Lisbon Essay (19): A No vote will stop the drift to ‘undemocracy’…

Jason Walsh argues that when you strip away the contralto hyperbole of some of the more extreme claims of No campaigners like Coir, there is more than a grain of truth to their case that Irish sovereignty is under attack, primarily because multilateral institutions do not take national sovereignty seriously any more. The default assumption is that primary field of play is now on the multilateral plane… Worse than that, he argues, that all manner of powers (fiscal control has already been ceded to the ECB) have already been given away by the national parliament. Opposing Lisbon is less about the detail of the document, and more to do with calling an end to a wider drift to a kind of undemocracy

By Jason Walsh

They died for my freedom? One of the key arguments emanating from the No camp in the Lisbon debate is that Ireland’s sovereignty is under threat from the European Union. It sounds like alarmist nonsense ?and it is. Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that sovereignty is under attack, just not in the way we normally understand these things.

In fact, Ireland’s ?and other countries’ ?sovereignty is under threat from both within and without and you don’t need to invoke the ghosts of Irish republicanism to understand how.

Let’s be clear: Cóir‘s emotive nationalism is a diversion. The armies of the major European powers are not going to colonise Ireland. The threats to sovereignty today are not the same as those of the past and revisiting 1916, 1918, 1919, 1920 or even 1969 will not provide any useful answers.

As David Chandler, professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, has argued at length, national sovereignty is not taken seriously today ?it is, in fact, a two tier system.

The Iraq war was an obvious example ?the United States and its (much-reduced) group of allies clearly violated a sovereign nation. Unfortunately, under the chorus of complaints about American exceptionalism and a return to old-fashioned imperialism, a great many more subtle attacks on sovereignty were ignored. Threats that, truth be told, are a lot more dangerous than any war. After all, the overwhelming force of American military might is not a direct threat to many people in western Europe ?who really thinks that the US would invade France, Denmark or Ireland?

Supra-nation institutions like the International War Crimes Tribunal, the European Court of Human Rights and others exercise powers that overrule decisions made in national parliaments. Yes, these bodies have made decisions that are progressive and easy to agree with. But that is not the point. We are supposed to be democrats and our countries are meant to be composed of thinking, self-governing, sovereign subjects.

Forget the cuddly rhetoric ?it is absurd. People in Europe have been murdered by the marauding armies of Nato in the name of human rights. Similarly, the failed project that is the state-building mission in Kosovo, a pet project of the EU, not only violates Serbian sovereignty, it fails to give the new country of Kosovo meaningful sovereignty at all. Kosovo is, and will remain, an EU protectorate, not a real country.

Worse, though, is Ireland’s willing abdication of its sovereignty. Of course, joining the Euro saw Irish fiscal policy dictated by Germany (which was fine in good times, but could turn out to be a problem now) so there is a clear precedent for abrogating their duties. It also follows the global trend for politicians retreating from economics and instead regulating individual behaviour.

Yes campaigners have made the argument that the EU is responsible for much of the legislation that has brought Ireland into line with the rest of the developed world. Does this not strike anyone as a problem?

Let’s take one simple example in the area of social policy: The fact that homosexuality in Ireland was legalised in an EU court is a disgrace. David Norris did what one man could do ?he sued. But suing is not how social change is brought about. The people of Ireland should be adult enough to make these decisions for itself, to campaign for greater freedoms, to get the state out of its bedrooms and generally behave like a modern nation. And if conservative opposition materialised it should have been fought in the court of public opinion, not by overpaid barristers in the rarefied atmosphere of courtrooms.

Complaining about the graft and cowardice of politicians is easy, but politicians remain our deputies. If we fail to stand up and let our voices be heard what motivation is there for them to serve us? The failure of Ireland’s politicians is our failure and only we can remedy it.

Increasingly we hear the astonishingly illiberal voices of Irish liberals who defer more and more authority to un-elected and unrepresentative bodies, be they the courts, quangos or the EU itself. The not so hidden message is that the Irish are too stupid, too greedy and too much like the clichés of old to be trusted with governing themselves. Conor Cruise O’Brien may have thought the Irish were a nation of hare-brained urbanised peasants but that’s no excuse for the rest of us thinking it.

Voting No to Lisbon won’t fix the problems of either the EU or Ireland ?but it will put down a marker for self-determination. If we really want to modernise Irish politics or democratise the EU, it’s going to take a lot of hard work ?and it’s up to us to do it.

