Editorial: The Queen and the National Question

The Citizen: Issue 4
September 2011

The recent official visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama raise many questions for republicans and socialists in Ireland. We have been subjected to a relentless official narrative of the growing ‘maturity’ of the Irish people; of the normalisation of relations with our nearest neighbour after many years of conflict; of our friendship with the US and support for its global ‘leadership’; of the values and interests we share with both Britain and the US; of our belated recognition of those who fought in British and other imperial wars; and even our rediscovery of Redmondism. This narrative is part of an ideological struggle centred around the meaning of democracy, sovereignty, and independence in Ireland. During the 1970s and 1980s, the armed struggle of the Provisional IRA provided a useful target for the project of redefining and undermining these ideas, but there were many other important battlegrounds: Ireland’s membership of the EU and the eurozone; the adoption of a quasi-corporatist form of politics in social partnership; and the embracing of neo-liberal values and principles, such as free markets, competition, deregulation of capital, curbing of trade unions and collective action of workers, and low taxation (i.e. small government). These questions are part of a single debate about the meaning of sovereignty and democracy in Ireland, and how imperialism continues to work here – in other words, they constitute the national question.

The national question, then, is at the heart of this ideological struggle. While the relationship with Britain has always been central to this question, the necessary focus on Britain has paradoxically diverted attention from the need for a broader understanding of sovereignty, independence, and democracy, the core republican and socialist demands for resolution of the national question. Sovereignty, the ability to make one’s own laws and rule oneself; independence, the freedom to do this without outside interference; and democracy, the ability of citizens to govern their own lives within society and to wield real decision-making power – none of these are limited either practically or ideologically to the role of Britain in Ireland, and the extent to which they have been undermined and hollowed out is illustrated in the present economic and financial crisis.

Sovereignty has been limited by a transfer of power to the EU across a range of areas. Anthony Coughlan and the National Platform have estimated that over 80 per cent of Irish law now comes from Brussels: they cite figures from the German Ministry of Justice that show that between 1998 and 2004, Germany adopted 23,167 legal acts, of which 18,917 were of EU origin. Notwithstanding the direct infringement on Irish sovereignty in the EU-IMF loan package and the regular recital by government ministers of our loss of sovereignty, fiscal and budgetary policy remains formally the preserve of national governments (for now, at any rate – Merkel and Sarkozy made another modest assault on this in mid-August 2011), but monetary policy is directed by the ECB and the parameters for budgets have been laid down in the Stability and Growth Pact (limits of 3 per cent and 60 per cent apply to the budget deficit and government debt to GDP ratio respectively). This has contributed to the crisis and the difficulty in dealing with it – unsuitably low interest rates in the eurozone helped fuel the Irish property bubble, while the EU-IMF insistence that the Stability and Growth Pact limits be met means more austerity measures and no stimulus investment – albeit, the crisis is essentially a structural one of capitalism. This surrender of sovereignty prevents Ireland making decisions in the interests of its citizens and their welfare in these areas, but it is political choices made by Irish politicians that brought us into the EU and eurozone, accepted the EU-IMF deal, and determines that workers and ordinary citizens must pay for the crisis.

The lack of independence is reflected in numerous ways. Economically, politically, culturally, and ideologically, Ireland has succumbed to external pressures instead of exercising independent thinking and decision making – the provincialism that has long dictated deference to metropolitan centres in London, Europe, and the US remains a factor in twenty-first century Ireland. The need and desire to be praised and endorsed by our ‘betters‘ has been evident in the boasting about Ireland’s exemplary adherence to the terms of the EU-IMF package. Ideologically, Ireland has absorbed a much more extreme version of neo-liberal and free market economics than almost any other European country – people here support ideas about competition, deregulation of capital, limiting of trade unions and collective action, low taxes/small government, entrepreneurship, and individualism that are not tempered with much concern for social consequences. This, in turn, has eased the capitulation by government to the political and economic pressures from the EU and IMF – contrary to the official spin, the state has not lost economic sovereignty because of the crisis: the government has made a political decision to accept the terms offered in order to receive the loans in return. In short, the government refuses to act independently and exercise the degree of sovereignty that it retains.

