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Christopher Hitchens on the Euro, Ireland, the Border… whatever. April 27, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, The Left, US Politics.

One of the curiosities of Slate.com is the fact they retain Christopher Hitchens as a commentator extraordinaire. No harm there you may say, and you could be right. But it’s just that Hitchens comes out with some odd stuff. Nothing surprising there you may say, and you’d be entirely right.

But, given his political background, even in the context of a discussion of the Euro (under the heading, natch, ‘Is the Euro Doomed?’) this is… unusual.

First up we must applaud ChristopherHitchensWatch getting here first on the issue of the great man’s precognitive abilities. Precognitive abilities you ask, adding that to a lengthy list of his marvels. Why yes… for a man who is, to borrow a phrase from David Cameron, as immodest (his words – not mine) as he is ambitious, the following is mighty stuff…

Sometimes, sheer immodesty compels me to ask, of my long record of prescience, what did I know, and when and how did I know it? In the summer of 2005, Foreign Policy magazine asked its contributors to name one taken-for-granted thing that they thought was overrated or would not last. After a brief interval of reflection, I chose the euro.

But this belief springs not from too little affection for the European project, no, one could argue that it comes from an excess of love.

I can be absolutely certain that I did not do this because I wanted to be right. On the contrary, I would much have preferred to be mistaken. When I still lived in Europe, I was one of the few on the left to advocate an enlargement of the community and to identify it with the progressive element in politics. This was mainly because I had seen the positive effect that Europeanism had exerted on the periphery of the continent, especially in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Until the middle of the 1970s, these countries had been ruled by backward-looking dictatorships, generally religious and military in character and dependent on military aid from the more conservative circles in the United States. Because the European community allowed only parliamentary democracies to join, the exclusion from the continent’s heartland gave a huge incentive to the middle class in these countries to support the overthrow of despotism.

Now let me say that that sounds plausible enough. Until, that is you read the following.

The same attraction had a solvent effect on other countries, too. Once the Irish Republic became a member and was thus part of the same customs union as the United Kingdom, the border with Northern Ireland became an irrelevance, and it was only a matter of time before the sectarian war would begin to seem irrelevant. In Cyprus, the wish of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to become European was a potent element in setting the stage for negotiations to end that post-colonial partition. The modernization and opening of Turkey, highly uneven as it is, has a great deal to do with the same pull toward a common European system. And it goes without saying that the people of Eastern Europe, even while the Berlin Wall still stood, measured their aspirations by how swiftly they, too, could meet the criteria for membership and escape the dreary, wasteful Comecon system that was the Soviet Union’s own parody of a supranational agreement.

To which one could ask, he’s got to be kidding right? And to which one could add, no, probably not. Let’s push aside, if that were possible, the fact that the partition of Cyprus is as yet unresolved. Let’s try to ignore the problem that Turkey seems – if anything – to be shifting away from the EU, and in no small part due to unrequited love… unrequited by the EU that is.

Let’s just examine the example most of us are probably most reasonably familiar with. Now I’m a pedant over this issue, but truth is Irish Republic is not the name of the state I live in. It’s Republic of Ireland. And there’s the point that this isn’t just pedantry because in the late 1940s under pressure in part from Stormont the UK government made some effort to try to push the IR appellation in order not to reify the Republic of Ireland title which seemed to concede ownership, in rhetorical terms at least, of the entirety of the island. As it happens in almost all international fora I can think of Republic of Ireland is the name used. And, for the record, I’m pretty unworried by Northern Ireland as a name. [my pedantry let me down slightly, although Ireland is the name of the state under the Constitution, RoI is the description of the state under the Republic of Ireland Act 1948- wbs ]

But on what possible reading of the history of the past forty odd years or so does the ‘membership of the same customs union’ – not by the way strictly accurate, where membership dated from four years after the conflict broke out again, lead us to a position where it took another two and a half decades to move to permanent cessations give credibility to his assertion?

