The Irish Republic: A Project Still to be Completed

Paper from a conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006, organised by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society.

Author: Peadar Kirby

The State’s public celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in April 2006 signalled that it was respectable again for the public to feel proud of the sacrifice made by the women and men who took up arms against British rule, and that it was acceptable to be inspired by their ideals. Yet, it is important not to forget that those who sought to organise an appropriate celebration of the Rising’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 1991 experienced harassment by officials of the same State. At that time, it was far from respectable to identify with the sacrifice and ideals of 1916. This reminds us that commemoration tells us as much, if not more, about the politics of the present, as it does about the politics of the past being commemorated. Bearing this in mind, it is important to cast a critical eye on the easy self-identification of the leaders of today’s Irish Republic with the ideals of those who gave their lives ninety years ago. For, that embrace may prove more dangerous to the legacy of our past patriots than did the State’s apparent hostility towards them (or, certainly, its ambiguity) in 1991.

On January 27, 2006, President Mary McAleese set the official tone that was to dominate the celebrations over the following months. Her words are worth quoting at some length:

The kind of Ireland the heroes of the Rising aspired to was based on an inclusivity that, famously, would ‘[cherish] all the children of the national equally – oblivious of the differences – which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’. That culture of inclusion is manifestly a strong contemporary impulse, working its way today through relationships with the North, with unionists, with the newcomers to our shores, with our marginalised, and with our own increasing diversity. For many years, the social agenda of the Rising represented an unrealisable aspiration, until now that is, when our prosperity has created a real opportunity for ending poverty and promoting true equality of opportunity for our people and when those idealistic words have started to become a lived reality and a determined ambition.

Three months later, on April 9, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, echoed the same theme when he said: ‘An independent Ireland, once an unlikely dream, is now reaching its stride and beginning to fulfil the hopes of those who fought and died for its foundation’.

These claims that today’s Irish Republic is, more than ever before, fulfilling the ideals that motivated those who took up arms ninety years ago, require critical scrutiny, and this is the intention of this paper. While it would be fatuous to claim anything about how those who led the 1916 Rising might view today’s Irish State, it is of the utmost importance that the citizens of that State cast a critical eye on its achievements; after all, this is one of the principal reasons for commemorating past events. All I can say is that the words of Seán Ó Faoláin, written in The Bell in 1941, far more accurately interpret my analysis of today’s Ireland than do those of my President and Taoiseach. As quoted by historian Diarmaid Ferriter in an Irish Times article on April 10, 2006, Ó Faoláin wrote: ‘We are living in a period of conflict between the definite principles of past achievements and the undefined principles of present ambition. Contradiction is everywhere’. One manifestation of this contradiction between ideals and realities is in the ability of the leaders of today’s Irish State to expound a constant rhetoric that claims world-class levels of economic, social, and cultural success, while, as Ferriter put it in his article, ‘the fairness, equality, and tolerance promised in 1916 do not exist in Ireland today’. As if to offer a way of understanding this ability of our leaders to cloak a reality of social breakdown and polarisation with the aura of success, Ferriter went on to say that ‘modern Irish republicanism has often been vague, contradictory, and ideologically incoherent.’

My purpose in this article is to try to move beyond the vagueness, contradictions and incoherence of Irish republicanism, to identify four central features of what constitute it, and then to examine today’s Irish Republic in the light of these. By doing this, I hope to arrive at a conclusion as to whether our President and Taoiseach are correct in claiming that we are progressively implementing the ideals of our patriot dead, or if the Irish Republic for which they died is still a project to be completed. The key features that I examine are self-determination, equality, the res publica, and the cultural dimension.


The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 emphasised ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies’. For many, this would be seen as the key distinguishing feature of Irish republicanism, and it has played a major role in the rhetoric of today’s Sinn Féin over the past two decades. The aspiration to self-determination has, for much of the twentieth century, found expression in an understanding of some absolutist form of national sovereignty that was never actually realised, even in an era when the nation state was a stronger and more dominant entity than it is in today’s globalised world. Is, then, the aspiration to self-determination redundant in today’s world? Many would hold that it is, but this may be due to a failure to read carefully that the 1916 Proclamation invests self-determination not in the Irish State, but in ‘the people of Ireland’. In this sense, one can interpret it as a profoundly egalitarian and anti-elitist aspiration that gives ownership of resources and the ability to determine the goals of public policy to all those who reside in the country, as distinct from them being limited to certain elites. Yet, in marked contradiction to this key principle, we have seen, particularly during the boom of the 1990s, how ownership of our resources is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, as a new and powerful economic elite has been empowered and enriched. The evidence for this is clearly seen in the ever declining share of national income that goes on wages and the ever increasing share that goes to profits. At the beginning of the 1980s, the wage share of national income in Ireland was around 77 per cent or just above the EU average, whereas, by 2000, it had dropped to 57.2 per cent, well below the EU average of 68.6 per cent, the United States at 67.7 per cent, and Japan at 70.7 per cent.1 It is difficult to claim that the people of Ireland are gaining ownership of its resources and unfettered control of its destinies, as they are getting less and less of a share of the income they are producing.

