The Meaning of Republicanism: A Debate

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

Author: Mary Cullen

The main thing I want to say is to urge the need for a vigorous and broad-based public debate about the meaning of republicanism today. The Republican Movement is a central player in the developing situation in Northern Ireland while here in the south we live in a state which has called itself a republic for close on 50 years. Yet we have no serious public debate about the meaning of republicanism or about what a state that calls itself a republic should or could be.

The most striking feature of what public discussion there is around republicanism is its poverty. Few media commentators, either in print or on the air, explore the issues. A substantial amount of print comment consists of dismissive remarks rather than analysis. There is little sense of any awareness of the historical context and a disturbing tendency to accept the establishment assertion that the problems in the North are solely an Irish problem, and that republicanism is a ‘terrorism’ that sprang spontaneously into life out of nowhere some 30 years ago. This is a far cry from the hopes raised at the Let in the Light conference some years ago, a conference which was part of the campaign to remove the regulations which kept republican voices off the airwaves. I still remember the enthusiasm which greeted the American journalist Carl Bernstein, when he defined the aim of good journalism as seeking ‘the best available version of the truth’.

Just now seems a particularly appropriate time to try to develop a real debate about republicanism and to look for the best available version of the truth. Leading up to the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion a body of new research has been expanding our knowledge and understanding of the emergence of Irish republicanism in the 18th century and of the 1798 rebellion in its political, social and economic context.

The core value of republican thinking in the 18th century was that government should both promote the good of the community as a whole and that the people as a whole should have a real say in that government. The words ‘commonweal’ and ‘commonwealth’ were widely used as translations of the Latin res publica. Around that core value there was much debate about the actual form of government and for some thinkers republicanism was even compatible with monarchy, if that monarchy could be seen to carry out the will of the people. Irish republicans, like republicans in other countries, could differ on how the people should have their say and on who should speak in their name.

The specific Irish political system, which the United Irish societies aimed at first to reform and later to oust completely and replace, was based on three major exclusions based on class, sex and religion. The first two were pretty universal at the time: holding public office, voting at parliamentary elections and sitting in parliament, was confined exclusively to males and to a small property-owning minority of males. The third exclusion grew from the colonial relationship with England; the majority Catholic population was completely excluded form participation in political life, and the participation of Protestants who dissented from the Established Protestant Church was limited. Among these Protestant dissenters Presbyterians formed the largest group. The United Irish directly challenged the religious exclusion. It does not appear that many challenged the sex exclusion, though we know that notably Mary Ann McCracken with her brother Henry raised the question. On the class exclusion, they believed that the interests of the people must be represented but did not necessarily all agree on how this should be done.

In the tradition of republican thought some of the more radical thinkers argued that a redistribution of property was essential if the people as a whole were to have any real say. For example, in England in the 1640s in debates within Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army one group, the Levellers, argued for political republicanism, including universal manhood suffrage, while the Diggers went further and stressed the economic base needed for participation, including communal rights to the means of subsistence, essentially land, and individual rights to share in this. A decade later the English republican thinker James Harrington, in his book Oceana published in 1656, argued that in practice any political system came to reflect the actual distribution of property in a state. If all were to have a real input property must be widely and evenly distributed.

Recent research is showing that there was a strong social radical content which linked social and economic inequality to political solutions in the thinking of some of the United Irish leaders, including among others Thomas Russell, Jemmy Hope and Henry Joy McCracken, and also in that of the Defenders, the vast underground organisation of the men (and women) of no property with whom the United Irishmen allied. This research is showing that the Defenders were more organised and politicised than had previously been understood and that the 1798 rebellion was far more than the sectarian blood-letting it is so often represented as having been. There was indeed sectarianism on both sides and there were indeed sectarian atrocities but these are far from being the whole story.

Separatism, establishing Ireland as an independent state separate from England, while not an integral part of Irish republican thinking at first, came to be seen as such when Tone and the United Irishmen became convinced that a republican form of government could not be achieved except by complete separation from England.

