Thursday, June 08, 2006

Jerry Adams in Barcelona: On the Politics of Self-Determination in Constitutiuonal Systems

So, it appears that Jerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, is spending several days in Spain, visiting Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid, in support of the new initiative for dialog between ETA and the current central government of Spain, as well as in support of the proposed new Autonomy Statute for Catalonia. As reported in Spanish papers, Adams was quoted as saying that “El propósito de mi breve visita es reunirme y escuchar un amplio espectro de opiniones políticas y civiles y, cuando sea posible, reflejar la experiencia del Sinn Fein en el proceso de paz irlandés.” (The purpose of my brief visit is to meet with and listen to a wide spectrum of opinion from the political and civil sectors, and when possible, describe the experiences of Sinn Fein in the Irish peace process). Among the civil and political sector voices he meant to pay particular attention to were those of the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV)) and the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). See Ademas visita España, 20 Minutos, June 8, 2006, available at

I caught up with Mr. Adams when he addressed a large body of students, faculty and guests at the University of Barcelona on June 8, 2006. He along with several local leaders, were present to lend support to Catalan autonomy and specifically to the proposed Autonomy Statute, with respect to which I have recently written ( I am here relating the thrust of his remarks, and my initial reactions to them.

Mr. Adams began by contextualizing the Irish, Basque and Catalan experiences as expressions of similar desires for “self-determination.” He explained that the thrust of his remarks would seek to explore self-determination as it has affected the Irish situation with specific reference to developments in the Basque lands (or at least those portions of the Basque lands targeted, and quite cynically too, by the independence movement), and Catalonia.

For Mr. Adams, one starts with a set of basic assumptions:

--The partition of Ireland was a criminal act.

--The partition of Ireland is immoral.

--The partition of Ireland is the latest major act of consequence proceeding from the conquest of Ireland by the English.

From these assumptions spring consequences, an understanding of which is deepened through the use of an academic post-colonial discourse with its origins in the African liberation movements and the Marxist-Leninist political determinism of the last century. The conquest of Ireland could not have been as successful in the absence of the brutal dispersion of the native Irish population to the west of Ireland, and the transfer of power and wealth from the native population to colonial immigrants (occurring in waves as colonial immigrants naturalized, “went native” and required an infusion of fresh blood to revive the colonial system of control). Most important of all, the conquest of Ireland would have been impossible without the encouragement of a large wave of non assimilable immigrants—the Protestants who settled in the North of Ireland. These illegal immigrants, privileged well beyond their numbers or value, have served as the great hostage population that separates independence for purely ethnic Irish from the current unhappy partitioned status quo.

Inspired by the battles being waged by African-Americans in the United States through the 1960s, the people of the North of Ireland finally commenced armed resistance after 1969. Their struggle mirrored that of North African and Sub-Saharan African states, at least with respect to the relation between colonial oppressor and native peoples. To this extent, Mr. Adams emphatically asserted that the conflict in Ireland could not possibly be understood as a religious war.

But all of this is prologue. The principal point Mr. Adams makes returns us to the foundational notion of self-determination. This, Mr. Adams quite correctly notes, will serve as the most significant political question of the 21st century. It touches on the nature of globalization; it touches on the character of the obligation of developed states—assuming they survive waves of self-determination, to less developed states or to what will be less developed states carved from out of their former oppressors. Globalization must be understood as impossible in the absence of the free and privileged participation of all groups and nationalities arranged in a level and horizontal set of relationships—no group subordinated to another (expect perhaps minority groups in states which are the product of winner-take-all-by-majority-vote plebiscites).

And thus we arrive at the very core of Mr. Adams’ remarks—a point worth emphasizing, not because he said it, but because it serves as the core belief of many individuals and collectives currently acting on the world stage: self-determination is the critical methodology for the creation of the only truly subordination-free form of global order, a global order producing a worldwide single federation of free peoples freely associating. The Irish struggles can thus be appreciated as merely one (perhaps small) aspect of a global phenomenon—the creation of a single world state on a federal model consisting of political collectives, differentiated by any number of characteristics (ethnicity, language, religion, shared history, race, etc.) each given equal dignity, power and legitimacy to act on this single world stage. Each component of this single global system would be grounded in popular sovereignty producing a rights-based government on any one of a number of structural models (parliamentary democracy, presidential system, etc.).