Democracy has always been a central principle of Irish republicanism, and it has been understood as control by the people over all aspects of their lives, political, economic, social, and cultural. The United Irish were heavily influenced by the republicanism of the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was widely read in Ireland at the time – the idea of the people being sovereign was important in that thinking. The 1916 Proclamation, infused with the thinking of Pearse and Connolly, insists that the people are sovereign and have a right to ‘the ownership of Ireland’ and ‘the unfettered control of Irish destinies’ – this language was echoed in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. In the current crisis, the people have been able to exercise little democratic control over the decision making that affects their lives and well-being. The manoeuvring around the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is instructive: the original decision of the people was not accepted by the establishment; cynical promises about jobs and economic salvation were made to persuade people to support the treaty; the treaty itself contained clauses to allow the European political elite to introduce further changes without consulting their peoples; and, in Ireland, the establishment began to talk openly about ways of removing the people’s right to decide whether to accept or reject future proposals. Democracy, the control by citizens over their own lives, is not valued highly in Ireland today.

Some of those hostile to the struggle for an independent, sovereign, and democratic Ireland adopted the term ‘the most oppressed people ever’ (MOPEs) as a way to ridicule and silence anti-colonial and anti-imperialist historical narratives. Today, a more appropriate term might be ‘the most mature people ever’ – the adjective ‘mature’ has been applied to anything that meets the approval of the politicians, academics, and journalists supporting this agenda, from the commemoration of the Irish who fought in the imperial wars, to the abandonment of Articles 2 and 3, to the response to the Queen’s visit. On one level, some of this is trivial, but it is all part of a concerted effort over recent decades to shift the balance of political thinking and ideology in Ireland away from the idea that we could and should be a democratic, independent, sovereign state. While the political and ideological struggle ranged over a wider terrain and had far-reaching consequences, the historiography of the Irish struggle for independence and sovereignty became an important battleground. The history debates were characterised by an effort to undermine nationalist, republican, and socialist narratives and interpretations. The methods, objectives, and even personal integrity of historical figures and movements were challenged. The right of people to take action against oppression was questioned – it was undemocratic in any circumstances, some argued, to act without the express mandate of the majority of the people. It should be accepted that the ‘revisionists’ were not wrong in everything and that ‘revisionist’ historians have produced valuable research that should be recognised as such and incorporated into our interpretations of Irish history. Nor can it be argued that the nationalist narratives and interpretations were without fault – far from it. But, we take issue with the political agenda behind this debate, which aims to reposition Ireland in the world – instead of pointing us in the direction of independence and sovereignty, the new agenda places Ireland firmly within the sphere of imperialism, as a fully signed-up junior partner, gaining a minor share of the spoils, and contributing modestly from the periphery, while providing useful political and ideological support.

The participation of Irishmen in the British army in World War I has been deployed as a weapon in this struggle. There should be no issue with remembrance, acknowledgement, and respect; while understanding and analysis are necessary for a fuller account of our history and development as a society. However, their writings suggest that the initiators of study in this area were as much motivated by a desire to ‘complicate’ and undermine nationalist narratives of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Revolution as by any wish to fully explore the meaning of the war and Irish participation in it. We got calculations of the numbers who fought in World War I and comparisons with the numbers (much fewer) who fought in the Rising and with the IRA, and conclusions were drawn about the democratic credentials of those who proclaimed the Irish Republic in 1916. We did not get any analysis of the nature of the World War and the participants and interests involved in it; we did not get any analysis of the nature of British rule in Ireland, of its political, economic, military, cultural and other dimensions; and we got no real analysis of the reasons why Irish people enlisted to fight in the war. These are obvious and basic questions, but they have not been seriously or satisfactorily addressed to date. Once they are taken into account, the debate is radically transformed: now, while simple nationalist versions of history may continue to be challenged, the new narrative, which sees participation in the war as the expression of Irish democracy, becomes too silly to sustain itself.

The war was an imperialist war, in which the interests of the major imperialist states were fought over – imperialism involved the expansion of capitalism into all parts of the world and the incorporation of more and more territory, leading to competition and conflict between the powers. Participation in such a war is problematic: no matter how we understand the motivation of those who fought in the war, and as much as we acknowledge their suffering and bravery, being part of a bloody war to advance the interests of monopoly capitalism is not a cause for celebration or uncritical commemoration. While the motivations of those who fought were varied and mixed – poverty and unemployment; adventure; the defence of Catholic Belgium and small nations; Home Rule for Ireland; chauvinism and jingoism; deference to leaders and authority; personal reasons – and while we may empathise with their individual and collective plight, that does not change our understanding of the war. The type of commemoration that we are now familiar with, such as the ceremony at Islandbridge during the recent visit of the Queen or the visit of President McAleese to Gallipoli, completely ignores the imperialist nature of the war; it sweeps into an undifferentiated mass all the different participants with their different reasons, inviting us to treat equally the political, financial, and industrial elites over whose interests the war was fought and the working and middle classes who were persuaded to sacrifice themselves in it; and it deploys a sense of national sentiment and unity to overcome the very different interests a closer examination would reveal.

