Well, the referendum on the Lisburn Treaty has come and gone, and the powers that be got the result they wanted this time. We’re now in the less than ideal position of relying on Václav Klaus to stand up for national sovereignty and spare us Mr Tony Blair as EU President. You can read some reactions to the result in the statements I’ve gathered at the bottom, but for the moment I’ll say that it’s a relief to have that bloody awful campaign behind us, one that I don’t think anyone emerged from with enormous credit, though there was plenty of honourable slogging on the No side. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough this time to overcome the massed ranks of the Irish political establishment, IBEC, ICTU and the European Commission.
But, as per usual, I just want to use this as a jumping off point to consider a few related questions. Firstly, and I believe this can be got out of the way quickly, Jim Monaghan reports on Cedar Lounge that Socialist Workers Party supremo Swiss Toni has called for left unity on the back of the No campaign. My heart sinks, because I keep hoping that Swiss will grow out of these vainglorious “Open Letter to the Left” initiatives that he and his acolytes launch on an annual basis. My view is that the No campaign tells us two things. One is that there is a large segment of the electorate that is alienated from the political class – although a lot of them seem to be in Donegal, where the socialist left is not. The other is that, via CAEUC, we have a glimmer of how various progressive-left forces could work together on a concrete issue-by-issue basis, thereby building solid working relationships. This seems to me worthwhile, and I’d rather see progress on a more modest scale along these lines than yet another jerrybuilt electoral front.
But there’s also a broader cultural-political aspect that interests me. Let’s begin by considering the outlines of (southern) Irish foreign policy. In the old days of de Valera and Frank Aiken, there was indeed something of a distinctive foreign policy, mostly geared towards securing the maximum independence and lessening British dominance. God help us, when the Cruiser was in the UN, there was some sort of concept of positive neutrality – sort of the way the Swedes punch above their weight in international affairs, although it never came to that much practically. There was even – and this undercuts the idea of the Irish state’s total insularity in this period – some idea of reaching out to the big family of the Irish diaspora, and to other post-colonial countries.
Now I ask you, can you detect any coherent, long-term Irish foreign policy today? There really doesn’t seem to be much, except for a) sucking up to the Brits, b) sucking up to the Yanks and c) sucking up to the EU, although not necessarily in that order. As far as the Irish diaspora goes, there’s the occasional hope that Irish-American businessmen will invest in the old country, but the idea that the enormous number of Irish people in the Third World – working as missionaries or aid workers or such – could be some sort of resource just doesn’t occur. In the post-GFA, post-British devolution settlement, there are now consulates in Cardiff and Edinburgh, but what cultural interchange there is with our neighbouring small nations is given little profile, and tends to be pushed through by enthusiastic amateurs with minimal official encouragement – Dev’s visit to Mannin, and his follow-up thereof, is the sort of quixotic mission that you just find very difficult to imagine from the dull, technocratic lot who presently occupy Leinster House.
No, it’s sucking up that is the default mode. Why, for instance, were Irish troops deployed in Chad? Was it because Willie O’Dea had a rush of blood to the head and decided he fancied playing at being TE Lawrence? That would have been bonkers, but it would at least have been more honourable than invading Chad so as to suck up to Nicolas Sarkozy. Ditto with rendition through Shannon. As for the EU, it’s not hard to miss the Dublin political class’s exasperation with the constitutional provision that obliges them to hold referenda on EU treaties – which is why the 26 was the only EU state to hold a referendum on the latest treaty – and its even greater exasperation at the McKenna judgement, although the Eurocrats were quite canny in circumventing those provisions.
But what struck me even more was the nature of some of the Yes support. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that little of the debate was about the treaty per se, and much more of it was on the vague ground of “Europe”. Mick O’Leary’s intervention was to be expected, as he’s transparently hoping for the EU to show Ryanair the sunny side of its countenance. What took me to the fair was the likes of Jim Sheridan, or the Ireland rugby team, turning out to do PR for the Yes side. What, I wondered, was it to do with them?