Even the term sectarian seems to me to beg too much. As has been discussed on the CLR previously, yes there were clearly sectarian aspects to the conflict, but… to characterise it as ‘sectarian’ in its totality is to ignore the socio-political nature of much of it.

But it’s the idea that the border became an irrelevancy because of the EU which I find most strikingly incorrect. No, the border has become [largely] an irrelevancy due to the workings of the peace process. Not the other way around. Anyone crossing it, as I did, often on a weekly basis in parts of the late 1980s will know that it very much existed then. And that at a time when Ireland and the UK had been both partners within the EEC for well over a decade and a half.

This isn’t to say that the European context had no effect. I think it did as part of many other elements, not least in introducing a slightly more even field wherein the Irish and British governments could interact and where a much more profound pooling of sovereignty and the establishment of cross border executive entities, while profoundly innovative due to their executive function, could be sold as somewhat less innovative given the range of competencies devolved to the EU.

But Hitchens ignores one salient point. The UK remains aloof from the Euro. And yet he then argues that:

The logic of this seemed to necessitate a single currency, which in turn meant that a unified Germany, instead of dominating Europe, as the British and French reactionaries had always feared, would become a Europeanized Germany.

But truth is that somehow we’re managing quite well, albeit with the use of the euro in the North as well as the pound Sterling. So maybe that logic isn’t quite as flawless as he might think.

Further on, though, it is interesting how Hitchens argues:

How tragic it is that the euro system has already, in effect, become a two-tier one and that the bottom tier is occupied by the very countries—Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland—that benefited most from their accession to the European Union.


“PIGS” is the unlovely acronym for the nations—Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain—that constitute the shiftless out-group within the in-group. (Italy is sometimes included in the club.) It’s very improbable that nations that haven’t yet signed up to the euro—Britain and many Scandinavian states among them—will now do so. And that being the case, with the euro just another bill you have to exchange when moving around within Europe—then what becomes of the dream?

I don’t know. But I think his argument begs the question as to whether Europe, inverted comma’s or not, has ever been purely about the economic structure, albeit that is embedded in its heart, as the conceptual or myth. Of course to whom that appears like a dream is a further interesting question.


1. shane - April 27, 2010

“Once the Irish Republic became a member and was thus part of the same customs union as the United Kingdom, the border with Northern Ireland became an irrelevance”

he seems to have changed his perspective…

Hitchens in 1994 on Irish partition….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdD25NtOvqs

and in 2003…http://www.theatlantic.com/past/issues/2003/03/hitchens.htm

What a contrast this man is to his brother.


2. Starkadder - April 27, 2010

To be fair to Hitchens, I do remember him advocating the
“Internationalisation” of the Northern Ireland conflict (more
EU and US diplomatic involvment) in the early 90s.

And on a somewhat related topic, Fred Halliday, the academic
specialising in the Middle East, had passed away. RIP.



3. CL - April 27, 2010

With Greek bonds now rated as junk, the IMF/EU bailout is clearly too little too late. Default, or ‘re-structuring’, looks likely, and contagion to Portugal and Ireland is a real threat.
Ireland’s deficit, as a percent of GDP is the highest in Europe, and despite the extreme austerity, it continues to rise. But maybe a falling euro will lead to ‘export-led growth’ and the IMF will not have to be called in.
In any case, clear fault lines are now evident in the euro-zone.


4. WorldbyStorm - April 27, 2010

Sorry to hear that about Fred Halliday. Didn’t agree with all he said but he said it well and thoughtfully. It’s a real pity.

Re Hitchens I guess I’m being a tad unfair, but it’s intriguing to me how if he was using the language shane links to etc, he seems to be almost unaware of the situation now and rhetorically the language seems curious. To put it mildly.

CL, that’s depressing. Sort of lose lose whatever happens.


