Republics Past and Future

A talk delivered at the opening of the restored Pearse Family Home as The Ireland Institute.

Author: Tom Keneally

Recently I spoke at a meeting in the Australian city of Newcastle, north of Sydney. It is a steel and mining community, suffering now from all the enigmas and challenges the 21st century already seems to be imposing upon us. These include the globalisation of the market, which makes it easier for an Australian company to make steel in Asia than in Australia. They include the fact too that, as in other societies throughout the world, successive quarters of growth and the spectacle of Treasurers and Ministers of Finance beaming into their homes with news of wonderful economic figures and successive quarters of growth, leaves the citizen with a sense that little of this is happening for his benefit. The ‘trickle down effect’, of which the President of that great and cornerstone Republic, the United States, used to speak so warmly, has in the perception of the populace not occurred, unless it is the trickle down of uncertainty, of anger, a sense of lost cohesion and even of hate. Here I was – in a town from which the Australian company, Broken Hill Proprietary, was about to move its steel operations off shore, thereby generating Australian wealth in absolute terms, but increasing for these antipodean Novocastrians – suggesting that a move to a Republic would carry spiritual, diplomatic and marketing advantages.

A man rose and asked a question characteristic of those who are wary of abolishing the Constitutional Monarchy in Australia. He asked me to name some successful republics. I should say briefly, before I tell you what I answered, that the Australian Republic, as envisaged, is a curious beast. In the 19th century this straggle of colonies, most of them penal colonies or former penal colonies set in an immense continent, achieved institutional successes which would have more than satisfied the Liberator had they been achieved in Ireland. Victoria, for example, introduced the Chartist option of the secret ballot in 1856 and universal male suffrage the following year. My state, New South Wales, in 1858, when Irish progressive impulses were at their post-famine nadir, as the Tenant League in Ireland was collapsing, followed Victoria’s example. Many of the Liberator’s followers were involved in both these successes, and Charles Gavan Duffy was so attracted by them that he left what he rashly described as ‘the corpse on a dissecting table’, Ireland, to go to gold-boom Melbourne. The fact that he, who had betrayed Republican impulse in the pages of The Nation, who had despaired of the House of Commons, could become a Premier of Victoria and could accept a knighthood was an indication not of a lapse of principles but of the fact that he found institutions to be viable. To paraphrase another former Young Irelander, D’Arcy McGee, though the British flag flew in Victoria, it did not cast the shadow which it did in Ireland.

Australian national energies then tended toward federating the States and, against great difficulties, apathies and fantastical arguments, that was achieved. Now in the late 20th century, we wish to assert constitutionally the sovereignty, not of the Crown of Australia and Great Britain, but of the Australian people. We wish to do this by referendum, and we wish to do it so that we can be perceived clearly, by ourselves and by others, in all our diversity and, some would say perversity, for what we are. So that we can signify our commitment to our region – the Pacific Rim and South East Asia – and so that our attempts at cultural exchange, at commerce, at diplomacy, at urging human rights upon our neighbours, do not have to be done under the delusional iconography of Empire. There is therefore very little comparison between the way in which I hope an Australian Republic will be achieved, and the way in which the Irish Republic was achieved.

But back to the man, who asked me to name successful republics, I suggested France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland, and warts and all, the United States, which despite all its baroque inequities remains the founding template of modern republican government.

The questioner of course stuck to his false syllogism, which runs something like this: Trevor and Sean are Australian and Irish respectively and are alcoholics. Bruce and Brendan are also Australian and Irish respectively. Therefore Bruce and Brendan are alcoholics.

Just the same, the questioner was on to something on an emotional and perceptual level. The fact that I could nominate so few viable republics was sad. This century has been an appalling century for the republican ideal. I was more than willing to admit that, and helped my questioner out by pointing to examples of atrocious republics. In Eritrea in 1987 and 1989, I had spent some time in bunkers listening to the wasteful artillery of Menghistu, the chief of the Peoples Republics of Ethiopia. Despite a series of famines Menghistu was able to spend more than 50% of recurrent national expenditure to maim Eritreans and frighten the hell out of visiting Australians. Menghistu has fallen now, but in the neighbouring Republic of the Sudan, a military government has placed the control of the nation’s security forces in the hands of fundamentalists. For more than a decade the Islamic law has been statute law, which the Christians of the South have been bound to observe.

Because of this and a succession of other inequities, historic and present, the Christians and animists of the South are in chaotic rebellion against the central government in Khartoum, and Khartoum conducts its endless war, a war which may help focus the Islamic populace of the North but which costs more than a million dollars a day to conduct, which disrupts industry, saps foreign reserves of currency, and destroys the general overseas credit of the Sudan. Through the folly of its own government, the republic cannot afford to import the most simple medications, and all its infrastructures remain primitive, particularly those to do with health, education, and communications. The security forces attempt to evade international scrutiny by operating unofficial prisons or ‘ghost houses’, shuttered and barred hells in the suburbs of various towns, where torture can be practised as it might be on the dark side of the moon.

