Lessons from the Republican Congress ... 80 years later

To build the Peadar O'Donnell Socialist Republican Forum

Tommy McKearney delivered this address in the Irish Institute, Dublin on Thursday 13th November 2014 to an audience commemorating the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Republican Congress.  


Two governing coalitions on this island and both failing to deliver for those they preside over in two failed, partitioned states. Both of these failed political entities guided and managed by those adhering to the inadequate and failed ideologies of neo-liberal capitalism and right-of-centre social democracy. That dismal picture is Ireland, north and south as we approach the centenary of the 1916 rising. Yet, in spite of the plain to be seen popular disenchantment in the South and evident despair in the North we have yet to build a political movement capable of offering a clear and viable alternative to the prevailing and pervasive inertia and decline. Because if the Republican Congress failed to deliver in 1934, 80 years later we have not even reached the starting line.

It was once said of the Bourbons that following their 1815 restoration, coming as it did in the aftermath of the political cataclysm that was Jacobin inspired republican revolution and Napoleonic Empire building, that they, the Bourbons had forgotten nothing and learned nothing as a result of the overthrow of the Ancien Régime.

It would be a gross exaggeration to compare the Republic of Ireland’s recent economic crisis with those world-shaking events in France of the late 18th and early 19th century but with one exception. The southern Irish ruling class of today appears, just like the restored Bourbons, to have learnt nothing from the 2010 crisis nor have they forgotten anything in terms of how they used to govern and rule and still wish to do so.

Following the upheaval brought about by the 2010 crisis, little has improved. No beneficial structural changes have been made to the economy. A property boom/bubble is gathering pace in Dublin while there is a shortage of housing and rents are increasing unsustainably. The bonus culture is as well implanted now as it was been in the past and wealthy tax dodgers, both individual and corporate, are as comfortably cosseted  as at any time in our history.

On the other hand, workers’ ncome has fallen, emigration has devastated whole communities, the social welfare net has been degraded over and over again and the Dail has become a transmission vehicle for decisions made by big Capital in Germany and Washington.

And if the southern Irish state is flagging as an effective administrative political entity, the northern six county state is verging on farce.  Not only does the Stormont Executive disagree on a budget, and disagree on the nature of education, and disagree on what happened in the past and how it might be addressed; they don’t even agree on the name for the place or how to courteously address the Assembly’s chair. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that they do not share a vision for its future. Given the debilitating and sterile nature of politics in the northern state, it is clear that its local political administration is unable to offer anything other than a barren, negative programme resulting is sectarian stagnation. Peace of the sort there may be but progress is in short supply.

The governing economic philosophy on both sides of the border resonates to a quip made by John Maynard Keynes in a past decade when he said:

‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back’.

In light of the above, then remember Enda Kenny proudly proclaiming his ambition to make Ireland the best little country for business in the world and in the process, bind Ireland to the draconian Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. His social democratic coalition partners offered no resistance to these proposals and are clearly bereft of any concrete concept of how to overcome the economic trough into which Ireland has fallen.

North of the border, the best that the two-party power-sharing arrangement can offered by way of an economic plan is to lower corporation tax in an attempt to compete with business incentives offered by the southern state. The Northern Assembly is planning to implement, therefore, the granting of financial concessions to foreign multi-nationals at the cost of an equivalent diminution of the London  Exchequer’s block grant. A trade-off that in practice means cutting social welfare in order to reward corporate shareholders. 

At the heart of the problems north and south is a slavish adherence by the establishment in both states to reactionary or failed ideologies. Whether knowingly or not, the prevailing plan or blueprint to which both jurisdictions are working is a blending of free-market neo-liberalism barely tempered by a dysfunctional, right of centre social democracy ---- with the former dictating the pace. Simultaneously, both the Republic and Northern Ireland are embedded within a world order governed by an overarching imperialism which in effect is the higher stage of its underpinning economic infrastructure; capitalism.

Ninety-two years after the foundation of the southern state, its governing coalition is striving to introduce a water tax, which it has been ordered to do so by foreign financiers acting through, among others, the offices of the European Central Bank. An agency that, as its President Mario Draghi  (Pay: €378,240) told us recently, is not answerable to any national parliaments but only to the European commission.  In a wider sense, the entire southern Irish economy is now regulated by the European Union’s neo-liberal agenda, which not only dictates the extent of the state’s budget deficit but also reaches into other areas once the preserve of national parliaments. Areas such as public services where there is ongoing encroachment of marketisation and sophisticated and devious practices geared to diminish labour rights and protections to name just a few.

Ninety-four years after the foundation of the northern state, there is rancorous animosity within its institutions, uncertainty about their permanency and no real idea of how to develop its economy. In response to the Scottish referendum, central government in London is developing a new strategy for peripheral regions of the United Kingdom. Germane to this review will be the fact that the northern six counties are not seen as either economically or strategically vital to the interests of a British state all too aware that changing demographics will ultimately put the six county state’s existence in question

Set against this pessimistic analysis is the fact that the contours of Ireland’s political landscape are changing and resistance to the status quo is growing.

