Before going through Ireland’s record as a Republic, I think it is important to chart the history of Irish independence; from breaking the ties with Britain to finally fighting for an Irish Republic. Ireland had been under British rule since the Norman invasion in the 12th century. The Crown did not exert full control over Ireland until the rebellion by the Earl of Kildare after Henry VIII’s disagreement with the Pope over divorce. Henry then made himself King of Ireland and tried to bring the English Reformation to Ireland and began to plant Ireland with Englishmen loyal to the crown.
After this, there was a series of rebellions to drive the British out of Ireland, however they all lacked real political ideals behind them. This changed with the 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen. The United Irishmen was a group which crossed religious identities, although made up largely of Belfast Protestants, who wanted to break the tie with Britain. They supported political reform and equal religious rights for all, and it was mainly Catholics who were discriminated against at the time. The rebellion was led by Wolfe Tone, who tried to enlist the help of the French after their own revolution, but it was largely a failure. This was followed by another rebellion in 1803, organised by Robert Emmet, whose brother Thomas took part in 1978, which was also a failure. A familiar story in Irish history.
The rebellion of 1867 organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), who were to play a key role in Irish history for the next 60 years, was also largely a failure. However, it is notable for two reasons; firstly, for the foundation of the IRB, and secondly, for the IRB stated aim of an Irish Republic.
“We therefore declare that, unable longer to endure the curse of Monarchical Government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.
The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored. We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.”
The IRB again proclaimed a Republic in the Easter Rising of 1916 with this proclamation being largely the most widely recognised by people today. While this rebellion was a failure, it led directly to the War of Independence, 1919-1921, in which the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) led by Michael Collins, President of the IRB, waged a guerilla war against the British army.
The war began with the deaths of two army officers and the establishment of the Dáil Eireann, the Irish parliament in 1919. The members present of the first Dáil, largely all supportive of the war as Unionists had refused to attend, read out the Democratic Programme, which outlined how the Republic was envisioned. Drafted by members of the Labour Party, amendments were made by some of the less radical members before it was read into record.
“We declare in the words of the Irish Republican Proclamation the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be indefeasible, and in the language of our first President. Pádraíg Mac Phiarais, we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.
We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.”
But what is a Republic?
For most people in Ireland, a republic is as a democratic structure without a monarch. This is likely due to a large amount of rhetoric about independence being centred around removing the Crown from Ireland. However, the difference between a Republic and a democracy can be seen in a few sentences. In a democracy, the majority rule. For example, in theory any referendum could be passed, regardless of how it would affect a minority of the citizens, as long as the majority support it.
In a Republic, the minority must be protected. This can be seen in the French Revolution phrase of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. So to achieve this kind of Republic, there are three main criteria.
· Non domination
· Government power should be divided up
· Citizens are required to hold the Republic to account
Firstly, no citizen or group should be allowed to have undue influence over anybody else. This for instance requires the government to use its power to ensure that a majority of citizens cannot inflict their will on a minority just because they are a majority. Secondly, the power exerted by the state must be divided among a number of different bodies to ensure no one can hold unaccountable power. Finally, the citizens of the Republic are charged with upholding the Republic. This requires the citizens to be well informed of their rights as well as the way in which the state is run.
Has this happened in Ireland?
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the downfall of the Catholic Church in Ireland would be able to determine from this that the first aspect of a Republic was not achieved. Appalling revelations such as the Magdalene Laundries, Tuam babies or the abortion legislation show this. At points during the 20th century, one in a hundred people were routinely locked up in institutions. While some Catholic and right wing columnists state this as being part of a different time, the current government have continued the Direct Provision system which forces asylum seekers to live in effectively open house prisons and live off €19 a week. This, alongside how children in care are treated will have the pleasure of being what shames the next generation of Irish people about their country.
In regards to power being divided, this has been done on the surface, with power being divided amongst parliament and the courts. However, it falls down upon closer inspection. Firstly the Teachtaí Dála (TD) or members of parliament rarely introduce legislation or scrutinize it, while ministers are rarely held to account in the Dáil.
Also, in recent years the current government have created the Economic Management Council (EMC) which consists of four people, two from each party. And during the term of this government most of the decisions which the government have undertaken have come from this group rather than cabinet, again circumventing proper scrutiny and concentrating power within a smaller pool of people.
