Ireland: We Have Never Been Sovereign

Irish donkeys
Photo (cc) jmulot.

On June 11th 2004 a referendum was held in Ireland. Should a child born on the island have an automatic right to citizenship the nation was asked. A constitutional right that had existed since the foundation of the state in 1922  was overturned by an incredible 79% of the voting public. Children now born in Ireland’s hospitals to non-national parents had a fight on their hands if they wanted a harp emblazoned passport.

At this juncture it is fair to ask if any child now born in Ireland would want citizenship of that sorry republic, but that’s a cheap shot and beside the point. Which is this, at a moment when national hubris, property speculation, and all-round back slapping were reaching their apex, Ireland turned her gaze inward and essentially told the world “right lads, we’ve finally made it, and we’re sharing the spoils with no one“. I think that was the first time I’ve really been embarrassed and ashamed to be admit to being Irish. Funny how some things change and some things don’t.

A week of prevaricating and straightforward lies by those that would claim to be Ireland’s leaders ended last night with Cowen and Lenihan admitting that yes, a bail out is coming, yes the IMF and EU are involved, and yes, this is going to hurt. I want to focus on one theme that has been running through the press coverage all week and perhaps applies not only to Ireland, but to the every other EU member state, both those inside and outside the Eurozone (and btw, am I the only person who thinks there’s a Crystal Maze comeback in here somewhere?). The issue, the misconstruction and misconception of sovereignty.

The notion of sovereignty as we understand it hinges almost entirely on the autonomy of the nation state. Of course the nation state itself is a construct devised by Germans at Westphalia in 1648 and improved upon at various junctures ever since. And the simple fact is, I contend here, the notion of the nation state is well past its sell-by date. Reasons being:

  • Globalisation – Aspects of the social contract now being fulfilled by private corporations and civil society organisations, particularly in least developed countries (Ireland circa 2011). Add to that the super-politics of transnational institutions such as the IMF and EU.
  • Information society – linked but distinct from globalisation. Technology and information society frees us from a top-down knowlege/power hierarchy, and this knowledge/power recognises national borders in extreme cases (e.g. the great firewall of China). To boot, the Marxist relationship between production and capital is arguably severed irreparably in places, not altogether a bad thing.
  • Risk society – Pervasive global risks (climate change, GM etc.) have led to the cosmopolitization of global society. Risk has been democratised across borders and time and negated the global ‘other’. At least that’s the theory. In other words, be it in Belfast, Berlin or Belize, the same big planet ending issues are faced by all.
  • Reflexive modernity – the very forces in society that unleashed modernity have undermined it. An example, our economic ingenuity has in theory allowed wealth creation and ownership through multiple layers of society, but really, quants in Goldman Sachs have led us on a merry dance, and at times its debatable if even they knew the havoc their credit default swaps and other assorted financial devices would cause.

So it looks like the nation state has more than a few chinks. Let’s take a looks so at the issue of Ireland in particular.

A genuine challenge that can be played with you and yours this holiday season, stick the sovereignty tail on the Irish nation state donkey below. And then just for kicks, stick another tail on the poor beleaguered beast to represent the moment sovereignty left town. Do let me know how you get on.

  • Dublin’s largest post office trashed in failed rebellion (1916)
  • Irish state formed (1922)
  • Oath of allegiance to Westminster/Windsors dropped (1937)
  • Irish republic declared (1949)
  • Entry into the EEC/EU (1973)
  • One to one link between Irish punt and sterling broken (1979)
  • Belfast Agreement (1998)
  • Euro becomes currency (1999)
  • Maastricht/Nice/Lisbon treaties (various)
  • Irish government commits over €50bn to banking/property sector (2008)
  • IMF assumes control of state budget (2010)

All well and good you say, so what, we have never been sovereign and Ireland in particular is in some sort of national state, or not. I make the points above to illustrate some of the reasons Ireland, and plenty of other Europeans states, are in this mess. And perhaps to being to explore ways out. It may actually suit the Irish government and indeed the populace of that country to suggest some sovereignty has been devolved to the IMF/ECB/EC/EU/KLF/whoever. Why? Well let us examine the social contract as it exists in Ireland. Around the same time the Germans, Spanish and Dutch were roasting hog in Westphalia, Hobbes was attempting to defined the duty of care a state owed to her citizens, a concept Rousseau later nailed. The citizen gives the sovereign (lawmakers) legitimacy and in return, the citizen is given protection from a life “nasty, brutish and short“. And here is where it gets interesting in relation to Ireland.