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  • zeleneye

    Is ‘undemocracy’ a word?

    I must have missed that module when I studied political science.

  • This is a muddled argument.

    You cannot believe simultaneously in the supremacy of national sovereignty and also of individual sovereignty. One must take precedence over the other. In a representative democracy, we as citizens (or subjects) forgo the right to do as we please in order to further the common good. And yet, Walsh argues that “sovereign” nation states should not do the same.

    The people of Ireland should be adult enough to make these decisions for itself, to campaign for greater freedoms, to get the state out of its bedrooms and generally behave like a modern nation

    One might as well argue that the people of Ireland should be adult enough to be nice to each other and not murder or steal. But they’re not, and sometimes you do have to appeal to a higher authority. If the Irish people weren’t willing to live up to the commitments they made under human rights conventions, they shouldn’t have signed.

  • Mick Fealty


    One my own inventions… Politics, after all, is as much an art than a science… 🙂

  • The EU had nothing to do with the legalisation of homosexuality. That was the European Court of Human Rights which is NOT an EU institution, unlike the European Court of Justice. I’m tired of the EU being given credit for things it had nothing to do with.

    Other than that I agree with you.

  • Jason Walsh

    Quick author’s intervention:

    Due to an incompatibility between my word processor and Slugger’s site design some dashes are missing from the above, making for rather odd sentences. (Geek info: UTF-8 vs. ISO-8859-1). I’ll get this sorted ASAP.

    FutureTaoiseach, I didn’t say the EU did it, I said that a supra-national body did it when we should have done it ourselves. Which leads me on to Andrew Gallagher’s points:

    But they’re not, and sometimes you do have to appeal to a higher authority.

    I disagree. And we can because it’s a political issue – and political issues are about argumentation and thus should be dealt with in the public, political sphere. Many people would rather we had a society where people stood up and fought for things than one where people became, as Zizek calls is, “hysterical complainants”, seeking recompense from higher authority – authority which is often the very source of our complaint in the first instance.

    For the sake of clarity, subject refers to the rational human actor. Anyway, yes, individuals must come to agreement in daily life but that does not mean they are not (theoretically) in charge of the state. The deficiencies of representative democracy are not within the scope of the above piece. However, my point is simple – you may disagree but it’s not muddled.

  • Vladimir Lenihan

    Most of the mainstream media seem to have missed this one (or ignored it as per the Broadcasting Commission’s determination re: 50:50 airtime) – Missed/ignored what it means for Lisbon, but, perhaps, more importantly, was it might represent beyond October 2nd. I would have thought it was potentially significant myself. What about you Mick? Any thoughts?

    Republican Councillors Against the Lisbon Treaty


  • Jason Walsh
  • Greenflag

    zelen ,

    ‘Is ‘undemocracy’ a word?’

    It’s not officially but Mick may have touched on a word that has ‘political ‘ potential in this increasingly polarized world between the haves /have nots . The word ‘democracy’ has been somewhat debased . When states like the former East Germany or the present North Korea or ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo ‘ can use the term ‘democracy’ in their country’s title without batting an eyelid ? then it’s a moot point? whether the word ‘democracy ‘ has any ‘objective ‘ meaning .

    Undemocracy sounds like an apt title to describe a situation in a country where barely half the population vote and where 95% of the entire wealth is held /owned by 1% of the population and 5% of the wealth has to be shared between the 99%

    Well done Mick 🙂

  • Greenflag

    Vladimir Lenihan ,

    ‘Barry concluded, “I would appeal to the people of the Twenty-Six Counties to remember their 1.8 million fellow citizens living under British rule when they go the polls on October 2nd. By voting No they can send a very powerful message to the Dublin government – ‘you might have forgotten about the Six Counties but we have not.’”

    Sorry Vladimir but no dice . The voters will not be thinking of their 1.8 million fellow citizens living under British rule (a majority of them willingly I might add thanks to the 6 billion pounds annual subvention )

    You see the UK has already ratified Lisbon and Queenie has signed the bill . And if the seven signatories imagine that the Tories will undo what Labour has done as far as Lisbon is concerned then they are even more naive than I thought possible .