5. Bartholomew - April 27, 2010

There’s something funny going on here. In 1996, Hitchens wrote a hilarious and devastating review of a book by Conor Cruise O’Brien. The review lamented how an admirable intellectual had become a bitter old reactionary, among other things blaming religion (or ‘sectarianism’) for everything, particularly in Ireland. And here now is Hitchens, once an admirable intellectual, now a bitter old reactionary, blaming religion (or ‘sectarianism’) for everything, particularly in Ireland.


WorldbyStorm - April 27, 2010

Actually, now you mention it, that ‘blaming religion’ bit makes sense. Given that he is now one of our more public decriers of religion. Still, a pity that he’d seek to retrofit the issue of the North to that.


shane - April 27, 2010

It’s quite interesting because you’d hardly think he was related to his brother, Peter….who recently wrote The Rage Against God. While Christopher has went all neo-con, his brother now holds to Pat Buchanan style ideas. He seems to have a nostalgia for the 1930s…but is also very critical of Churchill, WW2, and Margaret Thatcher (!). He writes for the British Mail on Sunday.


According to his wikipedia bio:

“Hitchens condemned the 1998 Belfast Agreement as a surrender to the Provisional IRA and a violation of the rule of law. He believes that the best approach to solving Northern Ireland’s problems would have been the full integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom, arguing that creating a Northern Irish Parliament at Stormont impeded this. He believes that the achievements of direct rule over Northern Ireland, not least in removing discrimination against Roman Catholics, have been greatly underestimated. He maintains that Northern Ireland is now only a provisional part of the UK since, under the terms of the agreement, it can be transferred to Irish sovereignty by a single, irreversible referendum.”


6. CL - April 27, 2010

“This was part of his more general belief that imperialism and capitalism were often progressive forces in many parts of the world,”-the Guardian on Fred Halliday. This is surely the Bill Warren/Bico position. (which clearly influenced IIR of Harris/Smullen). And it leads to seeing the Irish problem as mainly a sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The recent book by Ed Moloney, ‘Voices from the Grave’ is in the same vein.


Starkadder - April 27, 2010

Isn’t there a link between the Stalinist idea of socialism
working in “stages”, and the idea that because Northern
Ireland is more at a more “Progessive stage”, that
a United Ireland is a long way off (WP) or will never
happen (BICO) and therefore Irish nationalism/republicanism
is reactionary?


CL - April 28, 2010

That’s certainly one reading of Marx, and one much influenced by Bill Warren. Here’s a link to an interview with Fred Halliday where he references Bill Warren and discusses the progressive nature of imperialism.

Click to access hallidayfred_dannypostelinterview2005.pdf


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8. shane - April 27, 2010

Bartholomew, Hitchens also falls into that trap in his book God is not Great.


9. Don Draper - April 27, 2010

‘And it leads to seeing the Irish problem as mainly a sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The recent book by Ed Moloney, ‘Voices from the Grave’ is in the same vein.’

Is it? Does Moloney adhere to the two-nationist position?


Cl - April 27, 2010

One doesn’t need to take a ‘two-nationist position to view the conflict as mainly a sectarian one between Catholics and Protestants; but if one believes imperialism to be benign then the cause of the conflict would appear to be sectarianism.
One could also of course view the conflict as mainly sectarian while being opposed to imperialism.
But since the unionist neo-conservative Lord Bew and his pupil Anthony Mcintyre played a key role in Moloney’s book perhaps seeing it as pro-imperialist is not inaccurate.


10. Séan Ó Tuama - April 27, 2010

For an excellent left critique of the euro and the élite EU anti-democratic project in general, I would recommend Perry Anderson’s latest book “The New Old World”, Verso, 2009″. He has moved from a position close to Tom Nairn’s old pro EU line to a much more critical position.

Inter alia, he shows how the EU in its rush to follow a NATO dictated line on Turkey’s accession is willing to ignore the undemocratic nature of the Turkish state, the Armenian genocide and ethnic, religious and political oppression.