One and a half million, who have been counted, have died since 1983 in this nearly unobserved conflict. Hundreds of thousands lie in barely marked graves, dead of starvation or of opportunistic illness. President Omar Bashir, in his desire to defeat the South, has transformed the war against the people of the south from a struggle of the headwaters of the White and Blue Nile, into a jihad, a theological phenomenon, a holy war, promising redemption to those who die in it, inveigling recruits with powers of helpful Islamic snakes setting off mines in the path of God’s warriors.

This is a republic, which has broken all its pledges of tolerance, fraternity and equity. There have been too many republics like it in our century; republics so famously malign that you know their names and I need not recite them here. Perhaps the problem has been this: republics have occurred in the 20th century very much as a reaction to monarchic systems of injustice and oppression, or else as a reaction to imperial occupation. Their achievement has been seen, by the thousands who died to bring them into existence, as an end in itself. Some of the best minds and best souls have not lived to see the day of the republic dawn. But it is obvious to all of us that a republic does not operate merely as a reaction to monarchy or to imperial occupation. A lack of institutional strength, an excess of clan, cultural or religious fervour, has repeatedly unseated the republican impulse. Republics perhaps have been seen as a reaction, a squaring of scores, rather than a new formula for human co-operation.

It is interesting to reflect upon these matters in Ireland, because there is a fascinating presumption around the world that the Irish are somehow inherently, temperamentally and genetically republican in spirit. The accusation has even been made in Australia that our hoped for republic is somehow the invention of descendants of Irish convicts and immigrants.

The Irish republican impulse, domestically and in the diaspora, is seen as growing from such experiences as those of, say, my wife’s great grandmother, a 22-year-old servant woman, a displaced peasant from the Tipperary countryside, Mary Shields, mother of two small children, who stole clothing from a Mr Reardon in Limerick, and was transported on a seven-year sentence, as good as eternity for a woman of her class, to the Antipodes. She left behind husband, parents, and one child. Her crime was committed in summer, the period of the notorious summer on which du Beaumont and de Tocqueville and other visitors commented. Like most of the women on her ship, the Whitby, sent from Dublin Bay to the 19th century equivalent of Mars, she was a first offender.

But I wonder was she really a republican, or thought in those terms. If she had not been transported, and had survived the Famine, would she have been amongst the enthusiastic crowds who turned out to welcome Queen Victoria in 1849? The Liberator himself spoke of ‘the dear little queen’, and though that was partly to reassure some that he was not a radical, may there not have been sincerity as well? Thomas Francis Meagher, the man who brought back from a visit to republican France in 1848 the tri-colour which now flies over this republic, sentenced to death for high treason in 1848 for his attempt to raise rebellion in Tipperary, and waiting in Richmond bridewell for what turned out to be transportation to Tasmania, mentioned to his friend PJ Smyth, that he considered a republic ‘adverse to the genius, the peculiar pride, the most cherished traditions of the Irish people’. He considered a republic the highest form of government, but one which required a nearly impossible level of intelligence and virtue amongst the citizens. In another sense, William Butler Yeats expressed scepticism in a two-line poem written after the achievement of the Irish Republic:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
‘Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone’

The most successful movement of the 19th century in Ireland was not the republicanism held out by the Fenians, not the modest proposal of Australian-style legislative independence, but a movement based on considerations of land equity, the Land League.

Yet it has also to be said that when the Irish spoke of kingship in the 19th century, their dream was of a restored Gaelic kingship, poetic and august, personified by someone like O’Connell or William Smith O’Brien, by a fraternal table rather than a pyramid of authority. They wanted kingship as a metaphor, but their yearning was in fact for republican benefits, and whatever grief they came to in the slums of lower Manhattan or the North End of Boston, it was the poetic republicanism of the United States which ultimately excited them, rather than the shibboleths and loyalist tests of monarchical Canada or Australia. For it is true in the end that even a constitutional monarchy is no more than an imperfect republic, one which yet extending the benefits of republican citizenship, takes an each way bet on ladder systems of privilege, on accidents of birth, on the perilous proposition that people are ‘subjects’, on disorienting pretensions at being at the centre of or in an outpost of an empire. If a given country – Australia, Canada, perhaps even ultimately the United Kingdom – is as good as a republic, then perhaps it would be culturally enriched and psychologically centred by recognising that situation constitutionally. If the subjects of the crown are as good as citizens, they should seek to be affirmed constitutionally as citizens, and look for their Head of State not amongst their supposed betters, to accidents of DNA, but amongst their peers.

