Brexit and commemoration

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Volume 24


By now much ink has been spilt on the implications of Brexit—for Ireland, the UK and Europe generally. This speculation is set to continue, particularly as regards British intentions, when they will start the exit process or even who’s in charge. A useful exercise might be to look at the situation in the light of our current commemorations, focused as they are on the 1916 Rising and the First World War.

In the first what is being commemorated (celebrated, even) is the assertion of Irish sovereignty, eventually realised, however imperfectly, in an independent Irish state. Sovereignty is at the heart of the current situation—the people of the UK as a whole have exercised their right to leave the EU (for good or for ill), although the voters of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. But the first trumps the latter two because they are not sovereign—for the time being at least, in the case of Scotland. Northern Ireland’s position is a bit more ambiguous, governed as it is by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent. But where’s the consent here? If the people of Northern Ireland can be bounced out of the EU against their will at the behest of the wider UK, what’s to stop them (at some future date) being bounced into a united Ireland?

The second commemoration has been a welcome new departure for the wider Irish public, not only because it acknowledges the sacrifices of those involved but also because it reminds us of the terrible reality of total war (one which independent Ireland avoided the second time around because of our neutrality—an exercise in sovereignty). One of the purposes of the original EEC was to shackle Germany and France together economically to prevent future conflict. Such a prospect is unlikely (see Eoin Dillon’s review of Bill Kissane’s Nations torn asunder, pp 58–9), but what about smaller ethnic conflicts, like the breakup of Yugoslavia or the current conflict in eastern Ukraine? Both were and are outside the EU but there are similar potential ethnic conflicts in central and eastern Europe. Take Hungary, for example: a state with irredentist and authoritarian tendencies (see Guy Beiner, ‘“No, nay, never” (once more): the resurrection of Hungarian irredentism’, HI 21.3, May/June 2013) only kept in check by the collective economic self-interest engendered by the EU and its legal and human rights provisions.

So let us continue to commemorate sovereignty and war, but with a view to enhancing the former (collectively or otherwise) and avoiding the latter into the future.

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