Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.
Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.
It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?
No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.
Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?
No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.
And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.
With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.
In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.
Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?
The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.
Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.
But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.
The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.