Applied to Ireland, the answers come easy to Mr. Adams. The Irish have been stripped of sovereignty by the many usurpations of the English, who sought to assert Irish sovereignty in place of its rightful holders. For Mr. Adams, the idea that the English and Irish might constitute one people is impossible. Because of history, and because of the usurpations and colonial policies of the English, ethnic division is “natural” to him.

Given this context—the future is clear: an independent Ireland composed of the entire island. For that purpose dialog is critical, but not necessary. No amount of talk can change the eternal and unwavering fact of Ireland’s sovereignty. Talk can just make the process easier on everyone—exploiter and exploited.

And thus we get both to the end of Mr. Adam’s speech, and the critical end point of this thought—the purpose of dialog is not to contest the ultimate ends of the parties. The purpose of dialog is to make the attainment of the ends of those seeking self-determination less burdensome, and violent. But the end is inevitable. Thus, the Good Friday accords are described as a good temporary compromise on the road to the integration of the North of Ireland into the Republic.

This is the last insight Mr. Adams offered his Catalan hosts: Be firm in the inevitability of your goals, and work for their attainment. All negotiation leading the Catalan people closer to the goal are to be welcomed, but are to be understood as mere temporary measures on the road to inevitable independence. When that road becomes blocked, by the intransigence of those who disagree with the self-determining will of the Catalan people, then violence might help prod the parties back on the road to “peace” that is the fulfillment of the desires of the ethnos seeking to assert a fuller sovereignty. But dialog is not something to be left to the politicians, Mr. Adams reminds us. The battle in the political realm requires marshaling the media and civil society involvement. Because political communities in democratic states are particularly sensitive to the expressions of popular will (however changeable), it behooves political actors to ensure that this popular will is appropriately expressed. Mobilization of political, social and intellectual cadres is essential if this task is to be successfully accomplished. That was part of the secret of Sinn Fein’s success, especially in the United States.

For the Catalans, as for the Basques and Irish, Mr. Adams suggests that violence might well be the only lubricant necessary to animate dialog. This is a lesson that the IRA has been reinforcing to their ETA colleagues, and suggesting to friends of Catalan independence in Barcelona.

Mr. Adams’ speech was rich indeed. The basic assumptions from which Mr. Adams started his analysis were curious in several ways:

1. The partition of Ireland was a criminal act—though it was not clear what standard of criminality was used to make this assessment. I am not suggesting that the act of partition had or had not elements of criminality. I am, however, suggesting that the referent is somewhat questionable from the perspective of speaker and listener.

2. The partition of Ireland is immoral—though it was not clear what standard of morality was being applied. I have not been clear on Mr. Adams’ moral compass, though I have no doubt that he shares one with a number of others. I worry, though, about his expectations of others with respect to this moral foundation. If I do not share it, am I condemned to immorality? There is certainly a bit of traditional attitude to that moral stance that, if applied to Mr. Adam’s party, might not serve it well.

3. The partition of Ireland is the latest major act of consequence proceeding from the conquest of Ireland by the English. That statement, in any case, is true enough. Truth, morality and criminality determined by force of arms, it seems, form the system that appears to produce the one language that Mr. Adams has in common with the English that came before him. But that leads to a conundrum of sorts that I will pick up on in a little bit.

With respect to the post-colonialist analysis of the conquest of Ireland, Mr. Adams, quite rightly, suggested that the English control of Ireland was significantly strengthened through the use of a sustained and brutal colonial methodology—not unlike that used by the Irish themselves in helping to win for the European immigrants to the United States control of North America from the original inhabitants. But here he seems to have laid a number of traps for himself and his world-view. The suggestion that the Protestant immigrants were somehow illegitimate because they were used as instruments for the subjection of the Island by displacing its original inhabitants, would call into question the current pro-migration focus of progressive elements of civil society, on which Mr. Adams relies for political support. These groups would tend to support the rights of migrant groups and the free movement of peoples and the protection of their cultural, social and religious rights—as well as their rights, under appropriate circumstances, to self-determination within the borders of their new homes. The great irony of Mr. Adams post-colonial analysis is that it ought to strengthen the movement for Protestant majority autonomy from Catholic Ireland, and permit that portion of the North of Ireland to retain its majority practiced customs, society and associations—including associations with the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Mr. Adams makes the case for ethnic cleansing as well. If the immigration of Scots Protestants was illegitimate because of the motives of the English monarchs who made it possible, then their right to remain would be questionable as well. This is the sort of argument that Progressive elements of civil society are sometimes eager to support—when it comes to the movement of white farmers out of Zimbabwe or Jews out of Hebron. But not always. What is good for white farmers is impossible when one seeks to apply the same rationale to the South Asians in Fiji. A conundrum indeed—but only if one refuses to blind oneself to the application of Mr. Adam’s position to his purely self-interested aims.