Denunciations of the Rising and its leaders that are based on Irish participation in the World War seem empty when looked at in this light – they depend on averting one’s gaze from both the nature of the war and the nature of British rule in Ireland. British rule in Ireland was undemocratic: the people did not have control over their society and their wishes were not reflected in the political and constitutional regime they lived under. While some point to the holding of regular elections as evidence of the democratic and benevolent nature of British rule, these elections were neither free nor democratic: coercion, heightened at times and low-level at others, was a constant factor, while the Irish people could not vote in and out governments as they chose.

It seems perverse to challenge the credentials of the Irish revolutionaries by placing the revolution in the context of World War I when the nature of the war and of British rule is understood. Contrary to the current official narrative, the participation of so many Irish people in a war that killed 16.5 million people and wounded a further 20 million in an imperialist struggle to exert the interests of capitalism and the big powers is not a cause for self-congratulation or commemoration that does not acknowledge the nature of the war and of the sacrifice of those who died in it. It is, rather, an endorsement of those anti-imperialists who opposed both the war and the interests that fuelled it and who rose against British imperialism in 1916.

But, these are not historical debates: they are concerned with the place of Ireland in the world today. By undermining our understanding of the struggle for a democratic, independent, and sovereign Ireland, an agenda is being served. That agenda seeks to locate Ireland within the sphere of imperialism, as a loyal and willing junior partner. The national question has always been about this choice: do we want to be a democratic, free, and sovereign people, or do we want to be part of the imperialist world order? While the relationship with Britain has been central to this question for much of our history, other relationships have also been involved. Today, Ireland, North and South, is engaged in a range of organisations whose principal purpose is to organise and police the imperialist ordering of the world and the division of the spoils. The EU is the most important such body at this time, and despite its mobilisation of the language of universal human rights, freedom, and democracy, it has two main functions: to facilitate and support the smooth operation of capitalism internally and to project the interests of the EU (and its member states) globally – it is an agent of imperialism. Other organisations that protect and advance those same interests include the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, and the International Criminal Court. How could it be otherwise? They are largely controlled by the imperial powers, which will not be supporting democracy, independence, and sovereignty anytime soon.

There are those on the left who believe that opposition to the EU can only be based on nationalism – this position seems to rest on an instinctive distaste for nationalism and a simplistic internationalism that sees any international institutions as inherently more progressive than the nation state. But, the institutions of capitalism and imperialism are not designed or intended to allow people to exercise real democratic control over their lives, economically, socially, or politically. This applies equally to the national and European levels: neither the liberal democratic institutions in Ireland nor the mixture of elected and unelected institutions of the EU will ever be instruments for democratic and social control by the citizens over all aspects society. This has long been argued by radically democratic republicans (Rousseau, for example) and socialists (including James Connolly).

Sovereignty is a crucial concept in this debate. Mainstream supporters of the EU in Ireland often claim that sovereignty has not been yielded up or lost through membership of the EU and the eurozone. Sovereignty is pooled or shared at EU level, they say, where all states have an equal or proportionate (and therefore ‘democratic’) role in decision making. Some of the theorists of civic republicanism argue, also, that we live in a world where our well-being is inextricably linked with that of others, individually, nationally, and internationally. The interdependence of individuals and nations means that co-operation and joint action is necessary to promote the common good: political, economic, and environmental issues, for example, do not stop at national borders. In such a world, it is argued, the concept of sovereignty is no longer valid in its previous sense and some form of supranational sovereignty must complement (and presumably trump) national sovereignty. These arguments seem to treat sovereignty with a flexibility and casualness that reduce its meaning and importance.

Sovereignty as we understand it today was shaped by the thinking of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and had a significant influence on the republicanism of the French Revolution. Sovereignty, the idea of self-determination, was applied both at individual and state level, and it expressed the radical belief that each person should be fully self-determining. Republican thinkers such as Rousseau went on to ask the all-important question: how can the individual citizen be free and self-determining in society where the interests, needs, and desires of all compete and strive to be realised? While the practical solution to this problem remains difficult and uncertain, Rousseau proposed several principles that seem essential: first, freedom can only be achieved in society, where the individual good can be realised in the collective through some form of the common good; second, no person can be free and self-determining unless they have a full say in making the laws that govern all aspects of their lives; and third, this say in making the laws can only be exercised directly by the individual citizen herself or himself not by anyone else on their behalf.

