Irish Society Before the Sixties: Insular or Outward Looking?
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De Valera returning from the League of Nations. He served as president of the League’s congress in 1932 and of its assembly in 1938.
Irish Foreign Affairs; April-June, 2008
“Every nation, if it is to survive as a nation, must study its own history and have a foreign policy” — C.J. O’Donnell, The Lordship of the World, 1924, p. 145
This is the first issue of Irish Foreign Affairs, a quarterly journal established to comment on foreign policy and on global affairs from an independent Irish perspective.
The Irish State was founded with a core foreign policy idea – the notion of the right of the Irish nation to have an independent state of its own and through that state to make a distinct mark in the world. The limits of this independence were necessarily first and foremost the ability of the state to develop and act free of British constraints.
Until the 1960s, Irish citizens took for granted that this was what the state was about. People knew the Proclamation of 1916 with its foreign policy position, and there was in general a remarkably high level of knowledge about foreign affairs. This knowledge of the world was not derivative of the British liberal media and was informed by commentaries from a uniquely Irish perspective in newspapers such as the Irish Press, various journals, and even in early RTE television.
Today such a perspective is difficult to find. The Irish seem no longer to think about such things. Commentary and debate on foreign policy is largely derivative and often little more than a provincial echo of British concerns or pop fashions.
Fashionable views now proclaim independent Ireland to have been “insular” and “inward looking”. The ending of this sad state of affairs by the “opening up” of Ireland since the 1960s is hailed as a major step in its “growing up”. This is a nonsense. Ireland in many ways has become a narrower, more derivative place.
Nationalist Ireland had always argued with itself about its role in the world: Redmondites saw an Irish future as a junior partner with England in a world imperial project, while the Sinn Féin Party which won the 1918 election in a landslide victory sought connections with the world independent of and at odds with that empire.
In challenging the British Empire, the Irish Independence movement raised the flag for all nations subordinated against their will within that empire, and became a beacon for their subsequent strivings for statehood. This reputation has remained strong across the world, particularly in popular liberation movements, though, as Conor Lynch reports in this issue, it is a reputation now understandably under threat.
The distorted development of the Free State resulting from the 1921 Treaty imposed on it under threat of “immediate and terrible war” was reflected in its early foreign policy. No faction of the Sinn Féin movement, including those who supported in retrospect the signing of the Treaty, believed in or openly defended the castrated sovereignty it bestowed. At the time it was signed Michael Collins wrote an article (re-published here) advocating that the Free State become “a pivot in a league of nations” which would lead to the dissolution of empire. But already even this focus back to possibilities within the confines of empire was a distorted development. It was easily abandoned when the project to build the Republic was resumed under Fianna Fáil in 1932.
Under de Valera Ireland played a high profile role in world affairs, notably following his election to President of the League of Nations. Even before that he was making an impression as an international statesman, as reflected in his shrewd handling of the Soviet bid for League membership described in an article by Manus O’Riordan in this issue. “Insular” and “inward looking” indeed!
De Valera’s role advocating collective security while major powers plotted a replay of the First World War, and his role in asserting and vindicating Irish independence by ending British military occupation in 1938 and declaring Ireland’s neutrality in any new imperialist war, are key touchstones in the history of Irish foreign policy, and a cause of great headaches to those embarrassed by that history and seeking to revise it.
Connecting with Europe as a way to free the country from political, economic and security dependence on Britain was a much discussed idea in Ireland and reflected in the 1916 Proclamation.
Membership of the EU has been a cornerstone of recent Irish development. But it does not represent Ireland “opening up”. How can you “open up” something that was never closed? From the start of the European process we sought involvement in it, but were constrained by our continued economic dependence on Britain (96% of Irish exports were still to Britain in the late 1960s). Charles de Gaulle was politely emphatic on why Britain could not join the EEC (see his speech reprinted in this issue). When membership became possible, an overwhelming majority of the electorate supported it, and repeated this support in various referendums until the Nice Treaty vote in 2004.
British membership in comparison has been unpopular there and resisted and resented since. Irish governments – and the electorate – have repeatedly supported radical reforms to deepen the integration of Europe. Under Haughey Ireland was steered into very close relations with Germany and France, the driving force of the European Federalist movement. But the end of the Cold War and the reemergence of British world power ambitions have disrupted the development of Europe and distorted the direction it is taking.
This first issue of Irish Foreign Affairs critically examines these issues and draws consequences for the position we propose in relation to the Lisbon Treaty process, a process from which the EU of the Treaty of Rome must be saved.
Posted on May 25, 2011, in Catholic Social Teaching, France, International Ethics, Irish Church-State Relations, Irish Constitution, Irish History, Irish Language, Media Archives, TV, WW1, WW2. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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