The Potential Of Civic Republicanism

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

Author: Mary Cullen

A recent series of meetings at the Ireland Institute in Dublin discussed the state of Ireland, north and south, in the wake of the new power-sharing structures in Northern Ireland. One concern expressed was that these would, unintentionally, perpetuate a unionist versus nationalist mentality and focus attention on whether a particular measure advantaged one section to the disadvantage of the other, rather than on whether it served the common good of all who live within the state.

If we wish for both existing states, or a 32-county Ireland, political structures that give all individuals within their boundaries the possibity of lives of fulfilment and value, the history of Irish republicanism could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Modern Irish republicanism traces its origins to the United Irishmen who specifically aimed at ending Catholic-versus-Protestant antagonism in order to achieve good government in the interest of the common good of all. In this endeavour, Protestants, in particular northern Presbyterians, were to the fore, while Wolfe Tone was a member of the most privileged group, the Established Church.

The thinking and aims of the United Irishmen were rooted in the political debates of the late eighteenth-century Western world, where republicanism was a powerful ideology. The origins of civic republicanism go back to ancient Greece and Rome. It was based on a holistic view of the good human life in an independent city state, where individually free citizens shared responsibility for its survival and flourishing. Freedom and interdependence were interlocked, and civic virtue required citizens to co-operate and be prepared to put the common good before individual interest when necessary to defend the state from internal corruption or outside aggression. And by the exercise of this civic virtue, citizens developed their individual human potential. Republicanism was elitist in its origins, excluding women, slaves, and foreigners from citizenship. Over the centuries, it was developed and adapted to answer questions of sovereignty and the respective rights and duties of rulers and ruled. In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, assertions of the equality of all persons on the basis of shared rational human nature further democratised republicanism, and ideas of who could be a citizen broadened. In many countries, including Ireland, republicanism was a major component of arguments for the elimination of corruption and patronage in government and for wider political participation. It also contributed to the rebellion of the British colonies in North America in the 1770s and the French Revolution starting in 1789, as well as the 1798 rising in Ireland.

The founding declaration of the Society of United Irishmen of Belfast in 1791 located the movement firmly in the ‘present great era of reform’, where ‘all government is recognised to originate from the people, and to be so far obligatory as it protects their rights and promotes their welfare.’ Ireland’s government was corrupt largely because it was controlled by English influence in English interests, and this could only be countered by a ‘cordial union among all the people of Ireland’ and a ‘complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in parliament’. This reform, if it was to be ‘practicable, efficacious or just’, must include ‘every religious persuasion’. Countering English influence was a necessary means to the end of good government and not an abstract ideal in itself. Only later, when the attempt to achieve reform by constitutional means had failed, did the United Irishmen turn to rebellion and separatism. Tone’s letter of the same year, in which he said that separation from England had been his aim from the beginning, explained that this was because English influence was the ‘bane of Irish prosperity’.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in Ireland as elsewhere, nationalism provided a response to the feelings of injustice, exclusion, and alienation experienced by large sections of population in the colonial empires created by Euopean states around the world. It posited a shared sense of belonging to the same nation as the legitimate basis of a state and the focus for the loyalty of its citizens. It fostered an inclusive and unifying pride in one’s nationality that transended wealth, class, and sex. This was the more empowering as it countered the claims of colonising powers that the superiority of their own nationality justified their dominion over others. In general usage, the meaning of a republic contracted to an independent, non-monarchical state, where the people, acting directly or through their elected representatives, were sovereign. When Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union, unionism and nationalism continued and developed the conflict of interest between Protestant privilege and Catholic claims. Irish republicanism came to be equated with those nationalists who aimed at complete separation from England and were willing to use physical force if necessary to achieve it, and later with the aim of reversing partition.