The consequences of these conclusions are far reaching. Sovereignty remains essential to human freedom and self-realisation, both individually and collectively – a citizen, nation, or class cannot be free if they cannot themselves make the decisions that determine their lives. It is here that the arguments about pooling of sovereignty in the EU and supranational sovereignty run aground: creating new layers of decision making at further remove from the citizens diminishes sovereign control and democracy. Bringing the voting weights of the member states in the European Council into greater proportionality to their population size does not make the EU more democratic – on the contrary, it is a transfer of sovereignty from the smaller states to the larger and a lessening of democracy. Co-operation and solidarity for the common good between fully sovereign citizens and states is the only way to maintain freedom.

All life is social, and no individual existence is possible outside society, so decision making must reflect this and the common good, but this does not and should not mean a dissolving of the individual’s freedom into a collective freedom – failure to understand this leads to tyranny. None of the institutions of governance and decision making that have emerged in the era of capitalism and imperialism are capable of being democratic in the sense proposed here: they are not designed to allow citizens have control over their lives. [This is even acknowledged by theorists of modern democracy: citizens, they argue, are not competent or equipped to govern themselves: democracy consists in allowing them to periodically choose which elite will govern them.]

Struggle is possible and necessary around these institutions and their policies, and participation in them should not be mystified by their opponents (the question is whether at any particular time participation is advantageous), but those who argue for engagement should be under no illusions about the limits of such a strategy. The institutions as designed are themselves problematic: participation in them and the form of politics they support will sap and subvert democrats, republicans, and socialists and draw them towards ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ positions, because this form of politics precludes social and democratic control; takes place within an economic system that prevents not only social control but also government and state control over large parts of society and obstructs a range of not revolutionary but redistributive policies; and is governed by procedural rules and practices that necessitate compromise and concession. Even control of these institutions (Dáil Éireann, the European Parliament, the European Council, the European Commission) would not in itself lead to the democratic transformation of society – for this to happen, completely new institutions and forms of politics would have to be created. Past experience in Ireland is littered with examples of the absorption of republicans and others by this political process: it will be interesting to watch how Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance, and the progressive independents negotiate these problems – it is to be hoped that they will find better answers than those who have gone before them, some of whom sit in the present government implementing the anti-worker and anti-citizen policies of the EU and the IMF, capitalism and imperialism.

The recent visits of the US President and English Queen are part of the propaganda and ideological struggle over Ireland’s place in the world. Like all the other elements of this struggle – such as the debate over our membership of the EU and eurozone; the ‘revisionist’ version of Irish history and its challenge to anti-imperialist narratives; and the assault on the hard-won rights and conditions of workers and citizens in the shape of the neo-liberal principles of deregulation of capital, competitiveness (i.e. lower pay and worse conditions for workers; less taxation and lower costs for capital), and small government (low taxation, less government, and fewer services) – the message of the visits is that Ireland is and should be within the sphere of the US and Britain, that is, as junior partners within the imperialist ordering of the world. This message tells us that sovereignty, independence, and democracy in Ireland are neither possible nor desirable; the best we can hope for is to throw our lot in with the Western imperialist powers and look to pick up a small share of the fruits of the expropriation of the wealth created by workers all over the world.

Democracy is not greatly valued in this worldview: the democratic power of citizens and social control over society does not fit with its advocacy of the superiority of elites in business, politics, administration, and all aspects of life. It is a far cry from the revolutionary democratic message of Pearse and Connolly in 1916: that it is possible to be sovereign and independent; that we can build a democratic society in which citizens have full control over all aspects of society and full ownership of Ireland and all the wealth within it. From the point of view of democrats, republicans, and socialists, we are at a very low point in the struggle of ideas about what is possible and what we could be as individuals and a society. Imperialism seems at a high point of hegemonic domination of ideas and ideology, and the immiseration and suffering of people as a result of the current crisis in capitalism has frightened many into seeking the ‘protection’ of the system. Nonetheless, we must continue to fight this battle of ideas and ideology and try to bring increased vigour and enthusiasm to it. Until progress is made in this realm, there will be no hope of advancing towards the achievement of a better society where we are truly sovereign, independent, and in democratic control of our own lives. There is no alternative but to keep thinking, debating, and arguing about these issues; improving and adapting our analysis and understanding of the world in which we live; and trying to extend the reach of our ideas and ideology to as many people as possible.