GUEST COLUMNIST: Underlying issue in treaty debate for Ireland is its place in history

THIS shouty noisefest of a referendum campaign on the European Stability Treaty is part of a hugely important cultural debate, or it should be.

In the row about whether voting yes or no will mean more or less austerity, something profound is at risk of being missed. Certainly, economics are important and this strictly limited treaty is all about economics. But beyond where our next bowl of subsidy is coming from is another undeclared struggle, about what kind of country we will become. For some, this debate is their political cue to curl up in a foetal ball. For others it is a chance to clench their fist in protest. The security of insularity has a long and deep appeal for the Irish mind.

Cultural and intellectual isolation was historically the norm for Ireland to an extent unusual in Western Europe. Perhaps Spain until the 20th century is a parallel. But if it was cut off from the European mainstream, it was umbilically connected to the wider Hispanic world in the Americas. Ireland certainly has long strands of connection to the continent. But for us, an island in a maritime empire, the main horizon was London, and seldom much further. The underlying issue for Ireland in Europe is of our place in the world. Wouldn’t it be a great irony of Irish history if the ultimate legacy of the British Empire was its success in permanently downsizing the Irish mind?

Amid the stock-taking of the decline and crash of the past four years, endless inventories have been calculated in monetary value. The human cost of jobs lost, and of families separated, is too well understood, especially by those who bear the brunt.

There is a lack of understanding, however, that the decision we will take on May 31 is part of a continuum of choice that is defining the society we aspire to be. Aside from the economic issues immediately at stake, there is the deeper question of capacity for deeper engagement with an ever more complex European polity.

In the 40 years since Ireland voted to enter the then EEC, expectations have been raised and realised, dashed and disappointed. On the whole, however, there are few who argue that being part of the European project has not been of overwhelming benefit to Ireland. Of the 15-member states that welcomed the then historic enlargement of another 10 in 2004, Ireland was undeniably the most transformed by EU membership.

Beyond the benefits of sizeable funds, there was an authentic expansion in national confidence. Aside from our formative membership of the League of Nations and the UN, Ireland was for the very first time routinely dealing with its own domestic issues on an international stage. In the pooling of sovereignty, opportunities emerged not only for jobs and for growth, but for leading internationally. Participation in Europe was immensely important as a validation of independence, not least of an independent mindset. The loss of economic sovereignty highlights this only recently past reality, as well as underlining its practicality as an attainable goal again. Regaining our self-direction will be meaningful only if we have a context within which we can effectively pursue our national interest. For Ireland, that context is Europe.

For a population of four million, hugging onto part of an island in the North Atlantic, we have limited, but nonethelessreal, strategic choices. Becoming part of Europe validated our decision not to live on after past events, in the slipstream of a British axis. If our relationship with London is both positive and vital, it is all the more so because we have engineered a multi-faceted relationship with the world. An irony of this referendum campaign is that if we, together with the other member states, fail to strengthen the euro effectively and should it eventually fail, we will be thrown back into the maw of our largest trading partner, the UK. In a globalised economy there will be no independent Irish currency. Sterling, the Queen’s shilling, will be the ultimate booby prize for Gerry Adams and Éamon Ó Cuív.

It is instructive to examine the mind-set of those who not only oppose this Treaty but who have consistently opposed Ireland in Europe.

I must, however, excuse Éamon Ó Cuív from the charge of consistency. He opted out of the perennial no campaign during the nine years for which he held cabinet office. If power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, it is also a powerful amnesia. He reverted to type only when the disco music of government stopped. Turf, toilets, and Provos may be crude tools of statecraft but they are what are to hand. He is determined to use them all.

Sinn Féin is a party on the rise. Discounting its spectacular increase in the opinion polls reveals only a less spectacular but remorseless electoral climb. Martin McGuiness’ presidential campaign was a poultice for the poison that afflicted the party electorally. Fianna Fáil’s demise leaves the constitutional republican brand wide open for recolonisation. Critically, all this comes at a time when Labour, by participating in government, has left its votes and seats prey to attack. And in electoral terms this is all about the carcass of the Labour party. Sinn Féin are in a three-cornered fight with Labour and the United Left Alliance for ultimate dominance of the left. If you have any doubt, then last Saturday’s rally of the United Left Alliance should explain. Some of its most bitter attacks were against Sinn Féin.

Marxism, like Catholicism, maybe a theology of the universal, but in Ireland its most important causes are local. Water charges and the property tax now, and the bin tax previously, are the chosen levers of protest. The ULA may be committed to the command of personal and commercial resources on an unmatched scale, but its tactical positioning requires that for now it campaigns on whatever issues come to hand. Unrest, its creation and its propagation, is the politically fetid climate in which Joe Higgins’ Socialist Party and Richard Boyd Barrett’s Socialist Workers Party, constituent parts of the ULA can prosper.

Stepping right up to the line of calling for a no vote, without actually crossing it, is self-appointed Catholic polemicist David Quinn. Writing in the Irish Independent last Saturday and commenting on what he considers a Labour-led assault on family, school, and Church, he wrote: “Pro-life and pro-family voters may feel they have no other choice than to vote against the fiscal treaty,” though he admits these issues have “nothing to do with the referendum itself”. Either oblivious or simply uncaring that the Tea Party Catholicism he advocates is itself insidiously anti-clerical, he ignores the point that the European project was one deeply influenced at its foundations by catholic thinking.

We are living through a time of prolonged crisis. If there are tentative signs that the worst is over, there are none that the end is in sight. In the weeks ahead we will witness endless argument on the fiscal treaty. But the deeper question is whether we have lost our nerve. Are we so winded by events that we are not up to playing the great game again?

Independence came before as the flowering and the fruit of a great renaissance of the Irish mind. What will matter in 20 years time will not be how far we fell; it will be how far we rebounded.


David Brophy's new choir and a classic Ireland v Holland game feature among today's top tips.Thursday's TV Highlights: David Brophy's new choir and a classic Ireland v Holland game

More From The Irish Examiner