April 2016        

The myth of Irish sovereignty

Eoghan M. Ó Néill

One hundred years ago Irish men and women lit a spark that they hoped would lead to an Irish Republic, sovereign and free from the stranglehold of British imperialism. The revolutionary forces of 1916 were the product of the economic, political and social oppression visited upon the Irish people by the continued tyranny of Britain. Their challenge to British imperialism would awaken the slumbering giant of the Irish people in a herculean effort to throw off the yoke of British despotism.
     A degree of political and economic freedom was attained; but, despite the declaration of an Irish Republic in April 1949, the Irish have yet to achieve the status of a sovereign people.
     If, as our political elite declare, we are a sovereign people, and if we are the tenth-wealthiest nation in the world (as declared in the 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index), would we consent to the decimation of our social and economic fabric? • Nearly 6,000 of our people are without a home, 1,830 of them children. • Nearly 8,000 of our people are on hospital trolleys. • We have the worst hospital waiting times in Europe. • More than 600,000 of our people are dependent on food charity. • 376,000 of our people are living in consistent poverty. • 211,000 of our children are living in consistent poverty. • More than 35,000 of our citizens emigrated last year.
     Are these the actions of a sovereign people who are the tenth-wealthiest in the world?
     Ireland as a nation may be in the top ten of the world’s wealthiest, but the majority of the Irish people are not. The Central Statistics Office reports that in 2015 the top 10 per cent of the country’s households own 54 per cent of net wealth (defined as real and financial assets minus debt); the top 5 per cent of households own 38 per cent of net wealth, while 15 per cent of the wealth lies in the pockets of the richest 1 per cent.
     As for the poorest 20 per cent of households, they owe more than they own. The Central Bank states that, on average, debt in Ireland is greater than 170 per cent of disposable income. It is difficult to be sovereign if you are in debt.
     The hospital waiting lists, the criminal levels of homelessness, the Dickensian levels of poverty are difficult to reconcile with sovereignty. They are but reflections of our non-sovereignty. They are the results of a people who have no say in how the economy of their country is organised.
     According to the Constitution of Ireland, sovereignty is derived from the people. However, the reality is very different. Despite the trappings of a sovereign state, an elected parliament, and elected president, our elected political institutions do not defer to the Irish people but to their economic masters.
     For example, in 2015 the US Bureau of Economic Analysis stated that American transnationals in Ireland made profits of $970,000 per employee and yet paid only $25,000 per employee in tax. Transnational corporations can also benefit from a 25 per cent tax credit for research and development.
     Ireland’s corporate tax system is one of the lowest in the OECD, lower even than that of the United States or Britain. The fact is that transnational corporations decide what level of tax they are prepared to pay, with the likes of Apple and Google paying as little as 2 per cent, instead of the 12½ per cent they are meant to pay.
     The failure to develop home-grown wealth-producing industries, and the reliance on direct foreign investment and non-wealth-producing services, undercuts the ability of Irish governments to negotiate on equal terms. This is reflected in the drive to reduce labour costs and to increase productivity. Irish labour costs are already lower than many of its EU “partners,” including Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and France. Irish workers are among the most productive workers in Europe, trailing only Norway and Luxembourg.
     It is clear that the priority of the government is not the needs of the Irish people but the generating of profits for transnationals by means of exploited labour.
     Even if the government wanted to address the social ills listed above it could not do so, as it is restricted by the EU and the European Central Bank. Under the EU Stability and Growth Pact, Ireland is prohibited from borrowing more than 3 per cent of GDP to address such areas as health, education, housing, prevention of poverty, etc. And Ireland’s budgets must first be scrutinised by the EU before they can be passed, and if necessary be amended if the EU is unhappy with any aspect of the budget.
     The EU is at present negotiating a number of “trade agreements,” which, if passed, would have negative impacts on Irish workers, including the irreversible privatisation of public services and the loss of national governments’ power to enact laws that would protect citizens dependent on those services. Furthermore, transnational corporations will be able to sue the Irish government, in corporate courts, for billions should the government enact any legislation that the transnational believes would inhibit its ability to make a profit from those services.
     The abandonment of Irish neutrality to the interests of US imperialist warmongering is seen in the use of Shannon Airport to facilitate US troop movements and accommodate the illegal transfer of prisoners. This, coupled with the gradual integration of the Irish state in pan-European military institutions, further shreds the remaining tatters of Irish neutrality.
     All these conditions are inimical to the concept of sovereignty. They paint a picture not of a sovereign people but of a subject people. This is an accurate description of how 21st-century imperialism is practised. As was witnessed in Greece, the bank has replaced the tank in imperial weaponry. In Ireland we also felt the iron heel of imperial EU rule when the Irish people were forced to pay 42 per cent of the total private gambling debts of EU bankers.
     Imperialism has developed from that faced by the men and women of 1916. It has become more complex and shadowy. Gone are the overt trappings of direct colonial rule—although the military threat remains. Today imperialism has adorned itself in the clothes of globalism. It has retained the trappings of national independence while pulling the strings of a comprador elite to ensure national subservience to imperial interests.
     Furthermore, the peripheral counties of the global north, counties like Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Italy, have been drawn into the imperial pact, albeit as subordinates. Still we participate in the exploitation of the global south and continue to feed at the trough of imperial rent. The results will only bring further deindustrialisation to the global north, and lower wages and worsening working and social conditions for all workers on a global scale.
     Severing the political link with Britain in the 26 Counties has not brought sovereignty. Establishing the political reunification of Ireland, while important and necessary, will by itself not bring about sovereignty. As long as Ireland remains within the fold of capitalism, the Irish people will remain a subject people, a powerless people, a people without agency, secondary to the interests of our capitalist masters. We will also remain the unwitting agents in the subjugation of our brothers and sisters in the global south.
     Only an economic and social revolution can lay the foundations of a sovereign people. Only a socialist republic can break the shackles of imperialism and open up the potentials for a sovereign people. The Irish revolution begun a hundred years ago remains unfinished.

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