The social contract in Ireland, like those contracts for ghost hotels and bogland housing developments signed over the past 15 years, was never a document fully validated by the state. Yes the constitution asserted independence from non-state power-institutions, but even to this day the church in the republic is the legal owner of the majority of schools and hospitals. And make no mistake, this was complicit. Ireland could in the 1950s have taken the UK’s example and followed leading theories on the practise of health and social science (leading to the NHS in Britain) but instead allowed those institutions to remain in the hands of the clerics.

So we see there is a history of the Irish government reneging on its side of the the deal. This is likely to continue. During the last 20 years Ireland has not saved for a rainy days and its social services are at breaking point. If ever in the history of the state Fianna Fail have been aware of a social contract between the polity and the people, then that’s a piece of paper that has been lost down the back of the couch some time ago. It was found last week but I fear it has been dusted off and given to Oli Rehn of the EC, Ajai Chopra of the IMF and the “Others” to which Ireland is now in hock.

“Now the old system of industrialized society is breaking down in the course of its own success. Are not new social contracts waiting to be born?”
-Ulrich Beck, Reflexive Modernization

And yet in all of this Ireland has perhaps the greatest opportunity since the inception of the state in 1922 to redefine itself. To shape a society that is not a hangover from stale civil war politics, led not by “Soldiers of Destiny” or “the Tribe of Irish“. A society whose most important assets are not in the hands of a morally bankrupt church. A country whose leaders have a vision, some sort of vision.

Institutional reform is a must. There will be an election in January, the incoming Taoiseach must be elected with a mandate to tear down and rebuild the institutions of state. Whether the Dáil works or not is irrelevant, its legitimacy as a parliament has, like a bloodied sponge, been slowly wrung dry. Only total reform of the upper and lower houses, as well as the electoral system will do.

And Ireland, like most other western nations, must address those that walk the corridors of these institutions. It is time to call out the soothsayers of our time, the economists, and recognise their nakedness. These are the most powerful policy gatekeeprs of the modern age, all political decisions run through them. Yet, in a sense, economists are no different from the other discrete experts of modernity, the chemists, the physicists, the engineers. Experts in their fields yes, but capable of proscribing wide solutions for a better, fairer, happier society? Capable of the imagination needed to knock down and rebuild? Absolutely not. So why should all political decision run through them.

But perhaps in reforming the levers of the nation state we are looking for solutions and looking for “the political in the wrong place, on the wrong floors and on the wrong pages of the newspapers” to quote Beck (Reflexive Modernization). We have seen the great European and Bretton Woods institutions wrest power from above the nation state. It is time to create the sub politics that will also attack it from below. How might this look like? Well Hermann Scheer, in one of the last interviews given before he died this year painted a quite astonishing picture of how community energy projects in Germany were finally taking hold and transforming communities.

It is a fight. This is a structural fight. It is a fight between centralization and decentralization, between energy dictatorship and energy participation in the energy democracy. And because nothing works without energy, it’s a fight between democratic value and technocratical values. And therefore, the mobilization of the society is the most important thing. And as soon as the society, most people, have recognized that the alternative are renewable energies and we must not wait for others, we can do it by our own, in our own sphere, together in cooperatives or in the cities or individually. As soon as they recognize this, they will become supporters. Other—this is the reason why we have now a 90 percent support against all the disinformation campaigns. They have much more money and possibilities to influence the public opinion, but they lost this. They lost this conflict. In the eyes of the people, they lost the conflict. They are the losers already.

Energy is just one example, albeit an important one, where Ireland needs to look not at a Big Society model espoused by its neighbour, but a small society, one in which there is a common currency of values between those at the top and bottom, and one in which those values are illustrated and made real by projects such as Scheer’s in every community. Is this pie in the sky? No, there are tens of thousands of half finished developments, roads and houses dotted around the country, waiting to be used for something far more worthy than property speculation. Surely in these lies the infrastructure for a better society. And far better to spend resources on this sustainable (economically, socially and environmentally) endeavour than keep alive the banking institutions that have so utterly failed the country.

For the first time since 2004 I’m tempted, just a little, to go home.