GUEST COLUMNIST: A nation once again, free to abuse and misuse our sovereignty

The regaining of Irish  sovereignty will preface President Michael D Higgins' State visit to Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle

THE soon-to-be-fulfilled promise of Ireland walking upright from the bailout, beyond the maw of the troika, needs a national song to be celebrated. Sunday, Dec 15 is the day of reckoning; when Ireland regains her sovereignty. Great moments — like good marching — need music, and marching and music are indispensable to civic pride.

Stephen Foster’s ballad, ‘Hard Times Come Again No More,’ of more than 150 years ago and adopted by an America traumatised by civil war, would be apt. It is sober and mournful, but hopeful — and there is a good version by the Chieftains. The regaining of Irish sovereignty will preface President Michael D Higgins’ State visit to Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle — within months, two powerful signs of a renewed, reinvigorated Ireland. The president won’t go to Windsor a beggar on horseback. He will be the proud head of a sovereign state. We won’t be renting the top hats and tail coats from the court costumiers, thank you.

Oh, hard times come again no more. There’s achievement to be proud of, to be sure. There is hope that hard times, if not no more, may be waning. For three budgets and three years, the Government has stuck to a course of economic rectitude and responsibility. The State has slowly regained a measure of strength and capacity. Whether that adds up to sovereignty is doubtful. But it may appease recent memories of humiliation, and redeem past hubris. It will allow the Government to claim, with justification, that sovereignty is about to be reclaimed.

This Government’s political project has been founded on rebuilding the State. That project has been progressed and may, ultimately, be successful. It has come at a cost, both to the citizens who have had to pay for it, and to the politicians who have led it. If much is made of the former, something should also be made of the latter. We have enjoyed a fair measure of leadership, economically.

The decision to forgo a financial backstop, by way of an alternative line of credit, should the godless markets forsake us, may have been a mistake. But we won’t know that for some time and nobody has an interest in finding out the hard way.

So, here’s truly hoping for the best. My hunch, based on what is knowable now, is that there is a reasonable basis for being hopeful. But the sovereignty about to make us a nation once again is shallow. Remember, it is economic sovereignty that is promised. But we have never had that, since we joined the European Union in 1973. When we did, before, it was a disaster.

Economic sovereignty was a tool for isolationism and mass emigration. It fuelled a social outlook that was vindictive towards the weakest members of the society marooned at home, and utterly uncaring of its emigrant diaspora, except, of course, for their remittances.

It was only in the progressive pooling of sovereignty that prosperity came, and with it social progress. Sovereignty cannot be regained unless we reverse back over a cliff to an unreachable past, or lurch forward into a future that replays the mistakes of our recent hubris.

Some of the pouting hoopla about the return of economic sovereignty is as incongruous as the middle class, with too much Chablis, belting out Armoured cars and tanks and guns/Came to take away our sons/But every man must stand behind The men behind the wire as the Troika retreats.

December 15 will be a tribute, in economic terms, to good government. It will also be a farewell to the scorned troika, which was, in economic terms, the best government we have had since Sean Lemass.

But that’s letting the cat out of the bag. Sure, we are only mad to go on the lash with the auld sovereignty again. Bring on Shirley Bassey and ‘Big Spender’ again, I hear you say.

Fine Gael’s standing in the polls reflects the success of the national project to regain sovereignty. It is the party historically associated with the State as a project. Labour, in contrast, were founded for a social project, and committed themselves to that before the election.

That project, and any prospect of social democracy in the political life of this generation, has been jettisoned.

Fianna Fáil, who never fully embraced the State and who cast themselves, with creative ambiguity, as a national movement, have been caught in a no-man’s land between having no power and nothing credible to promise.

In the space between a sinking Labour and a stalling Fianna Fáil, independents and Sinn Féin inch forward.

It is too early to say, it is certainly foolish to anticipate, but if the electoral narrative revolves around our national sovereignty, how it was lost, how it was regained, and how we might prosper in its pale, modern reflection, the ultimate winners, or, at least, survivors, may be Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

AS WE regain our economic sovereignty and President Higgins is kitted-out for Windsor Castle, we should remember that the great reconciliation of civil-war politics on this island would not be between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It would be between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

Reconciliation between Britain and Ireland is a basis for reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Queen Elizabeth went to the Garden of Remembrance to bow her head in honour of our Fenian dead. President Higgins, escorted by the Household Cavalry, cavalcading by carriage into Windsor Castle, will be a powerful symbol of the real sovereignty of a small island, vis-à-vis its much larger neighbour and former occupying power.

Measured by these milestones, the distance between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael is not so great.

As for our economic sovereignty, Fianna Fáil destroyed itself in losing it. Labour has only succeeded in impaling itself on public anger, for the role it has played in regaining it.

Of the two-and-a-half party system that predated this crisis, only Fine Gael is, for now, in reasonable shape. And Sinn Féin is seemingly on the rise.

Coalition with Fine Gael may be improbable, but government with the DUP was once impossible.

If the Dáil numbers require Fine Gael to find a new partner after the next election, one or other of the alternatives better learn the words of ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.


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