The belief that good government in Ireland could only be achieved when English control was removed underlay all nationalist movements in 19th century Ireland, including the Repeal movement of the 1840s and the later Home Rule movement. The beliefs that the removal of English control required complete separation, and armed struggle if needed to achieve it, and that social as well as political revolution was necessary to achieve good government continued in the republican tradition. In the 1840s the Young Irelander, James Fintan Lalor, argued that a social revolution to nationalise the ownership of the land of Ireland was an essential part of the political revolution. In the 1850s the Fenians’ proclamation of a provisional government included universal male suffrage and declared that the soil of Ireland belonged to the people of Ireland. In the 1870s and 1880s Michael Davitt’s vision of the New Departure was to join the aim of social revolution and the nationalisation of land with Home Rule. In the early 20th century James Connolly’s primary objective was a socialist state, a workers’ republic, and he came to believe that in Ireland a national revolution was an essential part of a socialist revolution. The 1916 Proclamation guaranteed equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens and declared ‘its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the nation equally’. (By this time Irish feminism had secured that the proclamation included women on equal terms with men.) In 1919 the Democratic Programme adopted by the First Dáil expressed similar objectives.

This is not to claim that these ideas were always fully worked out and presented as coherent systems, or that they were always acted upon. For example, the Democratic Programme was notoriously more honoured in the breach than the observance in the Irish Free State. The point is that the legacy of republican thinking persisted.

After partition and the setting up of the Northern Ireland state and the Irish Free State, the Republican Movement did not recognise the legitimacy of the new structures and remained outside the public political process aiming to reverse partition and put into effect the republic of 1916 and of the First and Second Dáils. Belief in separatism for a 32-county Ireland which could only be achieved by physical force and the need for social as well as political revolution continued. Internal differences as to the emphasis to be placed on either strand and the relationship between them led to tensions and splits, notably that in 1969-1970 from which emerged the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin ,on the one hand and the Official IRA and Sinn Féin on the other. Today there is clearly considerable doubt among some members of the IRA and Sinn Féin as to the possibility of achieving republican objectives by way of the current talks process and some doubt as to the wisdom of taking part in them.

The history of republicanism is central to the foundation of both the northern and southern states in Ireland today. If we can move the core value of republican thinking, that government should be in the interests of the people as a whole and that the people as a whole should have a major say in that government, to the centre of debate it opens up new possibilities for real dialogue and progress. Many people who are not members of the Republican Movement, who do not accept the use of armed struggle, who are undecided in their attitude to partition, do subscribe to the ideal of republican government.

We come to debate in the context of the world of the late 1990s and not in that of 1798 or 1916 or 1921. In a world context we have seen the rise and fall of the totalitarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the failure of the global free-market economy and politics to produce anything approaching the republican ideal of government. Nearer home, all of us on this island have been influenced and moulded by the history of Ireland over the past 200 years. This is a many-faceted history in which none of us has outlived in insulated solitude. For example, as a feminist I know how much I owe to the 19th century women’s emancipationists, nearly all Protestant in religion and unionist in politics. They are part of my history and my identity as an Irish woman. Irish republicanism itself is an inclusive historical legacy that cuts across religious divides. The United Irish organisation was based on the union of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, Established Church, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. Presbyterian religious beliefs are seen as an important influence in developing Irish radical thinking in the 18th Century.

The republican idea of the government challenges today’s Republican Movement to address the question of how all the people can have a say in their government. It also addresses this challenge to the rest of us. In the south we live in a representative parliamentary democracy where everyone has the same right to vote and participate in the political process at all levels. How equal in fact is the possibility of real participation and how far does our system cherish all equally? We know that large numbers of the population feel they have no effective say in politics and that their vote has little real meaning. Poverty, unemployment, sexual orientation are indicators of exclusion. Community activists demand their say in the development of their own areas, in identifying needs and devising solutions. Travellers challenge the organisation of society, which accepts that their life expectancy, rates of illness, educational opportunities lag so far behind those of the settled community. Feminists argue that the politics of sex, the different political, social and economic consequences of biological sex, interact with all other discriminations. Recent events here in the south are highlighting again the relationship between the distribution of wealth and political power.

A broad debate about Irish republicanism would include all these groups, positions and beliefs. It would demand that they engage with each other and challenge each other in the truly republican state. I believe we need a forum for tough and challenging and, above all, on-going debate about these and other issues; a debate where everyone is encouraged to take part, to state their case and listen to and respond to the response of others; where no-one is asked to agree where they do not agree but the only rule is that everyone listens and tries to hear what others are saying and replies to what they say and not to what one suspects lies behind what they say; a debate that is so real and vigorous that everyone who wants to contribute to developing a new Ireland will want to join in. And everyone here includes unionists and loyalists, many of whom might share a belief in the core values of historical republican thinking. Whether this forum should take the form of a periodical or series of meetings or both or something else I am not sure. I am sure we need it. My hope is that this new Ireland Institute may find a way to create such a broad republican forum and I wish it every success.