Kevin Myers: Irish sovereignty? A jolly little pretence and a sham
'It has been a very hard-won sovereignty for this country and the Government is not going to give over that sovereignty to anyone," said Batt O'Keeffe this week.
He was subscribing -- yet again -- to the pretence that independence has meant sovereignty. It's a jolly little pretence, and it tickles our vanity, but at bottom it is, nonetheless, a hollow sham.
Sovereignty means that you at least try to be sovereign over your seas: and the first item in the Treaty debates concerned the surrender of Irish control over Ireland's own waters. There was never a day from 1922 to this week when the 26 counties could command a bucket of Hibernian brine washing on its own beaches, never mind attempt to assert its will over that strange oxymoron, "territorial waters". To be sure, we can arrest the odd Spanish fishing vessel, but preferably without asking the question, why are there so many Spanish trawlers in our waters?
Answer: because we gave away our fishing rights as part of some complex EEC deal which the Department of Agriculture might explain to you, but I cannot.
Here we were, an island nation; but as little interested in mastery of our seas as Luxembourg or Hungary are in theirs. It was no doubt wise not to have tried to wrest command of these waters from the greatest navy in the world, but please, do not mistake strategic shrewdness with True Independence.
Even when the British withdrew from the Treaty Ports, there was no attempt to replace their naval presence with Irish ships. We negotiated a vacuum, and called it ours. And so it was, but the outer shield of that vacuum was -- well, what do you know? -- still provided by the Royal Navy. Fianna Fail was merely the suction-pump that prevented any air of realism from contaminating this vacuous sovereignty.
Yes, Ireland certainly asserted its lawful authority on internal matters, such as censorship and condoms and divorce and so on -- also known as Rome Rule. But we never behaved like a grown-up Republic, a polity that meaningfully guards its sea and land borders and its air-space, and diverts a painful amount of resources into doing so. We always took the cheap option; and if that involved calling on the dreaded British to do our duties for us, we would simply avert our eyes and hold our noses.
Few examples of the distance between professional duty and political fantasy quite match that of when an Air India plane came down off our west coast.
Heroic Irish sailors risked their lives fighting off sharks to retrieve the bodies.
Meanwhile, Irish soldiers were deployed to protect British helicopters from terrorist attack as they brought in the bodies of the victims, and as RAF Nimrods provided top cover.
Were the same sort of calamity to happen today, we should be as dependent on the British as we were 25 years ago, though the terrorist threat is (for the time being anyway) no longer present.
No sea power, no air power: what about our soldiers? Fine men, to be sure, who 50 years ago became the focus of a wave of grief and adulation following the Niemba ambush.
But the noisy political sympathy was all puff, posturing and persiflage.
Nine years on, when the Northern crisis broke, and someone in Cabinet proposed sending Army commandos to the North, someone else pointed out that the Army didn't have commandos. It didn't have armour. Maybe it could get a Fordson lorry as far as Newry, but it would then have to dig in, waiting for a counter-attack by a few portly B-Specials with their dreaded halberds.
Throughout the subsequent Troubles, the Army never had any troop-carrying lift; indeed, that bloodied quarter century revealed the utter failure of Irish sovereignty, because throughout, there were two armies in independent Ireland, and the only time they had a firefight, the "illegal" one, the IRA, won. That should have been followed by the ruthless extermination of the alternative army -- and would have been in a state that regarded sovereignty as being paramount. But not in this Republic. Indeed, so little did we cherish "sovereignty" that it was left to Ian Paisley, rather than our Government, to demand the disarmament of Sinn Fein-IRA. And by God, he got it: which just shows what willpower can do.
Willpower. That's the real word here, isn't? How much willpower is this State ever able to assert over anything? Over its banks and borders, its unions, its seas, its skies and its civil service? And in what areas is our Government truly sovereign? But then, when were we ever truly sovereign? The truth is that we've never had our own currency, which is the only true mark of true fiscal sovereignty: instead, we either stamped a harp on someone else's coins and called them ours, or we attached the little goods-wagon of the punt to the ERM-locomotive that was the Deutschmark. Until one day, the euro came along, and we hopped aboard, giddily heading for Bahnhof Ruination -- as absolutely promised by the much-derided euro-sceptics. Sovereignty, Batt?
Apart from the ability to peremptorily close down the nation's schools for a week on the strength of a largely incorrect weather forecast, we haven't got a clue what real sovereignty means.