I’ve written before about “Europe” as a cargo cult in Ireland, and I think that holds true for certain layers of the population. Not, I suppose, for the farmers, who are pro-EU to the extent that the EU is willing to support Irish agriculture; nor for those who benefit from whatever structural funds are still on the go. The mercenary impulse is easily explicable, and has relatively little to do with genuflexion in front of the EU. (For instance, one could make a plausible mercenary argument for Ireland joining the State Union of Russia and Belarus – we might get some cheap gas out of it, and Putin would maybe be less keen than Barroso to interfere in Irish politics.)
Nor need we waste much time on the political class. To some extent, there’s the lure of the gravy train. There’s also, and this ties in with my earlier point about the lack of a foreign policy, a total lack of imagination. If you’re old enough to remember entry into the EEC in 1973, you’ll recall that there was very little argument about the opportunities it would open up – it was all framed as, the Brits are joining so we have to. And so this translates into the present discourse from Cowen and Kenny – we can’t be isolated, we can’t let other Europeans think we aren’t enthusiastic. I suppose in the current economic climate that had some appeal, but even in the Tiger days there wasn’t much sense of Dublin throwing its weight around in Europe the way stroppy little countries like the Czechs, the Greeks and the Slovenes have done. As Barroso’s bullying of Bulgaria shows, if you allow these guys to treat you like a coconut colony, they will.
But that doesn’t explain the luvvie attitude. I think that there’s something there of the old cultural cringe towards Britain transferred to Europe. As Peter Hitchens wrote:
I suspect a lot of people share the view of Fionnuala Maher, who told the Irish Times that she remembered Ireland before it joined the EU in 1973. ‘It was a terrible place,’ she said. ‘If we don’t have Europe, we don’t have a bloody hope.’
For such people, the EU is completely identified with the personal liberation and individualism that in Britain is linked with the Sixties cultural revolution.
That may be a mistake. The ascent of the EU happened to coincide with several decades of unheard-of prosperity and growth. But the EU did not cause that prosperity, though it claims to have done so.
The cultural thing is important here. Mick O’Leary is concerned mainly with the business side of the EU, the sort of stuff that gets transacted at the Council of Ministers and affects the bottom line. Our luvvie class is concerned with the fluffier European institutions – primarily the Court and the Parliament – in their role as dispensers of liberal nostrums. For these people, Biffo Cowen’s assurances that Lisburn won’t affect military neutrality or the abortion laws is neither here nor there. They would positively love the EU to go around overturning what they see as reactionary Irish laws and practices.
This is where I differ from them, partly for democratic reasons, partly because it is tied up with the cultural cringe that identifies Ireland as a dark place of reaction, and England (or latterly “Europe”) as the progressive norm to be aspired to. There’s a parallel with the British TUC in 1988, despairing of Neil Kinnock and embracing Jacques Delors, in the hope that the European Commission could succeed where the Labour Party had failed in protecting British workers from the ravages of Thatcherism. There’s a parallel with the SWP in the north of Ireland, which has more or less given up on building a popular movement around legalising abortion in favour of lobbying the Brits to impose it on a reluctant Stormont.
And so it is when advances like the legalisation of divorce or homosexuality – things that loom large for the Irish liberal – are identified, not entirely accurately, with “Europe”. The idea is that a liberal Europe is imposing progress on a reactionary Ireland, and this is good. The assumption is that it is beyond the wit of Irish people to reform their own laws, which I find faintly insulting. The clear danger is of well-intentioned people – the sort of people whose political horizons are defined by issues like gay rights and abortion – to end up like those NGO types in eastern Europe who don’t even bother trying to win over public opinion, but just lobby the Eurocrats to bully their governments into submission.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to grabbing whatever progressive legislation is on offer. It really is the cargo-cult aspect that bothers me. It seems just a bit too much like lobbying the Emperor to bring our local proconsulate into line.
As promised at the top, statements on the referendum result. In no particular order, here are the reactions from the People’s Movement (pdf), the Socialist Party (video of Joe talking on the subject), the Workers Party, the Communist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, Sinn Féin (Próvach), Sinn Féin Eile, the SWP, the National Platform, CAEUC and éirígí. Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out.