The Idea of Ireland

As the annual St Patrick’s festival draws to a close, a global celebration of Irishness fostered by the two-headed monster of the Irish Diplomatic corps and the Tourist Board, the DUP in the North is coming under pressure to accept the terms of the latest negotiation between the UK and the EU on post-Brexit arrangements, specifically as they apply to the island of Ireland. There are significant baubles on offer, but in the eyes of most unionists it is one more step away from their cherished union with the big island next door. Nationalists meanwhile have been trying to stifle the laughter at such a self-inflicted wound as Brexit – encouraged by a dreadfully judged political position taken by the DUP – and trying to be mature about the process. A new Ireland must be considered, and planned for, given the imminent reintegration of the six counties into the island nation as a matter of formality. And yet what should that mean?

The starting point is a kind of correction of various alleged faux pas in 1922 (Treaty / Civil-War), 1925 (Boundary Commission), or 1949 (Republic of Ireland full independence), where, but for the machinations of Whitehall, the island could have been ‘made whole’. And yet, slowly it becomes clear that we are not in any of those times, but in 2023, and that any conception of a United Ireland needs to be defined in 2023 terms. Another element involves the accession of the North of Ireland formally into the EU, and out of the UK – whatever that may look like in such an event. Depending on sequencing, Scotland’s exit from the UK could easily trigger Irish unification; however, were Ireland to unify first, it seems likely that London would go to great lengths to persevere the union with Scotland and make its independence an ever more distant prospect. A third point of departure regards the Irish Constitution, which would need to be significantly amended to take into account the new geography, but also the new politics that unification would require. Protestant former unionists, participants in the new dispensation, would need to be represented in the interests of democracy, in the governing institutions of the State.

I would go further back, however, and question whether these ways of framing Irish unification – historically, internationally, or constitutionally – adequately address the weaknesses in the current definition of the state – and of any state, for that matter. We should be asking the question ‘what is a state for?’, and fundamentally reassessing our governing arrangements. Consider the following observations, in terms of strategy, geography and philosophy. First, we are finally emerging from the detritus of the French revolution, where in a frenzied five (or twenty) years the forces of enlightenment and romanticism battled against one another for ascendancy. In modern UK terms, neither the (neo)liberalism of Margaret Thatcher / Tony Blair nor the romanticism of Jeremy Corbyn / Boris Johnson has been able to marshal our neighbour to the east into anything resembling a coherent order; their decline continues. Furthermore, we are increasingly entering a post-democratic world, where the illusion of control is being shattered by an awareness of the interconnectedness of things, and of a political ecology that means power is being reshaped. While some States are responding in a reactionary way with a fondness for authoritarianism and illiberalism, one suspects that the standard will lie somewhere beyond that short-sightedness.

Second, we are most definitely in a post-theological era (with apologies to Carl Schmitt), where the influence of various churches holds sway in the offices of power. Third, we have a technological reality where Ireland as an island can – not unreasonably – be perceived as a kind of city state, with all parts of the island physically accessible within a few hours, where all citizens of the state can be communicated with instantly. Fourth, we have a situation where borders are no longer physical edifices, but cultural, ideological, legal, economic and political ones, arbitrarily constructed in the process of national myth making. That Ireland is an island may represent clear physical boundaries, but its diaspora is relatively speaking one of the largest in the world, while over a hundred thousand people paying Irish taxes are entitled to vote for the Polish presidential election.

As nation states and countries more generally were politically established through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a key consideration was security, and national defence. Ireland for her position chose neutrality through a difficult century, a position that has been increasingly challenged in the last twenty years as its support for European political integration developed, as did its alignment with the USA that permitted the refueling of rendition flights from Iraq and Afghanistan at Shannon, and more recently its clear support for Ukraine in the war against Russia. Today, Ireland’s primary strategic threat is electronic, evidenced by the attack on the Health Service during the pandemic, rather than one of ‘conventional’ warfare.

In economic terms, Ireland’s twin trade inter-dependencies – on the USA and the EU – along with its acquiescence to European monetary policy with the Euro as its primary currency, mean that an independent Ireland cannot truly be claimed, whether across 26 or 32 counties. Its tax policy and social services structure is also in some sense limited by its membership of the EU, and its debt profile – exacerbated by the pandemic. Informal economic structures – whether via cryptocurrencies, farmers markets or migrant labour forces – are growing in relevance and number, not just in Ireland, where technology facilitates highly dynamic and agile economic diversity.

In political philosophy terms, the question needs to be asked about the relevance or appropriateness of the social contract. What exactly are we signing up for? If the state is increasingly privatizing or financializing public services, and its capacity to deliver change is limited in any case by its supranational and international-economic obligations, perhaps we should acknowledge that our contract with the state is a little one-sided. An Isle of Man based company now imposes traffic fines. Many health support services are outsourced. Even policing systems are managed out of country by large multi-national technology companies, while personal data – it’s still the wild west, however we might like to feel smug about GDPR.

The myth-making of Ireland has been nothing less than epic, and unashamedly so. Playing to receptive audiences in the USA and the wider diaspora, however many times removed, has been extraordinarily sucecssful. Ireland is recognised worldwide for its inoffensiveness, its fun, its misty-eyed environmentalism (rolling green hills and all that), little of which bears any resemblance to the real proletarian existence of the place. Farmers would take an extra 5 cents on the kilo of beef rather than contribute to preserving the lot of the white-tailed eagle or the badger, while twirling windfarms and 5G masts now top most of those hills-of-green. The internal image of Ireland is a different one, though associations with sports – such as rugby and golf – combine with popular cultural contributions (think Riverdance, U2) to produce a secular identity that is desirable. Consider the extraordinary expense that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other petro-states are going to in order to establish for themselves an identity either domestically or internationally that is in the first instance coherent and persistent, and then in qualitative terms desirable.

I started this blog over ten years ago focused on how state legitimacy was measured, and it has emerged into a (roughly!) monthly consideration of lots of different political, philosophical and sociological issues, but I’ve only rarely turned the gaze on Ireland herself. The modern, new Irish state needs to look forward, and so rather than taking the approach of ‘correcting a mistake of the past’ when considering Irish unity, we should seek to redefine not just Ireland as an integrated whole, but the very idea of what it means to be a country. This is a socio-cultural-bureaucratic structure, less so a political one, at least in the conventional, national sense of politics-as-statesmanship. There is also a question about law and its place, and the management of the rule of law. There is now such pervasive wooliness around the fringes of law – from traffic to online trading to taxation and even enterprise compliance – that the idea of rule of law is under threat. To reintroduce Carl Schmitt, the infrastructure of democracy is protected almost exclusively in its breach, through the state of exception. Should we therefore be realistic, and recognise its weakness for what it is? Our hypocrisies are myriad.

The opportunity to recast Ireland as a modern state, to define what a modern techno-state should look like, is real and imminent. It will of course take real leadership to drive that conversation forward, notwithstanding the limitations of the current set of electoral cycles and party politics. I’m convinced that Ireland has the maturity to take that step, and to lead. Few if any states have the kind of opportunity to set such a course, save in the aftermath of war, where the thirst for vengeance can be blinding. We have an exciting time ahead of us!

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