Angst about sovereignty

Exactly 20 years ago I delivered my inaugural public lecture as a Professor of the University of Hull in England. As my topic, I had chosen the title ‘Law, Sovereignty and Democracy’.  In England, this was a time of great debate about the merits or otherwise of being in the European Community (as it then was), and for some what made membership unpalatable was the loss of sovereignty that was implied. The purpose of my lecture was to explain the limits of sovereignty that accompanied almost all examples of statehood, and to suggest that ‘sovereignty’ was not in the end a very useful concept in assessing the extent to which citizens retained control of the destiny of their community. On the other hand, accountability by the real decision-makers to those whose lives they were affecting was, I suggested, an important issue, and one that deserved close attention.

The events in Ireland of the past few days have reminded me strongly of all this. Media commentary has been full of references to the loss of Irish sovereignty when, to be frank, the country hasn’t exercised that kind of sovereignty for a very long time; when it did (if it ever did) – say, in the 1930s and early 1940s – the use its sovereignty didn’t always produce much of lasting significance; or rather, it was expressed in things like censorship and moral policing, which perhaps not too many would wish to restore today.

There are many things to be said about the situation that now faces Ireland, but I don’t think concern about loss of sovereignty is really one of them. Whatever sovereign freedom of action we thought we had last month will eventually be restored, but that’s pretty limited in the scheme of things. What matters more is what kind of economic and social policy will have become our frame of reference in the meantime, and what kind of accountability we will be able to arrange for our decision-makers in the future, while preserving and encouraging our ability to be entrepreneurial and innovative. That matters more than chasing an abstraction.

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14 Comments on “Angst about sovereignty”

  1. Jason Michael McCann Says:

    A sovereign nation without a sovereign. Once again we see another bluff (or a ‘spoof’ as Bill Cullen would say) from our Fianna Failed glorious dealers. Their arguments are like highland cattle; a point here, a point there, and a whole load of bull in between. Between 1916 and 1922 Ireland rebelled against a liberal democracy (however unjust this regime actually was is now irrelevant) and leaped into the lap of an Italian absolute monarchy. With the rise of secularism it resigned itself to a system crippled by nepotee politicians and elitism. There were few calls to sovereignty when the state handed Shannon airport over to a foreign military presence; used for the illegal rendition of human beings being transported for the purposes of torture and other human rights’ violations. Little Ireland has a long journey ahead of it before it realises how to spell sovereignty.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Ferdinand, I agree with you that sovereignity is not a very ‘useful’ concept and has ‘limits’, especially, I would add, in our globalized and networked world, still it cannot be dismissed as an ‘abstraction’. In 1983 Benedict Anderson, Professor of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University, coined the concept of ‘imagined community’ which states that a nation is a community socially constructed, i.e. imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Sovereignity is one of the pillars of such ‘imagined’ idea of community, in other words it is part of that complex fabric of narratives that communities construct in order to define their sense of identity, hence it might be an abstraction, but its symbolic value cannot be underestimated!

  3. copernicus Says:

    Sovereignty is a loaded term and the EU construction of a group to bind post-WWII Germany into this group called EU was a bad idea from the start. EU should have been left as EEC. Even in this globalised world one has to see countries like India and China deciding what they can do without some unelected commissioner from yonder telling them what to do. It is like virginity, you only recognise it when you have lost it.

    • anna notaro Says:

      How predictable: the usual, trite, Anglo-Saxon tirade against the EU, whose instititutions, the unelected commissioner included, are expressions (and still suffer from) of the contrasting interests of the national, sovereign states!

      • copernicus Says:

        I ignore your comment and shade of racism that is crespt in. How typical. By all means, keep the commissioners and we have here drawn a line in the sand. It is is this kind of thinking that made Irish politicians sleep walk into Eurozone.. I am afraid, for Ireland there is no at of the commisioners way out except obeying the doctat.

    • Al Says:

      God save the,…, Commissioner!

      • anna notaro Says:

        better than save the queen or king, as far as I’m concerned, in any case sarcasm and/or humour cannot change the fact that European institutions are often used as scapegoats to masquerade nationational governments’ conflicting interests to their public opinion. If anything the latest economic crisis has shown the benefits of an economic ‘union’, what we lack at this crucial historical juncture is a political national class capable of facing the current challenges…wish they would go back and read the writings of the EU founding founders for some inspiration..

  4. Colum McCaffery Says:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.

    In Ireland it was predictable that those most upset about about the involvement of the IMF and others in our affairs would be dead.

    Here are some words in need of urgent rescue in Ireland:
    sovereignty, republican, democracy, freedom, equality … … (God, the list could be a long one!)

  5. Al Says:

    We have/had a wierd virgin sense sense of sovereignty!
    We never sought to enforce it through exploitation of our resources, both human and natural.
    Attempts at fortifying our independence usually ended up in factional infighting…

    • copernicus Says:

      @Al. It was plain stupid of Irish politicians to get locked into Euro which benefitted only Germans. Ireland never looked at its assets of men and material, before joing the Euro Zone. They were at that time mocking Britain as fringe player. Italians got rid of Lira , the week currency and any thing else would have been preferable for them.

      • copernicus Says:

        Sorry typos again!

      • Al Says:

        I understand what you say, but I disagree.
        The European project benefited us on many fronts.

        The blatant one is funds for infrastructure which allowed us to develop and fill in the missing decades of development.

        The more important one is that it imposed a standard and brought a sub lege government into a harsher light a more lawful existence.

        However, our motives were corrupted early on, by our own greed and by a political class who knew we could be bought and accelerated the process. I wonder how many of the Lisbon I and II gang are feeling like hired goons now….

        But the worst damage was the dulling of the intellect and instinct of the governing class and the loss of a long term national interest and a character to zealously defend it.

  6. Rudy Says:

    What a load of garbage is being thrown about.
    We excircised our soveriegn right by making our mistakes. The Government could not divulge the fact that they were holding talks to get money in place because of the markets would possibly react in a panic.
    We all know it was the Jews who killed Jesus!!!!!!!
    Get real ladies and gents.
    We all know it was the Germans who killed the Jews!!!!!
    Will we ever stand up and take our share of the blame or will we always want to point the finger .
    We killed Jesus, We killed the Jews, We were happy to fill our greedy bowls during the Tiger Years and vote in the party (although the party did not matter ) who we expected to fill our bowls fullest.
    This was a leaky dam which could have been fixed had it not been for the Sunami called global banking failure.

  7. This “we” and “our greed” nonsense should stop.

    Many people in this country could not afford to make silly investments. Others were prudent, did not make silly investments and still have their savings and/or do not suffer negative equity.

    Only a fool could have failed to notice the inevitability of collapse. The evidence was clear.

    The Irish crisis was made in Ireland. The gloabal banking failure had little or nothing to do it. Indeed, I’ve seen it argued that had interational bank failure come earlier, Ireland’s supply of borrowed capital would have been cut off earlier and the building bubble would not have been so inflated.

    There is no connection between The Lisbon Treaty and the crazy beliefs and policies that brought us to IMF intervention.

    Whenever I read the term “political class”, I know that I’m dealing with faux radicalism. It’s the dominant view in the media right now and allows cute hoors to play safe by never taking sides.

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