements have been increased substantially over the past six to eight years. Brexit has helped to consolidate already strong national feeling within Scotland. The politics of Northern Ireland have also seen a weakening of Unionist support and conviction there and the consolidation of those parties, particularly Sinn Féin, embracing reunification.

So in short, the necessarily ambiguous answer I would give is that I think that the chances of each of these results have been consolidated substantially in recent years but the historian in me is always alert to the variety of contingencies that may enter into politics and political history, hence my caution.

MS: Is there one regret, either from your recent or distant past you might be able to share with us?

AJ: My one regret may sound a little bit pious and not immediately personal but it’s heartfelt. My regret is that the several opportunities in Ireland that have existed for peaceful political settlement were missed and I’m thinking of a variety of episodes during my early life as a youngster, growing up in Belfast. I think the fact that those settlements were missed had profound and poignant wider, global repercussions but they also had consequences for my generation growing up in Northern Ireland, in my case in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s. Not that my friends or immediate contemporaries suffered in particular – there were many others whose experience of the violence in Northern Ireland at that time was far more substantial – but it is the case that this was a looming backdrop to our childhood.

MS: And what is your one hope for the future?

AJ: My one hope going forward really relates to some of the issues that you’ve broached with me and again it’s a hope born of my own lifetime experience which is that constitutional and other forms of profound or fundamental change, if and when they come across these islands, may be navigated peacefully, and with respect for others. And this for all of our sakes.

Image: Johnny Bambury