More interesting to an outsider, however, was Mr. Adam’s assertion that there was no religious war in Ireland. Indeed not—it seems better understood as an ethnic war pitting native Irish who are bound together, at least by proxy, through their Catholic faith, against Anglo-Scots invader immigrants, who cultivate their distinction from the locals through their Protestant faith. But is this a better way of capturing the essence of the conflict—ethnic strife masked by religious difference?

Most interesting, of course, is the connection Mr. Adams makes between self-determination, globalization, state organization, and the nature of legitimate political organization. That these concepts are all bound together comes as no surprise—any number of current political and legal thinkers would agree, though the details would differ, and sometimes dramatically, between them. But no matter, the core notions are the same. But the manner in which these concepts are connected do raise some very interesting possibilities as well as point to some very strong differences between Mr. Adams’ vision and that which passes for modern economic globalization.

1. Mr. Adams seems to reject the notion of private ordered globalization—for him it is not globalization based on voluntary individual private transactions appropriately ordered in a fair system policed by the community of political states. Instead, Mr. Adams is a bit of a reactionary. Globalization is essentially a public act, and fundamentally political—it is not centered on the individual engaged in private transactions, but on the political acts of the state. Political collectives, rather than individual action, sit at the top of Adam’s legitimating power hierarchy. The legal consequences are enormous. His views are much more compatible with those of Fidel Castro in this respect, than with those of the elites in Europe and the United States. I explain these differences at great length in Ideologies of Globalization and Sovereign Debt: Cuba and the IMF, 24 Penn State Int’l L. Rev. (2006), available at

2. Because for Mr. Adams globalization is political, public and communal, rather than individual, economic and private, self-determination becomes the key legal and political element in the relations between people in collectives, and between states. But self-determination is not an individual choice—nor even, for the Protestants in the North of Ireland, necessarily the choice of every self-conscious community. The difficulty of self-determination involves the identification of the communities capable of determining their political nature. If self-determination is to be the choice of any self-identifying community, then even the Protestants in the North of Ireland as entitled to it. But that can’t be right. If self-determination is based on the character of the people in a place, then as immigration changes the character of a demos, self-determination ought to be available to such people. But that can’t be right either. It suggests that self-determination is contingent and temporary. It lasts as long as demographic equilibrium exists. There is no eternal state within any territory. But if that is right, then what of Ireland, much less Catalonia and the Basque lands?

3. Instead, self-determination for Mr. Adams becomes the vehicle for the expression of the sovereign rights of some people. Who is to determine whether the territory of the whole of Ireland is to constitute one political unit with its own singular sovereignty, or whether the territorial unit within Eire having a self-consciously distinct majority is to sets the boundaries for self-determination? For Jerry Adams, the answer appears clear enough—the entire island of Ireland is the sole and eternal unit of sovereignty. But the generalizations from this certainty, based on little more than an anachronistic view of the imperatives of history, are troublesome. It might mean, for example, that the entirety of the Island of Ceylon—Sri Lanka—constitutes a single sovereign community, and that the relatively recent interlopers from the Indian subcontinent—the Tamil—ought to bend to the will of the eternal Sinhalese majority. I doubt that Mr. Adams would support the view. Yet it is hard to distinguish Tamil in Sri Lanka from Scots Protestant in the North of Ireland. But, if he does not, then he might be forced to suggest the exceptionalism of the Irish condition. But were he to retreat to this position, then of what value to Catalonia or the Basque lands, are the insights Mr. Adams seeks to share?

