The State we are and the State we can become

The humiliation of losing our sovereignty was palpable in 2010. Now is our best opportunity to inaugurate a new phase of Irish statehood


Like many of his contemporaries in 1922, George Gavan Duffy, the minister for external affairs in the provisional government of the fledging Irish Free State, was struggling to reconcile his aspirations for Irish independence with the reality of what the Anglo-Irish Treaty had made possible. As a member of the Irish negotiating team, Duffy had been a reluctant signatory of the Treaty in December 1921, but he saw little to be gained in rejecting it; as he pointed out in a subsequent Dáil debate: “My heart is with those who are against the Treaty, but my reason is against them, because I can see no rational alternative.”

Nonetheless, Gavan Duffy resigned from his ministry in the summer of 1922; he felt the new State was not doing enough to assert the limited independence he believed was conferred on it by the terms of the Treaty; he maintained parts of the 1922 constitution conceded more to Britain than was necessary, objected to the speedy disbandment of the Dáil courts established during the War of Independence, and was uncomfortable with the way the government was dealing with the Civil War.

Despite these dilemmas, while he was briefly minister in 1922, he articulated what he felt were the opportunities for a small nation at that time. In a letter to a priest in March 1922 he refused to comment on the defects of the Treaty but instead chose to “rejoice” due to his belief that “Ireland emerges at last from her dungeon into the sunlight”. The new State, he asserted, “will bring into a tired world a freshness of vision, coupled with a directness and a tenacity of purpose that will gradually make her an active factor in the redemption of Europe”. He concluded defiantly that the new State would “rapidly prove itself justly entitled to be called the first of the small nations”.

Genuine idealism
These rhetorical flourishes were born of hope and aspiration rather than acceptance of reality, but they encapsulate the genuine idealism of that revolutionary generation. At the same time, Duffy’s more sober admissions captured the limitations that curtailed the State’s room for manoeuvre. At the heart of the contrasting assertions was the crucial question of sovereignty; what it meant, how much of it existed in the new State and how it might be used.

Irish governments from the 1920s onwards sought to increase the State’s capacity to implement its own decisions, initially through involvement in the imperial conferences of the 1920s and 1930s when they worked with other dominions to extract from Britain greater autonomy over domestic affairs, and after Fianna Fáil won power in 1932, by essentially dismantling the Treaty and framing a constitution in 1937 that made the State a republic in all but name, until it became formally so in 1949.

The outbreak of the second World War in 1939 and the declaration of Irish neutrality were defining moments in terms of sovereignty for that generation; de Valera had consistently and convincingly argued that a state could not claim to be truly independent unless it could implement an independent foreign policy.

The decision to opt for neutrality seemed to give meaning to what the secretary of the department of external affairs, Joseph Walsh, had claimed in 1932 was the main aim of the State builders: “ ‘Ireland’ will be our name, and our international position will let the world and the people at home know that we are independent”.

It was a mission taken seriously by politicians and their electorate and considerable pride was generated through maximising sovereignty. It could be argued that much of that sovereignty was diluted once Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, though it was also argued that the very act of seeking EEC membership was a further development of independence.

In 1962, for example, a year after Ireland’s first unsuccessful application for membership, Garret FitzGerald insisted that joining the EEC would not be a betrayal of those who had died to achieve Irish independence: “We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign State . . . the voice of Ireland will be heard in Europe in the decades ahead. But for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been. We have the right to believe that they will feel as they view this prospect, that their sacrifices were not after all in vain”.

It would lead, he hoped, to a final discarding of economic dependence on Britain, for which some diminution of sovereignty was a price worth paying. But that same year, the secretary of the department of finance, TK Whitaker, in correspondence with veteran Fianna Fáil minister James Ryan, also pointedly referred to the need for realistic acceptance of Ireland’s status: “Nobody so loves us as to want us in the EEC on our own terms.”

That, of course, remained the case, and it could be argued that, particularly in recent times, a succession of EU treaties endorsed by the Irish electorate diminished Irish sovereignty to the point where it lost its original meaning; that from the 1990s onwards EU treaties have been so designed to increase the control of the EU over fiscal policies that any claims about Irish “sovereignty” being returned after the bailout exit this month are exaggerated.

Palpable humiliation
And yet, much was made of the description “the loss of sovereignty” in the context of that bailout being imposed in 2010. The despondency and humiliation was palpable, reflected memorably in an Irish Times editorial that invoked the 1916 Rising: “A bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. ”

The sentiments expressed in 2010 about the bailout were not necessarily marked by a refusal to recognise that real sovereignty had been steadily diminished over previous decades. They were framed in the context of a longer history, pride in the achievement of independence and disgust that the impulses that drove the revolutionary generation had been so compromised.

But perhaps, economically, these impulses had long been compromised. More than 40 years ago, at the same time as EEC entry, a more cavalier attitude to borrowing money to finance the State was adopted and continued by successive governments. In 1974, Whitaker, this time as governor of the Central Bank, wrote privately to the minister for finance, Fine Gael’s Richie Ryan, decrying the practice begun by the previous Fianna Fáil government and continued by its successor, of borrowing for current expenditure.

He noted he had already warned some months previously that “effective management of our financial affairs seemed to be slipping out of our hands” and continued, “as a community we are at present living vastly beyond our means . . . profligate small countries can only expect short shrift from foreign lenders.”

The continuance of the borrowing over subsequent decades, of the mishandling of the economy and then, during the Celtic Tiger period, a refusal to constrain excessive growth fuelled by foreign money, ably assisted by the ECB, ultimately had devastating consequences.

Historic preoccupation
What was lost with the bailout was the capacity to assert some domestic control over policy that was still possible even within the confines of EU treaties. But there was also a sense that we were internationally humiliated, and as evidenced in the examples from earlier decades, there has been a historic preoccupation with proving to the world that we can run our own affairs.

Any patriotic flag-waving on December 15th as a result of exiting the bailout would be misplaced and delusional given Ireland’s overall debt burden and its status as a marginal member of a very large EU, but leaving the bailout is a milestone nonetheless and offers an opportunity to inaugurate a new phase of Irish statehood.

Living within our means, embracing new definitions of what constitutes progress and prosperity as well as demanding a sustainable solution to Ireland’s debt problem need to be part of that new phase, and the response to these challenges will dictate prospects for the future.

If Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s insistence earlier this month – “we need to ensure that we never return to the culture that pushed us over the edge” – is genuine, it would be no harm for his government to dust down documents from Irish history in the search for inspiration about how to frame ideas and ideals that are not dominated solely by the primacy of the market but the “freshness of vision” and “tenacity of purpose” so desired by George Gavan Duffy in 1922. If such a determination was embraced, the bailout exit could represent something significant in terms of Irish distinctiveness and recovery.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD

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