Despite consistent efforts to counteract those attitudes and practices that give rise to it, most putatively modern Western nations continue to experience the concrete effects of racial discrimination. This essay argues that nationality is all too easily conflated with ‘race’ or ethnicity, such that a seeming essence or givenness is manifested amongst all those within a particular geographic boundary. It is suggested that on the contrary, there is nothing natural about nationality as commonly understood; this being so, it must be continually shored up and reconstituted through social, linguistic and material practices. For modern nations in the West, this has often entailed the marking or identification - racialisation - of non-nationals and non-white ‘Others’. A logic of inside/outside subtends the concept of nation wherein such Others are the ‘constitutive outside’ that invisibly clarifies and reinforces the status of those within. Nation, then, tacitly asserts and valorises its own putative qualities through the explicit identification and denigration of what it is not. It is argued that such a logic militates against the openness that might ground compassionate and empathetic relations between those ‘inside’ the nation and its new arrivals.

This article first outlines its theoretical position: that nation is a ‘fictive ethnicity’ maintained through the continual (re)inscription of unequal power relations, and that nations and their ‘people’ are hybridities without originary ontological status. It summarises thereafter the historic constitution of national identities within both Northern Ireland and Ireland. Finally, it considers the experience of three groups of ‘Others’ on the island of Ireland, namely Jews, Travellers and asylum seekers, and how such Otherness has been represented in order to bolster the identity of the nation. This idea of nation and the exclusions it instates are interrogated throughout, with the conclusion that any policies aimed at eliminating institutional and individual racism, however well-meant, will ultimately fall short until nation itself - and the identities it is involved in constituting - are rethought.