21st century republicanism

Republicanism in 21st century Ireland

Reprinted below is the text af an address delivered by Tommy McKearney in July 2012, on the subject of modern day republicanism in Ireland



The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of man change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. 

                                                                                                                         Tom Paine. The Rights of Man 1791


I would like to give you my understanding of the classical interpretation of republicanism to which our chairperson has eloquently referred. To look at Irish republicanism and how republicanism has impacted and been interpreted and been played out in the Irish context and then to look at contemporary republicanism. To return to the title of the discussion ‘21st century republicanism, what does it mean’. Is it relevant, can it be relevant will it continue to be relevant in this new century?

I believe that it will be but this is something that we must look at.

Classical republicanism is a system of government where the people is sovereign and no other authority is recognised as superior and accepts either monarch or pope or banker or speculator as ruler. Remember, though, that the form of government determines and is determined by the nature of the state and society. Viewing the people as sovereign is essential to republicanism and arising directly from the concept that the people is sovereign is a clear recognition of the need to accept that closely associated with this premise is that of the need to recognise the ‘common good’. If the people be sovereign it logically follows that the people will not provide for a government or a system of governance that runs contrary to the ‘common good.’

What then arises obviously is the interpretation of what constitutes the common good or what best provides for the common good for all and there are many interpretations of that.

However, because it is that fundamental tenet of republicanism where the people is sovereign, the great struggles throughout history has been to reject the idea that any one individual or small group of individuals can sit with absolute authority over others. When that is accepted that that is not how we will govern humanity (one having authority over others) it has to be accepted that there is a degree of individual freedom within the people so therefore there is going to be a contention so that here is no such thing as a republicanism that holds good throughout all time. There are no ten commandments for republicanism. If there is any commandment it is that the people are sovereign. Beyond that we do not have a credo such as the Roman Church has. There is no such thing as a republican pope. To illustrate and emphasise this point I would like to refer to a quotation.

… Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations, which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies… Tom Paine, The Rights of Man

And when we think about that there is a profound implication in that because it means that we are not prisoners of the past. We can certainly draw lessons from the past, we can draw inspiration from the past but we are not bound by it. Republicanism is constantly in a state of change and that each generation will and indeed must define its understanding and interpretation of the world around it. So on that basis, the republicanism that was expounded in Greece, in Rome or in continental Europe several centuries past may provide us we lessons, we cannot draw from it a definitive set of rules and regulations and say these will hold good for ever. Republicanism, just as humanity and as society changes, so also will republicanism change. Republicanism has certainly changed over the millennia, over the centuries and even from decade to decade.

The Greek and Roman republics excluded all but the most privileged, the English republic excluded Catholics especially the Irish variety, the French Republic, very ungallantly for a Gallic state, overlooked its female population. But all were republics.

And have we therefore, having looked at classical republicanism have we now reached a wonderful state of nirvana because we can now say that we now have universal suffrage by giving people the right to vote. Well let me say, not so, we have not reached a state of republican perfection because we are talking about something that changes and is constantly ongoing.

Having established and looked at what we may consider to be the classical view of republicanism where the people is sovereign, yet our understanding of republicanism is subject to change because as Tom Paine said you cannot bind the future by an act of the present. We therefore look to republicanism in Ireland.

Republicanism in Ireland, and I hesitate to use the phrase Irish republicanism because while we often use that term, the underlying tenet of a sovereign people means that the concept of republicanism is universal. We can of course ask what portion of the people or what section of the people. Nevertheless, how we have interpreted it here in Ireland is important not just to our understanding of where we have been but where we are today and where we are likely to go to in the future.

A very important aspect of republicanism, I would argue, is that it is and must be functional. Republicanism is not a life choice in that for example the colour of ones shirt or a particular genre of music. Republicanism is not that type of subjective life-style choice. People see it, because it must apply to people, as functional, something that is useful and something that applies to them in terms of the common god, the common weal and to their common wealth.

And I’m using the term commonwealth advisedly because I’m not using it as it applies today in Britain. In Ireland, and this is very important, republicanism was seen and has been seen and should be seen in the future a something that will provide for the common good as something that is functional. This is crucial to our understanding of Irish republicanism and how it has changed over the centuries and decades.

Because many of those people who once saw it as useful to their interests, as vital and important, found that when it had achieved a certain level, when they had gained a certain amount of their agenda, they felt that they could move on or stay still. Let me say this, republicanism has a long history on this island but the great uprising of the United Irishmen was supported by many of the wealthy middle classes, by prosperous merchants and by the business people of the time and particularly by the linen merchants of Antrim and Down and Belfast. And many of their objections to the type of governance they experienced prior to 1800 was due to their inability to access, due to trade embargoes on Irish goods by London, the British Empire’s markets. However, when those issues were addressed, we were to see a decline in support for the concept of a republic on this island from within a certain section of the business class on this island.

In time this group was able to accommodate themselves very comfortable to life within a monarchist governed union and were in fact to become the bastions of that union in the last century. Similarly we have seen (and this is very important when analysing republicanism on this island) that the agenda can change from time to time. We saw republicanism as it emerged with the United Irishmen and even before then and in particular in the North-East and I’ll refer to this again before I end this talk.

