Onwards and backwards?

There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Ireland in 2011 and Ireland in 1911, writes Adam Larragy; indeed, we are ominously close now to where we were then.

While welcome in its own right, the British monarch's recent official state visit revealed an Irish political and economic elite utterly adrift from the economic and social reality of the southern state. The banality of the elite's rhetoric, the trumpeting of a 'self-confident and proud', even 'mature' nation, was - and is - remarkable at a time when the powers of Dáil Éireann barely exceed those granted by the British parliament under the third Home Rule Bill. Irish sovereignty, narrowly conceived as the ability of the state to determine its own foreign and economic policy, is now more circumscribed than it has been at any time since the Treaty.

Appropriately then, the two main conservative parties and their social-liberal annexe in the Labour Party now comprise little more than one large Redmondite Party, reduced to explaining a neoliberal economic policy brewed in Frankfurt, Brussels and Washington to this country's citizens. Perversely, the Royal visit unleashed a kind of symbolic self-deception on the part of the political elite matched only by the self-deception that the economic policies the three main political parties are currently pursuing are sustainable. While the visit of a British head of state was welcome, there are historical ironies in the context of the visit.

The timing of the Royal visit was carefully chosen to coincide with the centenary of the last visit by a British monarch to southern Ireland. As Marx's dictum has become a truism, comparison is invited. Then, though Ireland was governed by Dublin Castle and the British parliament, economic power rested in the hands of a native capitalist class protected by the laissez-faire attitudes of the politicians in power. The Irish Independent was controlled, then as now, by one of the country's most pugnacious and powerful businessmen. Then, as now, it was an age of unprecedented globalisation, and Ireland's interests – accepting a narrow definition – were held by those claiming to represent Ireland – the Irish Home Rule party and its business backers - to be best advanced as a self-governing nation within the British state and its 'cosmopolitan' empire. Then, as now, the protesters against the visit were viewed as a nuisance by officialdom.

The history between the two Royal visits is punctuated by the Irish Revolution (1916-1923), encompassing the War of Independence and the Civil War, and later the gradual creation of the state whose 'description' is the Republic of Ireland but whose name is 'Ireland'. The minimum programme of the Revolution, the achievement of Irish national sovereignty, was slow, delayed by various forces within Irish society. The conservatism of the Irish state that existed after 1921 is well chronicled in the works of historians like John Regan. Some of the basic institutions required for the exercise of economic sovereignty such as a national Central Bank - established in 1943 partly due to the actions of Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England - were long in coming, delayed by an adherence to conservative economic theories and the unwillingness to challenge bastions of the establishment such as the Bank of Ireland. While there were multiple difficulties with the developmental economic strategy pursued from 1958, and even more problems with the neoliberal strategies following from the mid-1980s to the present, there was something approximating national economic sovereignty. Or to use another term, there was a space created in which national social priorities could be pursued and a national welfare state built through an independent fiscal policy and national wage setting mechanisms, whether legal or negotiated. Despite the deleterious narrowing of that space by the conditions of the Maastricht Treaty the southern state maintained some ability to organise economic life within its borders up until November and December 2010.

In those months, the consequences of pursuing a finance-led neoliberal growth strategy in the 2000s, and an austerity programme 2008-2010, finally caught up with the political and economic elite – covering nearly the whole political spectrum from centre-left to right - that had propagated the neoliberal approach. As Ruairi Quinn said in 2009, 'There was no intellectual disagreement in political Ireland against the necessity for the macroeconomic measures.' During the election campaign in February the more opportunistic elements in 'political Ireland' made some noises about an alternative economic strategy; the leader of the Labour Party was particularly boisterous in this regard. However, it is now clear that the political elite are committed to pursuing the policies contained in the IMF/EU/ECB Memorandum of Understanding, policies that many in the IMF itself – not known as a repository of heterodox economic thought – are convinced will fail on their own terms.

The political use of the Royal visit to trumpet some kind of new partnership with Britain, serves to mask some of the economic realities beneath the bailout. David Cameron’s attempt to put a gloss on the 5.9% interest rate it is charging on its €3.8bn loan to Britain's 'friend and neighbour' belies the 'punitive' – to use Michael Noonan's terms – terms of the loan. That Britain can issue a 7-year Treasury bond at 2.75% should cause some reflection on Cameron's definition of friendship. However, far more worrying is that the current government, and Fianna Fáil, appear to agree with the Conservative government's attitude towards public spending, the role of the state and even the trajectory of the European Union. David Cameron defined the agenda of the 'new partnership' in his Irish Times article: implementing more 'pro-enterprise' policies in the European Union and 'cutting the burden of regulation'. The new partnership sounds very much as if it is based on the failed policies of the previous British and Irish governments.

President McAleese was half-right when she said that Ireland and Britain are equals. This is formally true, but only the actions of the Irish government can give that idea any meaning. Unfortunately, the current government and the largest opposition party seem content to play the part of the Home Rule Party, waiting for 'something to turn up', even as the limited gains made by an independent Irish state are rapidly eroded. The British royal family may have 'moved on', but we seem to be ominously close to where we were in 1911.