Few things inflame the passions more than challenges to identity. These days, such challenges are everywhere. Individuals and organisations—even nations face the fallout of a shifting worldview that has pit an old guard against a new establishment. Central to these challenges is language—the very foundation of our understanding. This point becomes apparent in the debate as to whether or not Ireland could be considered a vassal state.
Here, the ‘For’ side lays out a largely semantic argument, while ‘Against’ extols the virtues of Ireland’s quiet diplomacy as evidence of the country’s prowess, if not independence.
The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between.
Yes. Past is Prologue, After All
Before we jump enthusiastically into another third rail subject, it’s probably useful to define the terms used so as to avoid insulting all, rather than simply most, of our Irish readers.
An old fashioned term, ‘vassal state’ was recently resurrected from the archives by Brexiteers looking to describe a situation whereby Brussels would have veto power over Britain’s ability to kibosh certain pieces of legislation pertinent to their national interest. So as not to muddy the waters with a double veto vassal, by definition, to be a vassal state implies allegiance and some degree of obligation or dependence upon a superior (presumably in might, not morality) nation. Shakespeare, in Sonnet 141, wrote “Thy proud hearts slave and vassal wretch to be” implying vassal to mean little more than a hapless slave to an apparently unworthy love. But frankly, who doesn’t love a bit of the ultra co-dependence—especially in an era of extreme economic interdependence? Certainly not Ireland!
In August of 2018, a report by economist Gabriel Zucman outed Ireland as the number one tax haven for US firms in the world. While the OECD rejects the term ‘tax haven’, there isn’t anything semantic about the $83 billion in profits US multinationals booked on the Emerald Isle in 2017. Nor is there much that even the most gymnastic linguistic could do with the fact that Ireland’s advertised rate of 12.5% corporate tax effectively boils down to something between 0.005% and 4.9% (depending on whether or not you are Apple).
To describe this sort of special relationship in terms of vassalage isn’t exactly poppycock. While the FAANGs and their tax savvy compadres are no more superior nations than The People’s Republic of Cork, vassalage is not a stretch given we are living in what Varadkar, Trudeau and Tusk would refer to as ‘post-national’ times.
While another criterion of import is the military presence of the patron, neither the FAANGs nor their spiritual homeland of ’Murica have built bunkers in the midlands. However, the use of Shannon as a whistle-stop for rendition flights could be seen by those being retired to some Eastern European Black Site as more than a simple sojourn along the Sionna. Providing they knew where they were.
Indeed ignorance is bliss, especially where matters of containment are concerned. But in the absence of an invisible cage, a gilded one will do. Considering that multinationals employ 229,057 people in Ireland (basically the country’s entire workforce) you too, given the reins, may choose to hand them to a bigger brother rather than risk inviting in a return to 1980s employment levels.
In the days of gleaners and lords, to be referred to as a vassal would have been no more insulting than to have one’s position in the pecking order pointed out. Today, with the smashing of -archies and raising of ires an increasingly popular, if not worthy, pastime, stating the obvious can be tantamount to throwing a punch. Still, sharp reminders—however uncomfortable—might be the only thing to rouse co-dependent lovers, habitual submissives, and those willing to “put on the green jersey” from exploitative relationships.
Sure, just ask the Catholic Church.
No. Ireland is Not, and Never Will Be,
a Vassal State
Boris Johnson re-popularised the term ‘vassal state’ during a particularly rancorous phase of the Brexit debacle in late 2017. He used the term to deride Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, claiming that, If Britain was to ‘mirror’ EU rules, this would deny the UK the freedom to ‘become a champion of global free trade, and seek advantageous deals in other parts of the world … it would move Britain from the status of member state to vassal state’ (The Guardian 17th Dec. 2017)
In the Middle Ages, a ‘vassal’ was a term used to describe a feudal tenant granted the use of land in return for rendering fealty, homage and allegiance to a lord. In International Relations, the term ‘vassal state’ has been used to signify absolute dependence on, and allegiance to, a superior state or power-bloc.
Unfortunately for his argument, if he had taken the trouble to look fifty miles (or eighty kilometres!) across the Irish Sea, Boris Johnson would have seen in Ireland an example of a thriving, modern democracy, fully integrated with the European Union, which is the very antithesis of a ‘vassal state’.
Since its arrival on the international stage of nations in 1949, Ireland has pursued a sophisticated foreign policy that appears to offer conditional fealty to multiple points of authority, while in practice subtly advancing its own agenda through the clever exercise of ‘soft power’. Ireland missed out on the Industrial Revolution; it was never rich in deposits of the fossil fuels that fired the Satanic Mills of the 20th century superpowers (and threaten the very sustainability of our planet, but that is for another day).
Ireland compensates for this by exercising great influence in the family of nations.
Free from the baggage of the colonial occupier that encumbers the super-powers, past and present, Ireland is seen as an honest broker by the international community. It plays a leading role in the UN, frequently contributing peace-keeping troops to police trouble spots around the globe. Its own peace process, concluded over twenty years ago now, is seen as an exemplar, a model for how centuries-old conflict can be resolved.
Most importantly, Ireland has shown an ability successfully to ride several horses at once in the international diplomatic race. It partnered with the UK to deliver the Good Friday Agreement. It is competing for a place on the UN Security Council against Canada and Norway. Ireland’s people occupy significant positions of influence in major international institutions, at Commission and senior administrative levels in the EU.
It makes excellent use of its diaspora of 70 million people around the globe. Its artists and writers are among the most celebrated world-wide. Ireland is a model of Richard Florida’s Creative Class, marrying social tolerance with a liberal approach to economic matters. The President, Michael D. Higgins, is widely respected, and has been asked to speak on behalf of the international community at several seminal events such as the funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2012. His predecessor, Mary Robinson, is an influential international and UN figure, especially on the subject of climate change.
On the trade front, Ireland exports just under a quarter of its total exports to the UK, and imports 11% of total from our nearest neighbour. These are significant numbers, but, in fact, Ireland’s most important trading relationship is with the rest of the EU, which accounts for 44% of Irish exports, alongside North America (30%) and Asia (10%). The story of Irish economic development since 1970, based on a policy of openness to international trade, is now a case study for developing nations world-wide. Ireland will shortly be the only native English-speaking EU nation.
In summary, might and scale do not automatically confer power, either on people or on nations. Ireland is proof positive that, far from accepting vassal status as inevitable, small nations can, through techniques of subtle persuasion, openness and artful diplomacy, influence their own destiny, and the course of international events themselves.