We again have seen those who were content to define republicanism almost as similar to ‘Home-Rule’ and when they found a prevailing economic system that the found suitable at the time of the Treaty were happy to see republicanism interpreted as being that of the Free-State and then sought to move away from any attempt to develop the meaning of a republic.

The important point here is that rather than get into this endless and sterile argument and round of accusations about treachery and sell-out, what we should recognise is that those who find themselves in a situation of contentment, whether it’s the linen merchants of Belfast or the Blueshirt merchant princes of Cumann na nGael, that when they reach a situation of contentment they want the situation to be frozen, the status quo to remain fixed and nothing further to develop. That, therefore, is where conflict has arisen time and time again between those who wish to cry halt and those who are determined to advance. When Fianna Fail, having competed against the Cumann na nGael party in the Free State and once finding themselves in government, thereafter their radicalism declines and ceases because they have achieved a level of contentment and satisfaction for their party, their clique, their group, their class that says we shall now stop this ‘bus’. Not the old analogy of ‘some getting off the bus’ but is instead a demand that we ‘stop the bus’ and that is what we have to examine and explore because we have seen this time after time throughout history. There is nothing unusual or surprising about it because once one section is satisfied, it says things are satisfactory, things are good enough for us.

So where do we go today if we are talking about republicanism in this 21st century? Will it survive, can it survive, should it survive? We have a number of tasks to meet and address if it is to survive in a meaningful way. If republicanism is to have a value, and it has had a value since it is seen as a very functional philosophy, very useful form of organisation and form of government since republicanism has addressed the needs of people on this island over the past two centuries. It has provided a means of redress to those who have been able to have their needs met by the establishment, from the time of the United Irishmen (whether they were successful or not on the day is another matter), needs were being addressed right through to the most recent conflict where a republic across the island was seen by a section of the northern community as their better option to escape the 50 years and more of misery that was their experience of an Orange state. We can critique the conflict and we may have our difficulties with the conflict as it developed but that was a clear underlying logic behind the republican campaign of the late 20th century in the North.

We look now at republicanism today. There is again a serious problem on this island in terms of the common good and we don’t really have to elaborate on that in order to prove it. We are in billions of Euro of debt. We have 450, 000 out of work and tens of thousands heading for emigration. What we have in this 26 County state, in spite of their excuses and claims to the contrary, is the option of melt-down today or a drawn out collapse over time – what might be described as a choice between blow-out or slow puncture. Whatever way we examine it, the wheels of this 26-County vehicle are going down. Our problem is one of how we address the common good.

To address the common good we must look beyond what we have today. Republicanism must draw on a different ideology than that which it has applied in the past. Republicanism must continue with its ability to change and on this occasion we may indeed draw inspiration from the North.  One person I would like to quote is the late George Gilmore. A man who came from a town in Co Armagh not best known for its fondness for republicanism, the borough of Portadown.

George Gilmore wrote about James Connolly in a lecture that he did for a symposium organised by the Dublin City Trades Council.  He wrote;

‘ … It is hardly necessary to remind Irish workers of James Connolly's life-long work as a Trades Union organiser. There can be no question in our minds as to the relevance of that side to his work in the circumstances of today. When, however, we come to consider as a more comprehensive question of the relevance of Connolly in 1970 we are thinking not only of his work as a Trades Union organiser, but of his whole political outlook in which that work was contained and, very much, of his view of Irish politics in relation to world politics.

There always have been, and probably still are, sincere and devoted Trade Union workers who see the function of working-class organisation as beginning and ending in the amelioration of the lot of wage-earning people within the capitalist system of society. If any of us accept that view of working-class struggle, we must, I think, dismiss Connolly's political teaching as irrelevant. He never held that view.

If, on the other hand, we believe, as he believed, that working-class struggle for better conditions within the kind of society in which we live must, to achieve a worthwhile result, be pushed ahead to the overthrow of the social system that rests on the exploitation of the working classes, and to the organisation of society on a socialist basis instead - if we accept that as our task - then we can, to some purpose, consider the question of the relevance of Connolly's teaching to the tactics of today …’

We are now in a situation where republicanism if is to be relevant, must look at this situation and must become functional and must give up this absolute fixation that republicanism can be confined to a single item agenda of uniting Ireland. We have to look at changing the economic system for the better through uniting the working class and as the United Irishmen, knowing where they had come from, originally from the English Republic, which had experienced first and foremost a class division between Leveller/Digger on one hand and the wealthy business interests on the other hand, because that is where Belfast had first experienced its republicanism (as supporters of the parliamentary side in the English civil war) and only later from the French republic. They recognised that it was not enough to use the old ideas of the English Commonwealth or republic. They recognised that a new programme had to be set out where they had to bring together all elements of Irish society. This was a new departure from the United Irishmen and that is again what we need today. We cannot reconcile Orange and Green because we have to move beyond that. We cannot reconcile Capitalism with a better way of life, we have to move beyond it. And let me say this as we move into the future republicanism will be neither orange or green or indeed green white and orange but will be red, republicanism will be socialist or it will be nothing.


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© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com