This is just one illustration of a trend towards the growing privatisation of Irish society over the period of the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger, as state policy has made itself ever more subservient to the needs of capital, particularly global corporate capital, and less and less attentive to the needs of its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable among them. For this reason, I have been arguing in recent publications that the Irish State has moved from being a welfare state (though it was never a particularly effective one) to becoming a competition state, as it makes the requirement of international competitiveness the key determinant of public policy.2 It is striking that in today’s world we have to look to the republics of Latin America to see a region in which there is an attempt to give some reality to the aspiration to self-determination, as public dissatisfaction with neoliberalism has brought to power political leaders who are more interested in responding to the pent-up frustration of their citizens for justice and a fair share of the resources they produce. This shows that the aspiration to self-determination remains very much alive in today’s world and requires political leaders with the vision and courage to respond to it.


Republicanism, if it is to mean anything, rests on a radical view of the equality of all human beings, regardless of their economic or social condition. Indeed, this was recognised by President McAleese in her January 2006 speech. Yet, for all the rhetoric about the commitment of our republic to social inclusion and equality, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that our society has become far more unequal and that the State, through its welfare and taxation policies, has contributed to this. Relative poverty, measured as the percentage of households whose income falls below 40 per cent, 50 per cent, or 60 per cent of average incomes, has increased steadily for the two lower poverty lines during the height of the economic boom.

Table 1: Evolution of relative household poverty, 1994-2000 (% in poverty)
Poverty lines 1994 1997 2000
40% average income 4.9 6.3 11.8
50% average income 18.6 22.4 25.8
60% average income 34.2 34.3 32.9

Sources: Brian Nolan et al., Monitoring Poverty Trends in Ireland: Results from the 2000 Living in Ireland Survey, (Dublin, 2002), p. 19.

According to the Central Statistics Office, Ireland is now one of the countries in the twenty-five (now twenty-seven) member EU with the highest at-risk-of-poverty rate.3 Inequality also shows a steady increase in a more recent data series being produced by the CSO. This shows a quite dramatic increase in the widely used Gini co-efficient measure of inequality, from 30.2 in 2000 to 31.8 in 2004.4 Even more than income, what evidence we have indicates that the boom years have greatly increased the wealth of an elite in Irish society. A survey of the world’s richest people, by IT services firm Cap Gemini and investment bank Merrill Lynch, reported that Ireland’s 15,000 wealthiest individuals were worth US$52 billion in 2003, a $1 billion increase on the previous year.5 A 2006 report by the Revenue Commissioners on Ireland’s top earners indicated that the top four hundred of them earned €1 million or more each in 2002 and that they paid an effective tax rate of 24.4 per cent, less than the 28.9 per cent they paid in 2001 – one principal way they avoid paying tax is through property-based tax incentives.6 This draws attention to one means through which Ireland’s housing boom has served to fuel inequality, providing a ready market for lucrative investments by wealthy individuals and reducing their tax liability at the same time. The housing boom has had a complex impact on inequality, but, while greatly increasing the wealth of homeowners as against non-homeowners, or those who accessed the housing market before the boom as against those who accessed it during the boom, its overall impact is likely to have deepened already high levels of inequality in the distribution of wealth.

Even more disturbingly, an examination of the State’s taxation and welfare systems reveal it to have been a cause of the growing relative poverty and inequality that has been such a feature of the Irish boom. The tax system has systematically reduced the levels of taxes on wealth, while raising a disproportionate share of revenue from VAT, a tax on all goods and services that disproportionately hits the poor. As we have seen, many of the rich elite who have benefited disproportionately from the economic boom pay little or even no tax. Meanwhile, due to social welfare increases that have fallen behind increases in incomes, those who depend on welfare payments have over the course of the boom got poorer relative to overall rises in living standards. In surveying welfare and taxation changes up to the end of the 1990s, Eithne Fitzgerald concludes: ‘Welfare increases that lag behind earnings, and tax reductions focused on the wealthier, are serving to widen not to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The unique opportunity to tilt the system in the direction of those on lower incomes has been wasted’.7 Former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, drew attention to this shift when he identified a change since the late 1980s in the relatively generous social provision made by governments during the 1960s and 1970s as a means of mitigating social deprivation. The reversal of this policy and the growing social inequality that has resulted indicate: ‘a very marked swing to the right in the broad policy stance of Irish governments’, as ‘the influence of American economic liberalism became much stronger’, he concluded.8 The decline in the burden of taxation and the ‘extraordinarily low’ levels of public spending (by European standards) are further indicators of this influence, he adds. In this context, he mentions that ‘organized groups have proved well equipped to protect their interests and advantages from unorganized, disadvantaged minority groups’.9

