Thursday 23 January 2020

How perils of federalism are crushing European dream

We are on a steep learning curve as regards the national implications of federal arrangements, writes John-Paul McCarthy

PRIME Time's superb programme on the anniversary of the IMF-ECB bailout will resonate longer than the Cowen in Crisis series. It kept a disciplined focus on the principal actors and avoided the temptation to surrender the story to sundry talking heads.

The result was a riveting 50 minutes that seemed on occasion to collapse the barriers that separate our past from our present.

Listening to Eamon Ryan talk about how Ireland was railroaded into the dreaded 'facility' after a G20 conclave in South Korea and a Franco-German summit in Deauville, I bizarrely thought of the Ulster unionists.

Many commentators in the Seventies and Eighties used to complain about the UUP's disinterest in exploring the federalised Ireland model Garret FitzGerald proposed in his most important book, Towards a New Ireland (1972), and again at the New Ireland Forum as Taoiseach.

Even Charles Haughey hitched his wagon to the federalist star, offering unionists a whole new constitution if they'd surrender the Government of Ireland Act.

Prime Time's description of what actually happens to minorities in federal or confederal arrangements put some flesh and bone on the unionist suspicion of FitzGerald. The details of Ireland's 'programme' were dictated by a European central bank that cherishes a supra-national mandate, and that proudly ignores calls for special treatment at the margins.

'Twas always thus it seems in federal systems, and the UUP logically feared that even a federal Irish government beholden to them would always be similarly talking just above their heads.

The pain we now feel in the economic context could just as easily be replicated in the constitutional sphere in a federal Ireland, especially if unionists felt bullied by a federal executive or alienated from a federal Irish Supreme Court.

Eamon Ryan and Patrick Honohan spoke better than they knew on Monday night, and here's hoping that any future plan for a world-historical federal united Ireland will start with their saturnine account of what it feels like to be the federal minority.

They reminded us all over again that Ireland never really had a proper discussion in the Sixties and Seventies about the structural implications of our application for European membership.

Lemass wanted access to the huge trading markets of the continent and, having been traumatised by the collapse of his self-sufficiency economic model after 1945, he was prepared to cross the sovereignty Rubicon without too much heavy breathing.

Jack Lynch had no interest either in starting a national debate about the fundamental incompatibility between Ireland's Anglophile understanding of sovereignty and the radically different ideas of Schumann and Egon Bahr.

The last thing an embattled Taoiseach like Lynch needed was a national conversation about the perils of federalism.

This kind of debate would obviously have bled into the Northern Ireland crisis, and in that context steady-as-she-goes looked tempting.

Many senior European figures commented on Ireland's fairly feeble contribution since 1973 to the intellectual capital of Europe.

Roy Jenkins, the first and last British president of the European Commission, always saw the feverish Irish enthusiasm for structural integration as basically anti-intellectual to the extent that it was really an attempt to shame Britain by contrast.

To that extent, Irish EU policy was not really about the EU at all, because it bore the heavy analytical stamp of older arguments about Anglo-Irish relations.

Ireland's ready acceptance of massive constitutional change on the sovereignty issue was always subliminally part and parcel of the Northern Ireland endgame.

If we can drop our zero-sum approach to sovereignty, said Dublin sweetly, why can't London do likewise and open the door for us in Belfast by conceding an intergovernmental conference or even FitzGerald's lifelong desiderata, an Irish Minister for Northern Ireland based in Belfast, with British permission?

Prime Time's interviews with the principal architects of Ireland's 'facility' made me think of another non-economic lesson that also hangs heavily on us.

We are now living through a new age of Irish nationalism in many respects, as both right and left-wing parties unite in their loathing of the European dream.

Prime Time showed how even traditionally Europhile parties like Fine Gael might rationally have slammed on the brakes here.

An American treasury secretary intervened to protect the private bank bond holders.

A Hungarian economist marched into Finance and took a scythe to its optimistic calculations about the Anglo debt burden.

Such sweeteners as are available to mendicant states were dispensed by an Indian IMF economist who speaks as softly as Pandit Nehru.

And the G20 plank-walk was presided over by a Finn who isn't half as gentle as he appears on the news.

Watching this nightmarishly cosmopolitan beating made me think of Daniel Corkery's vindictive attack on what he called the "intrinsically weakling hearts" of international masterpieces.

Dail Eireann is full of people today who endorse the mindset behind that indictment, even if they would dissent from the adjective 'weakling'.

Prime Time made it clear that we are on a vertiginous learning curve now as regards the national implications of federal arrangements.

I used to think that the most apt description of Irish-EU relations was James Madison's image of the compound republic, that shiny, multi-sided diamond-shaped entity that asks its citizens to divide their political loyalties between multiple levels.

But after Prime Time, I think this is probably too abstract and indulgent an image. We are now back to where De Valera said we would be after the Treaty, tethered to a helpless giant, crushed by the weight of mere geographical propinquity.

Has vulnerability ever seemed so constant?

John-Paul McCarthy also writes for The Spectator

Sunday Independent

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