As for your republic, though established, it is apparent to me as a visitor that the citizens consider it still in the process of being achieved. A republic is a daily compact of hope renewed and shared amongst the citizens. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has the appropriate slogan – ‘Not just a republic, but a just republic!’ A republic is a juggling act of high order. Valid rights and guarantees are created by republican suppositions of equality amongst members of the community. For me, for example, as a writer, one of the most fascinating tricks is the balancing of freedom of expression, particularly artistic expression, with freedom of religion. This question is made all the more engrossing because of my acquaintance, from a time long before the fatwah, with Salman Rushdie. The upshot of guarantees of freedom of expression is that in a republic, while there can perhaps appropriately be laws regarding racial vilification and the suppression, say, of videos portraying death for sexual gratification, or paedophilia, there can successfully be no statutory crime such as blasphemy, sacrilege or heresy. The fact that the republic is fraternally open to people of all backgrounds, and the very guarantee of freedom of religion itself, means that there can be no state-wide consensus on what sacrilege or heresy is. So that in a true republic there can be no fatwah. I am proud to report than in the fledgling Republic of Australia – after all Australia has since 1901 insisted on calling itself a Commonwealth, a good enough English translation of res publica – calls for Rushdie’s death were scarcely heard, since the leaders of the Australian Islamic community, reserving quite properly the right to state themselves as profoundly and emphatically offended as they were, renounced the right to call for a writer’s death.

But perhaps religious orthodoxy is less of a threat to republican democracy than is another force rampant in the developed world. This is the force of the present economic orthodoxy, the belief that the market must be rationalised and maximised for the good of all parties. Ireland has already suffered from the principles of political economy, most notably in the Famine whose progress throughout the late 1840s is now being commemorated here and in the new world. The Famine occurred at a time when the same economic fundamentalism which at present afflicts democracies was fashionable in Westminster as well. It was compounded by the proposition of the Reverend Malthus, who had never visited Ireland, that ‘the land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than anywhere else: and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil’.

The Malthusian proposition went hand in glove with the popular economic belief that an energetic connection with the market should save the Irish from themselves. Though Peel had the courage to repeal the Corn Laws and buy Indian corn to be stored in Irish commissaries, his orders were that it was not to be used to undermine the market and not to be released until prices reached unreasonable levels. To undermine the market would be to deprive people of ultimate employment. They must be taught that lesson. When Peel fell and Sir John Russell came to power, he brought with him the same theories of political economy. ‘The common delusion that government can convert a period of scarcity into a period of abundance is one of the most mischievous that can be entertained.’

And when the market, because of successive crop failures, failed to revive the Irish, then, as with today’s denouncers of welfare recipients, the victim was blamed. ‘But alas! The Irish have been taught many bad lessons and few good ones’. That good but mistaken man, Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, wrote, ‘The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ It may be a little simplistic, but not howlingly so, to say that the fact that Ireland is the only member of the EEC to have a much smaller population than it did in the census of 1841 is a result of the mercies of the market, in which even the starving peasant was wrongly looked upon as (a) a grain purchaser, and (b) next year’s market labour.

Though today we have similar rhetoric – that the market will look after people as long as they play the market game – the exaltation of the bottom line, the whimsically named phenomenon called downsizing, and technology itself have between them nearly reversed the proposition which Adam Smith enunciated in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People pursue only their own interests and seek only their own gain but they are led, as if by an invisible hand, to a centre of repose which is the greater good and happiness of all.’

To paraphrase an Australian friend of mine, Donald Home, inventor of the phrase ‘The Lucky Country’ for Australia, the invisible hand seems in today’s market economies no longer to be writing, and the centre of society is not a centre of repose.

Religious fundamentalism, then, is one of the greatest perils to republics. I know that my friend, the President of the Republic of Eritrea, Issayas Afewerki, fears it for its capacity to divide and unhinge. But for the republics of the west economic fundamentalism may be more sinister, and less chosen by the populace. Islamic and other fundamentalisms turn the brother and sister of the republic into a heretic and a cultural enemy and the subject of a jihad. Economic rationalism turns the brother and sister of the republic into a mere consumer and a mere player in an economy. Economic rationalism exalts competition as the only value and undermines the immense human capacity for co-operation, which is the founding impulse of communities. From Australia to the Baltic Sea right-wing demagogues have flourished, as a result of this dehumanisation, on the disorientation and anger of those who have been reduced from the high status of citizen to the more questionable status of winner or loser in an economy. The capacity to know the price of everything but to mock the value of the imponderables by which society lives – the icons, the legends, the songs, the amenities, the comedies, the urbanities, the better angels of tolerance – that is the greatest threat to modern democracy in its republican form. By its nature, devotion to the bottom line divides, cuts out, downsizes, regrets but tolerates the fact that 10 or 12 or 20% of the people will have no place at the table of the common wealth. Whereas the republic exists to demand that 10 or 12 or 20% will have their place at the table.

To eschew religious fundamentalism is a particular duty in a country like Australia, which since my childhood has grown from a largely British Isles-based community to one which includes Western and Eastern Europeans of many backgrounds, Muslims from the Middle East, Buddhists from Asia. Ireland itself, a desirable community in which to live if one has a job, will not be immune to such immigrations particularly given its geniality and generosity in the midst of a world of refugees. But the values of economic sanity will also be necessary for us, so that we are willing to invest more in the civilities and cohesion of our communities rather than in security personnel, electronic surveillance, gates, burglar alarms, and the bars which insecurely shut the affluent in against the anger of the dispossessed. In the new millennium, republics will have to live up to the literal promise of their names, or else make the word the target of mockery from a citizenry which will have lost faith in every promise.

Not just a republic, but a just republic.