Our President may state that ‘we want to consign inequality and poverty to history’, but she would be very hard pressed to find any element of public policy that holds the prospect of achieving such a goal, while she could identify many policies that actively conspire against achieving it. Our public authorities may aspire to an equality of opportunity, but forget that equality of opportunity requires equality of condition if it is to mean anything more than permitting individuals to access higher positions within our ever more unequal society. Shamefully, this State has increasingly over the past twenty years reshaped public policies and practices so that the most vulnerable among us are most neglected, and there are no signs that this is changing in any substantial way.

The Irish State’s ever growing neglect of the aspiration to treat all the children of the nation equally serves to substantiate Diarmaid Ferriter’s provocative contention that equality is one of the ‘alien philosophies’ Jack Lynch warned against in 1969.10

The essence of republicanism

If self-determination and equality are essential conditions for achieving a true republic, the essence of republicanism finds expression in the res publica, the public goods. A republic requires a strong public space in which public policy is determined through robust public debate. In direct contradiction to this, our republic has over the past two decades systematically privatised our public spaces, handing more and more power to the market. It has systematically commodified housing, social security, and health care, and is standing by unconcerned as we witness a creeping commodification of education. By making them commodities to be bought and sold, they are effectively restricted to those who can afford them, a recipe for the emergence of the provision of expensive private services side by side with public services that have become residual. This tendency, which we see in many countries of the world under the impact of neoliberalism, profoundly contradicts the essence of republicanism and returns us to rule by a wealthy elite; indeed we are witnessing a phenomenon akin to the absentee landlords of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as members of this elite choose to reside in other countries so as to avoid paying tax to the Irish authorities. We choose to ignore at our peril the dangerous consequences in today’s Ireland.

In this situation, it can be no surprise that we see ever more obvious signs of social breakdown, as evidenced by high levels of drug abuse, of suicide and self-harm, and of violence, both domestic and public. This is a direct result of the dynamic of inclusion/exclusion that is a constitutive part of Ireland’s economic success. Indeed, regular reports of what seem to be gratuitous violence, particularly among young men (and one would have to be very detached from Irish society today not to hear of such incidents among one’s own circle of friends and acquaintances, so common do they seem), point to a very serious erosion of public values and any sense of social belonging. These are completely consistent with the incessant promotion of values of extreme individual self-gratification that is such a marked feature of contemporary Irish culture (and, of course, is a central element of today’s globalised culture). While it has become commonplace to remark that today’s society treats us as consumers and not as citizens, the implications of this shift are rarely analysed or discussed. By contrast, if being a republic is to mean anything, it must mean being committed to decommodification, to ensuring that public authority directs and governs the private interest of market actors: our republic has inverted that logic with ever greater determination over the course of the State’s economic boom. As it does so, the gap between the reality of our commodified lives and the high-flown rhetoric we hear from our leaders becomes ever greater: language is being used not to liberate and empower, but to distract, confuse, and distort.

The cultural dimension

An unusual feature of Irish republicanism, and in this it is very different to French and American republicanism, is its awareness of the cultural. What distinguished the aspiration to Home Rule from the aspiration for the Republic was that the latter was seen to embody a qualitatively transformed society, something very different to simply painting the letterboxes green, as Connolly feared would be the consequences of independence. Central to how Irish republicans sought to achieve such a transformation was through the revival of Irish. For, as Douglas Hyde so correctly predicted in his famous 1892 lecture on de-anglicising Ireland, as long as we continued being English-speaking monoglots we would continue imitating English ways and lack a distinctive and creative sense of ourselves. Almost exactly one hundred years later, in his magisterial book on Ireland in the twentieth century, Professor Joe Lee expertly, and in great detail, dissected the imitative nature of Irish public policy and of the Irish official mind (Lee, 1989).11