4. Self-determination also seems to serve Mr. Adams as shorthand for the notion of ethnos as the animating spirit of political community. Ireland is not England because the Irish are not English. Each ethnos must form the basis for the constitution of demos. Yet if this were true, then Mr. Adams would applaud the construction of the security fence between Israel and the Palestinian lands. That wall as surely separates Israeli and Palestinian as the Irish Sea separates Irish from English. But that couldn’t be right, Mr. Adams would suggest. Yet the road from ethnos to demos runs true despite the unpleasantness of the answer it may provide in other, more politically difficult situations. On the other hand, consistency, even in theory, may not run strong in the philosophy of Mr. Adams. And perhaps rightly so—he is an Irish patriot, and will bend his theories to suit his goals. But then again he offers little to the Catalan that might be palatable on the world stage at this point in its development. Ethnos has, except perhaps in the hands of Mr. Adams on the Left, been discredited since the failed experiments in Germany from 1933-45. Yet Mr. Adams’ view shares that of Carl Schmidt, or that of the xenophobes in France and other Western States. In this sense Mr. Adams does us a great favor—reminding us of the little that separates the concept of self-determination from the less popular one of ethnos, ethnic purity, ethnic cleansing, or subordination based on ethnic characteristics. Surely this is not what Mr. Adams has in mind for the Protestants in the North of Ireland.

5. Ironically enough as well, the community of sovereign ethnos envisioned by Mr. Adams might also essentially undo the centuries-long efforts to ensure the independence of Ireland. For a global federal community requires the ceding of sovereignty up to a more or less autonomous and competent entity, whose will exits superior to that of the Irish state. And that will could be manifested in ways that might be inimical to Irish sensibilities. But the world is not England—and rebellion or secession may be more problematic. Yet this is the world envisioned. But this also can’t be right. It suggests either a regression to a protectionist, inward looking world—a world vision shared by other reactionary communities—or to a world in which states arranged in a non-hierarchical world order could, through a democratic system arranged as a sort of tyranny of the majority—strip states of their character.

6. But perhaps this is too much. Mr. Adams does suggest the ordering of such states, and presumably of the world government imposed on them, will be based not only on democratic principles but also on rights-based governance. But what sort of rights does he mean? Rights based on consensus of the governed are easily enough revised to suit the needs of the majority—hardly protection at all. Unalterable rights require consensus on the source of those rights (God, nature, etc.) and on an interpretation of those rights as applied. Not an easy task even in a culturally homogenous community. Again, for Catalonia and the Basque land, this offers very little.

Mr. Adams’ last set of important observations, about the utility of violence as a predicate to negotiation, of negotiation as a means of attaining ends that are, in themselves, not subject to negotiation, and of the importance of manipulating popular opinion as part of military and political campaigns, are worth a mention as well. Mr. Adams correctly, if subtly, defines the reality of modern warfare—a lesson the Americans failed to learn to their utter detriment in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Adams also lays bare the dirty little secret of international negotiation among states—its scope is far more limited than the term implies. Dialog, negotiation, for Mr. Adams, and for many in conflict situations, is the means by which the defeat of a more powerful enemy can be effected without severe political repercussions in the losing state. The English can capitulate utterly, but if done in the context of a dialog leading to negotiation, then the consequences for English politicians are lessened. The Americans lost Viet-Nam in the same way in the 1970s and are likely to leave, defeated, from Iraq through the same route. And in this way, the unpalatable can be ingested at far less cost to those attending the meal. But if this is correct, then negotiation, dialog, succeeds only before the fact—that is, dialog actually occurs at the time before the commencement of formal discussion, when global public opinion is being formed.

Mr. Adams provided an honest, and quite refreshing view of the nature of international relations, and of the relation of sovereign activity to law, to the rule of law from the perspective of those communities still seeking to fully join the community of nations. It is a view that marginalizes the individual—in the name of protecting individual rights. It is a view that centers all activity on the state as a public, all consuming entity. It suggests that the rule of law must incorporate violence, even arbitrary violence, in its vocabulary. These are views with more in common with post-colonial Marxist Leninist ideals, than with the post-Soviet world of economic globalization and private ordering that we have been told we now inhabit. Mr. Adams reminds us that a worldview exists, side by side with law and economics, and the market, that rejects them and would remake the world in a very different image.

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