    Back to the past 🙁

    And no we haven’t forgotten about Northern Ireland . Many of us would like to . But the blasted place seems to be permanently attached to the rest of this island geologically while it’s culture is divided between both and it’s finances are delivered by long spoon from Westminster . Shure no wonder the palce is confused 🙁

  • Dave

    Jason, in regard to supranationalism. I don’t agree that “institutions like the International War Crimes Tribunal, [and] the European Court of Human Rights” are “supranational institutions.” Bodies that do not have any governmental function they are not comparable to a supranational body such as the EU.

    There isn’t any “International War Crimes Tribunal” but the power to invoke such an ad hoc tribunal (either by the UN or a State) would be based alleged violations of international law (usually the Geneva Conventions). The International Criminal Court established in 2002 can only hear cases against States that have ratified the Rome Statute (109 States) and only if the parties have refused to hold a national tribunal. The US, for example, does not recognise this court. So, even this court does not replace the national judicial process as the default court and sovereign states may ratify the relevant protocol or not. In regard to the European Court of Human Rights, that only applies to the 47 European states that are members of the Council of Europe and have ratified the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

    States should comply with international law if they have ratified it. Who, for instance, would argue (apart from Russia, of course) that a state should be allowed to declare war on another state solely at its own discretion since to do otherwise would compromise its sovereignty? Or who would argue that a white majority within a state has a democratic right to pass a law that enslaves a black minority? We accept these restraints on our freedom in both foreign and domestic affairs as a state and as a nation because it is in our selfish interest to do so. So, there is a minimum set of codes, practices and standards that we have all agreed to live by as a community of nations.

    I have no problem at all with any regulatory body that is required to oversee international law or to punish its violation, and I don’t think you made the case as to why I should. Outside of that, I agree with your main points about how sovereignty is being hollowed out from within and by stealth by a fifth column of euro-fanatics and from without by the EU itself.

    The Irish, alas, have no real understanding of how sovereignty is interlinked with democracy or why self-government is preferable to supranational government. And even if they were to acquire the missing understanding, they’d then have to acquire any understanding of how their sovereignty is under attack and by whom, exactly. By the time you’d even be five minutes into explaining it to them, they’d be imagining you in a tin-foil hat.

  • Jason:

    Many people would rather we had a society where people stood up and fought for things than one where people became, as Zizek calls is, “hysterical complainants”, seeking recompense from higher authority

    There will always be such people. Sometimes they will win and sometimes not. But that’s the case with any system of law.

    And yes, you are muddled. The state and the people cannot both be sovereign. They are not the same thing.

  • Jason Walsh

    Andrew, I am not muddled. As I have already stated, and you have failed to acknowledge, the piece above does not deal with the question of how the state is composed. If you really want to know my view on the state you can e-mail me but it’s not within the scope of the above argument. FWIW, I feel that people in Ireland have a strangely positive view of the institutions of state, considering them neutral and apolitical.

    My argument, however, is perfectly straightforward.

  • DC

    Listen folks, whether it’s a democracy, theocracy, autocracy or monarchy it is always about one thing: money.

    Look what the EU has achieved as a result of this un-democracy, a common currency. Now in my books that’s fairly bloody radical in terms of practical impact and it seems to have been beneficial. And it can’t be slurred as a non-democracy (hence the un-democracy title) because of the supra-national architecture which means the national body politic makes agreement and permits authority for these arrangements, hence also Britain’s absence from the EU monetary system and Schengen (might explain the seemingly lack-lustre migrant control at Calais by France et al).

  • Greenflag

    The ‘word ‘ sovereignty is being bandied about above like the word ‘oath ‘ was before the Civil War.

    All states today even the biggest like the USA ,China etc have ‘limitations’ on their sovereignty . The Chinese can destroy the dollar tomorrow if they so chose . The USA can’t develop it’s natural gas fields to replace /reduce oil consumption because the oil lobbyists in Washington DC get paid 1,000 times more by the oil lobbyists than by the natural gas minnows .

  • abucs

    I think if all EU countries had a referendum and it was passed then that would be democracy and it would be a grand entrance on the world political scene, supported in the clear light of day by the EU people.

    As it is, it is obviously a grubby little backroom political push with the speedbump of Ireland’s democracy in the way.

    It is anything but a grand, confident and democratic start. And if it starts in an undemocratic, grubby little fashion, it’s likely to deteriate from there.

    Be brave Ireland. Tell them to do it properly, transparently and with the support of EU people, or not at all.