While we may like to believe the boom years of the 1990s have changed all that, what this period of intense change has illustrated is just how we have, as a people, lacked the ability to cast any critical judgement on our subservient integration into global capitalism. Our uncritical embrace of globalisation contrasts with the strong social struggles being witnessed in so many other countries against the takeover of their societies by global corporate forces. Yet, in Ireland, this takeover has been warmly embraced, as if the needs of Irish society were equivalent to the needs of large multinational corporations. It is a remarkable example of the uncritical and subservient nature of Irish society and vindicates yet again the insights of Hyde (and his grim warnings) about the consequences of the abandonment of our native language. Ninety years ago, one of the distinguishing features of Irish republicanism was its acceptance of this core insight of Hyde and its understanding that the revival of the language as a spoken vernacular language was essential to the transformation of our society. As theorists of today’s globalisation remind us, this is truer now than ever. It is those societies with a strong sense of themselves expressed through their own languages that are proving most successful in negotiating the shoals of globalisation. The small Scandinavian countries and the legendary successes of China, South Korea, and Japan all attest to this basic fact. Yet, our Irish republic has done more to marginalise and weaken the language, even as it proclaims its support for it.

One of the most urgent tasks for the future, and one in which we have the potential to set an immensely important global example, is to take the task of language revival seriously. Now, even more than ninety years ago, the transformation of this society depends on it.

Towards the Irish Republic

When the evidence is examined, it is very difficult to accept the claim by our leaders that this State is steadily realising the ideals of 1916. Rather, what we see is the ever greater betrayal of those ideals as our State acts to recreate a society of elitism and inequality that mirrors the colonial society that Irish republicans sought to overthrow. But, the exercise of examining the present in the light of the ideals of the past vindicates the importance of commemoration and its subversive potential. For example, in his important contribution to our understanding of the one-hundredth anniversary of 1798, Kevin Whelan has reminded us of its crucial influence on the fashioning of the republicanism that within two decades was fundamentally challenging the legitimacy of the colonial state (Whelan, 1996).12 Commemoration, just as history itself, is always a contemporary resource: it can unleash subversive and transformative potentials, and such are urgently needed in today’s Irish society. Just as ninety years ago, this is a moment that cries out for political ideals and radical imagination, to allow us win back some power over our society again.

The Irish republic is not owned by the Irish State, neither its current leaders nor any future leaders. Neither is it owned by any political parties, no matter how assiduously some seek to cloak themselves in its legitimacy. It is a project audaciously proclaimed ninety years ago, at a moment when, as Desmond Fitzgerald put it, those who thought Home Rule inadequate were a tiny minority. That republic was partly realised, both in constitutional form and in the substance of the society. But, there remain those who think these achievements wholly inadequate today. This paper has briefly mapped out some essential elements that would constitute the Irish Republic adequate to the ideals that sent Connolly, Clarke and Ceannt, Mac Diarmada and MacDonagh, Pearse and Plunkett to give their lives with such generosity. But, it also must be remembered that they were very different men, who saw the state and society they aspired to in very distinct ways. They have left us a rich and multifaceted legacy that requires courage, imagination, and commitment to carry forward. Carrying it forward and fashioning a republic closer to their aspirations would be the greatest preparations we could make for an adequate commemoration of the Rising’s centenary in 2016.


1 Peadar Kirby, Macroeconomic Success and Social Vulnerability: Lessons for Latin America from the Celtic Tiger, (Santiago, 2003), p. 36.

2 See Peadar Kirby and Mary Murphy, ‘Ireland as a Competition State’, in Maura Adshead, Peadar Kirby, and Michelle Millar (eds.), Contesting the State: Lessons from the Irish Case, (Manchester, forthcoming).

3 CSO, Measuring Ireland’s Progress, 2005, (Dublin, 2006).

4 CSO, EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions, (Dublin, 2005).

5 Irish Times, 16 April 2004.

6 Irish Times, 27 June 2006.

7 Eithne Fitzgerald, ‘Redistribution through Ireland’s Welfare and Tax Systems’, in Sara Cantillon, Carmel Corrigan, Peadar Kirby, and Joan O’Flynn (eds.), Rich and Poor: Perspectives on Tackling Inequality in Ireland, ( Dublin, 2001), p. 192.

8 Garret FitzGerald, Reflections on the Irish State, (Dublin, 2003), pp. 29 & 30.

9 Ibid., p. 86.

10 Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000, (London, 2004), p. 25.

11 J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Cambridge, 1989).

12 Kevin Whelan, The Tree of Liberty, (Cork, 1996).