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.