Experience over time has shown that the nation state does not neccessarily fulfil the aspirations of all who worked to achieve it. In the name of nationalism, native elites in a number of ex-colonial countries have established authoritarian and oppressive regimes. Nationalist women, in Ireland and elsewhere, have often felt betrayed by the states they helped create. And those aiming to create a nation state can have very different objectives. The Marxist historian Desmond Greaves has argued that in the revolutionary period in the early twentieth century up to 1922, Irish nationalists fell into three broad groups: the bourgeoisie, largely represented by the Irish Parlimentary Party, who wanted limited independence and little social change; the socialists, largely identified with the Labour movement, who wanted an independent socialist workers’ republic; and the petty bourgeoisie, including many of the 1916 leaders, who wanted complete separation from Britain but had no agreed programme for the kind of state they would establish.

There are other problems. Perceptions of nationality can be based on a sense of shared history, culture, ethnic origin, language, religion, or some combination of these. Nationalism can be divisive as well as unifying. It can foster perceptions of difference and/or superiority that create potential conflict with other nationalities and nation states. As migration grows around the world, nationalism can create problems for both immigrants and host populations Within an established nation state, smaller groups may claim the right to separation and independence based on belonging to a different nationality. Imperial and colonial powers have drawn and redrawn the boundaries of states to serve their own interests, dividing and redividing ethnic, cultural, and religious groups, as in the Middle East since the nineteenth century by European states and more recently by the United States. Today, great power pretensions, as well as unregulated global capitalism and its multi-national corporations, interact with and manipulate both nationalism and democracy. Double standards can be applied by different interest groups in recognising what is a legitmate nation state. In the current situation in Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, conflicting claims to national identity and the right to self-determination, the rival pretensions of the United States and Russia, control of the oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Georgia to the Mediterranean, as well as the interests of multi-nationals in oil and arms exports and their relations with various governments all converge. Conflicting arguments as to who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on the basis of nationalism and/or internatioal law abound, but few address the actual lives and real needs of the populations in the contested areas.

Today, when neo-liberalism has pushed the idea of individual liberty towards a continual struggle of opposing interests, both within and between states, some political scientists are turning to civic republican ideas to counter its disastrous results. Iseult Honohan, of the School of Politics and International Relations in University College Dublin, discusses many of the issues in her recent book, Civic Republicanism, published in 2002.

Civic republicanism was first formulated over two thousand years ago in the context of a small city state with a limited and elite body of citizens. As Honohan points out, it is not a programme that comes ready-made to apply. Civic republicanism asks how individual citizens can be free and self-determining while living in a society with other free individuals. It answers that they can do so by recognising that citizens depend on each other to co-operate to create a society in which everyone can be free and can flourish. This interdependence is the basis for citizens’ loyalty to the state they live in and for their reponsibility to take an active part in developing policies that can deliver the common good.

Can genuinely participatory citizenship be created in societies with large populations? Experience shows that representative parliamentary democracy seldom achieves this. In practice, it often encourages politicians seeking election to appeal to voters’ individual selfish interests, rather than to policies might serve the common good of all. In turn, citizens who feel their vote will not bring about fundamental change are tempted to place it where they think it will serve their private interests. Citizens’ juries, local discussion forums, deliberative opinion polls, use of the internet, and other strategies have been devised to make citizens better informed on issues and to allow better communication with politicians. Civic republican citizenship would need structures that allow citizens to make decisions rather than simply communicate opinions, plus provision for debate on an on-going basis, involving as many as possible, with time to thrash out the pros and cons, as well as to monitor how a particular decison worked out in practice and reconsider it if necessary.

Then, there is the question of inclusiveness. If civic republican citizenship is based on the mutual dependence of those who live within an existing state, that means accepting that citizens are likely to have different and conflicting identities, values, cultures, and religious beliefs and that agreement on what policies will serve the common good may be difficult. Discussion and debate would have to allow all participants freedom to explain and argue their point of view, without assurances that this would neccessarily be accepted and acted on.