He, in particular, shows how the EU tried to force Greek Cypriots to accept the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Turks on the island and how this was mainly twarted by the Cypriot CP ( I am not a great fan of the latter but fair do’s to them on this occasion).

Also includes good analyses of EU Member States and in particular Italy where he shows the dangers of the left reducing politics to the Berlusconi issue alone.


11. Don Draper - April 27, 2010

But since the unionist neo-conservative Lord Bew and his pupil Anthony Mcintyre played a key role in Moloney’s book perhaps seeing it as pro-imperialist is not inaccurate.



12. Tim - April 27, 2010

so…. is he saying the Europe exists to save us all from our backwards tribalistic sectarianism? and if we would only embrace it, then we would realise that our squabbles are petty and meaningless?


Tim - April 27, 2010

um.. that should be “the EU”….


13. Niall - April 27, 2010

This is the same Christopher Hitchens who claimed the Blueshirts were a dependency of the Catholic church and that Dev’s trip to the German ambassador was an act of anti-semitism? The same chap who claimed that the molested graduates of Irish religious schools outnumbered the unmolested?

I’m shocked that he managed to get his facts so twisted on this occassion when in the past he has proven the most diligent and objective scholar.


shane - April 27, 2010

Yup, he makes the first two claims in God is Not Great. Sean McGouran has a good review of it in this quarter’s Church and State magazine.


Pope Epopt - April 28, 2010

The best demolishing of Hitchens as an fundementalist ‘athiest’ I’ve read recently was Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009) by Eagleton.

A fun read.


14. kirghiz - April 28, 2010

> Now I’m a pedant over this issue, but truth is Irish Republic is not the
> name of the state I live in. It’s Republic of Ireland.

Sigh. The name of the state you live in is Ireland. Article 4 of the constitution. The term ‘Republic of Ireland’ is a sop to British journalists. It’s kind of comical that you would pettifog so inaccurately.


smiffy - April 28, 2010

While it’s correct to state that the name of the state is Ireland, th term ‘Republic of Ireland’ is an officially recognised description under the Republic of Ireland Act.

Motes and beams, eh?


WorldbyStorm - April 28, 2010

Kirghiz, Republic of Ireland is not a sop to British journalists, albeit you’re correct in so far as there the two names can be used in English. The point I’m making is that the term ‘Irish Republic’ has no official standing whatsoever in this state, and worse again comes bundled as a term that has been used in a derisory fashion across the years by, primarily the original Stormont government, elements inside the British Home Office, etc, etc. Indeed this was a conscious policy in order to wrest the meaning of ‘Ireland’ away. I may have miswritten in my earlier piece in not being more precise, but it’s a fair bit more accurate than Hitchens piece.

What is important here is that he’s not using the correct descriptor for the part of the island he is referencing explicitly, in other words to distinguish between political divisions in Ireland by saying ‘Republic or Ireland’ or ‘Northern Ireland’, he’s using one which is not recognised by this state and comes freighted with negative meanings in the context of usage by others outside this state. I think that’s worthy of comment.


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16. Pope Epopt - April 28, 2010


I’m sorry, but I don’t share the fascination with the sayings of the great Hitch. What is interesting is the pleasure taken in the disintegration of the Euro by a wide range of the Anglo / US commentariat. Are they all working for some shadowy hedge fund?

The main people driving this are bond market speculators who have shorted the PIGs big time. They stand to make mucho dinero from Greek sovereign default followed by Portugal and the Republic of Ireland. The Germans are paralyzed to help by an election on the 9th of May and the unwillingness of German voters to pay other people’s bad debts. (Sound familiar?)

This could well be the second phase in the current financial crisis thundering down the line. Then it’ll be time to stash the savings, if you have any, (in what – gold, dollars, turnips if you can get them) under the mattress, because them there banks won’t be very liquid.


17. Pope Epopt - April 28, 2010

10 year bond market spreads today:

Portugal +48bps to 280bps
Ireland +20bps to 220bps
Greece +13bps to 670bps


18. giannis - April 28, 2010

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