The three-party structure that dominated the southern state since the mid 1920s is no longer as secure as it once was. Opinion polls and more significantly, election results, are showing that the thundering blow, which rocked Fianna Fail in 2011 has spread across the party political landscape. Local government and European elections indicated a profound change in outlook. It is now evident that Sinn Fein and a range of left leaning candidates have created a significant challenge to the old triumvirate of, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour. In fact the latter two parties are being pushed further to the margins while the former is struggling to hold on to its ultra-conservative base.

Fine Gael, challenged by a heritage linking it to Michael Collins, has now retreated into Redmondism. Fianna Fail, frightened by the republicanism it once espoused, has adopted 26-County Free Statism, while the Labour Party, fleeing frantically from the ghosts of Connolly and Larkin has imploded. Southern Irish society is not falling apart but the southern state has conceded its sovereignty to others and as such fails to meet the basic criteria required for a republic – that of a self-governing citizenry, something that has not gone unnoticed across the water by one of Margaret Thatcher’s old ministers; 

'Countries with weak economies in the eurozone have clearly sacrificed the authority to govern themselves. National governments slash public spending and create unemployment because the German chancellor must satisfy the German voter that she is being prudent and tough.’ … Michael Portillo[1]

Equally important in this challenge to the Republic’s Ancien Régime is the emergence of resistance on the streets. Opposition to the household charge introduced a new generation to protest while the current anti-water-tax campaign has revealed a potential Mt. Vesuvius parked beside Enda and Joan’s pretty blue and pink Pompeii.

While the changing reality of political life in the South is clearly discernable, there are some small signals that north of the border all is not cast in concrete.  Not only are there trade union organised campaigns supporting the Welfare State but a sliver of evidence emerged of late that the DUP is concerned about left wing ideas gaining purchase among it s working class supporters. Last week the DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, who chairs the Stormont Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure revealed in his weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph [2] the extent of the ‘conspiracy’ that plunged his beloved province into three decades of violence. In short it was the communists – Irish, British, and Russian. As the British actor Michael Caine used to say        ‘ …not many people know that’ and least of all I imagine; those Irish, British and Russian communists. Joking aside, these stories usually emerge from within right-wing unionism when the cause of labour is raising its head among the Protestant working class.

To return to the observation made at the beginning. In spite of developing conditions, we are awaiting the emergence of a broad anti-imperialist front capable of bring clarity of analysis, unity of purpose and a focus of action to the current situation. To address this question a number of points have to be made.   

The difficulty facing Ireland north and south requires a solution encompassing an answer to both the democratic deficit engendered by imperialism and the economic problems caused by capitalism.  The answer can only be found within a socialist republican analysis and a socialist republican response. A true peoples’ republican democracy founded on the principles of democratic ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

However, that assessment is only the first step in developing a coherent programme and a dynamic political movement. The theory has to be unpacked and refined and discussed and owned by the greatest number of people possible, so that it becomes a guide for action and not the preserve of a select few theoritician. We need a theory that explores, analyses and defined imperialism in all its manifestations in the present 21st century. A theory that assists in the development of a viable and effective social and economic alternative to that currently inflicting so much damage pn the people of this country. Finally it has to a theory capable of drawing together all the forces capable of achieving this objective.

Too often in the past the goal of drawing these forces together has been spoiled by a rush to coalesce. Too many promising initiatives have fallen because there has been superficial agreement on areas that all too soon cause a parting of the ways. We, as working people, can ill afford more demoralising divisions. Progress has to be built on the solid ground of a clear understanding of what unites us and an honest admission of where we disagree followed by mature and lasting agreement on the issues we cooperate and work on.

For this reason, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum has been established to offer a structure through which; the theoretical issues can be explored and discussed; through which the revealed theory can be applied to current topics, and thus equipped, the people of Ireland can build a movement capable of realising the objective – an independent sovereign republic maintaining its citizens’ wellbeing through a communally organised and socialist republic. 

We in the Forum claim no position of privilege in this process. We are not dictating a programme. We merely state that the project has to be enlightened by the exploration of three key areas of political reality:


·      The impact of class

·      The reality of imperialism

·      The role of the state

With that understanding in place and every capable shoulder to the wheel, we can ensure that the vision becomes a reality and ensure that working peoples’ republic did not die in 1916 in the stone-breakers yard in Kilmainham jail.


Tommy McKearney …13 Nov 2014

[1] Britain has the best of both worlds on the fringes of Europe. Michael Portillo … Financial Times, November 7, 2014


[2] The perfect storm that saw Ulster explode in a wave of bloody violence. Nelson McCausland … Belfast Telegraph, 06 November 201

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com