Further, in today’s global politics and economy, interdependence obviously extends beyond the boundaries of individual states. Can ideas of putting the common good before private interest be applied to relations between states and to international trade agreements, fair trade, outsourcing, and so on? Should republican citizens put these issues on their agenda?

While there is no simple blueprint for putting civic republican ideas into practice, there may be reasons for cautious optimism. Firstly, its values appear to have a real appeal across different societies and situations. For example, the nineteenth-century Irish feminist activists, mostly middle-class and Protestant, explicitly linked demands for full civil and political rights to reponsibility to contribute actively in creating a more just and fair society, and thereby developing their own individual potential. This holistic view of the good human life may have a stronger appeal for marginalised and excluded groups than simply receiving benefits handed down from above. Secondly, for those who want genuine and democratic participatory citzenship, civic republicanism has the attraction that it cannot be imposed from the top but will have to come from below. As Honohan points out, to succeed, it will have to involve a large enough body of citizens committed to its principles for it to work. Thirdly, its aim to involve all citizens in decision making could stimulate a new kind of productive dialogue. The potential for making a beginning already exists in the wide range of NGOs and politically-aligned groups all committed, in different ways, to the betterment of Irish society. These generally tend to attract the like-minded, and there are few forums for joint brain-storming or serious debate and exchange of ideas with each other. The incorporation of civic republican ideas could open the way to ongoing and constructive dialogue in a context that demands listening and engaging with new ideas, as well as arguing one’s own case. It would also focus argument and debate on identifying issues seen as crucial to the common good.

These could include, for example, the relative merits and contribution to the common good of progressive income tax versus indirect ‘stealth’ taxes; tax breaks and incentives; or of universal and inclusive health-care provision versus private health insurance and private for-profit medicine; as well as the health implications of the distribution of wealth and access to housing, education, recreational facilities, and so on. Taking part in this type of debate on issues of basic importance for the well-being of individuals and society would in itself educate and develop the potential of those involved, another key aspect of civic republican thinking. And, if this sort of debate took root and developed, it could begin to exert real pressure on politicians and governments and start the move towards the involvement of citizens in real decision-making.

A long-term perspective can help develop constructive engagement. The history of political thought shows human minds over the centuries grappling with the question of how to organise human societies. Ideas and policies we reject or find abhorrent in their current incarnation may have originated in objectives we share. Nineteenth-century liberalism developed around the importance of individual liberty, something few would disagree with. One of its direct descendants is today’s neo-liberalism, where the uncontrolled freedom of the few is built on the exploitation of the many. Trying to understand the political, economic, and social situations in which different ideas developed, the problems they aimed to solve, in whose interests they were adapted and applied, whether we think some were misconceived from the start or later took a wrong direction, helps in assessing the value of the ideas themselves and analysing the motives and methods involved in implementing them. This broadens our intellectual horizons, helps to avoid over-simplistic black-and-white judgments that can miss much of value, and pushes us to critically examine our own thinking and motivations. While we may never succeed in creating the ideal political structures to optimise human development, it seems realistic to think that the better we understand how we got to where we are, the better the chance that more of us will agree on the values we want human societies to embody and that more of us will try to find ways of implementing these.

The history of Irish republicanism shows the men and women of the United Irishmen and their supporters (some from privileged elites, others from excluded groups) addressing the problems of living together with others from different traditions and identities. Their solution was to co-operate to create a form of government fair to and inclusive of all, and giving respect and participation to all. They did not argue on the basis of shared ethnicity, traditions, feelings of oneness, or bonds of affection. They used two quite different arguments. The first was that, in practice, good government for them all depended on their working together with equal rights and participation for all; the second was that, in principle, justice demanded equal rights and participation for all. Reclaiming that history could be a step towards removing nationalists’ and unionists’ mutual mistrust, and a step for all of us in Ireland towards confronting the problems facing us today and trying to develop a form of governance that genuinely aims to further the common good.

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2008