While the courts have also upheld citizen’s rights at various times, the justice system also suffers from a number of issues. Firstly, the cost of going to court is outside the majority of citizens’ means, meaning most people have no way of upholding their rights. Secondly, political patronage is a significant issue when it comes to selecting judges as this is done by the government. This issue is also widespread in the Gardaí.
Finally, when it has come to the citizens holding the Republic to account, this has largely failed too. There is a large element of parish pump politics when it comes to electing TDs. TDs’ campaigns generally revolve around promises of grants, hospital improvements etc. for the local area, but once they have secured your vote, they then disappear for five years. This phenomenon is a crucial factor in the weakness of local democracy in Ireland, which should be the closest and easiest method for citizens to be involved in the Republic. Secondly, for the citizens to hold the Republic to account, they also need to be informed of the goings on of that Republic. This is something which is lacking in Ireland due to the still ongoing issues with Freedom of Information
So with regards to the three criteria of how a Republic should behave, Ireland has failed pretty miserably.
What are the reasons behind this?
There are multiple reasons why no true Republic was ever created in Ireland, with no dominant reason, merely a large degree of intermingling.
The treaty which ended the War of Independence in 1921, established the Irish Free State, a dominion with the British Empire, or British Commonwealth of Nations as it was called on the treaty. This state was not a Republic, and partitioned the country. This led to a bitter civil war between pro and anti-treaty forces, ultimately won by the pro-treaty side. However, it was the partition of the country which ensured that any push towards improving the lives of ordinary Irish people failed. The government following the civil war were making preparations to continue the war in Northern Ireland, in a hope to unite the country. No effort was put into creating a Republic while the country was still divided and “Labour must wait”.
After independence, no effort was made to change the institutions left over from the British rule or the processes by which government ministries were run. No effort was made by the politicians at the top to spread power out to the citizens, this being a common scenario in Ireland, with those in power reluctant to give it away. The ideals of that Democratic Programme of the First Dáil to cherish the young and old of the country, shown below, can now, with hindsight, be seen as a bit of a sick joke.
“It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”
The education of the young and care of the poor was farmed out to a grateful Catholic Church. This arrangement suited both parties. The Church saw it as a way of tightening their grip over the nation, while the politicians, who were enthralled to and also feared the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, were able to ignore any worries about social issues, which could largely be swept under the carpet. It also allowed them to manage budgets easily, as education and healthcare costs could be reduced to a minimum.
This all points to a lack of republican ideals among those men who fought for an independent Ireland in the early 20th century. While there were a number of standout people from that era, like Peadar O’Donnell or Frank Ryan, their ideals were largely crushed by a conservative Church, who could dictate their displeasure to equally conservative politicians. This issue was highlighted in a quote from Peadar O’Donnell in an RTÉ radio documentary on his life.
“I would say that the Republican movement in Leitrim, which was numerically strong, was a movement which had no political philosophy whatsoever. And that the vast majority of the men in Leitrim, I suppose is the same in every other place, who joined the republican army and the republican movement joined solely for one aim. For to liberate Ireland from the visible signs of Britain, namely the British army. And after they were out, that was as much as we could see.”
What can be done?
It is clear to see that there is a vast amount of change needed before Ireland can declare itself a true Republic. Here are few areas where improvements can be made.
It has been clear in the last number of months that the housing issue in Ireland is reaching crisis levels for low to middle income families. This has also been seen in regards to a lack of places for the ever growing homeless in Ireland. The best solution for this in my eyes is for the government to invest heavily in social housing. It is unthinkable that citizens in a Republic are forced to go into debt for a decent home.
The current government, when it came into office, promised that there would be universal healthcare for all. It is important,despite a change in health minister, that this is seen through as soon as possible with the necessary investment in primary care.
Put forward referendum covering gay marriage, abortion and the right to housing and healthcare to the people and end the Direct Provision system as soon as possible. This would be somewhat of a start towards the people deciding what they want from the country. While also looking out for the most underprivileged in society.
It is important the domination of the Catholic Church on education is stopped as soon as possible. This includes the discriminatory law which means teachers can be sacked for not upholding Catholic beliefs and prevents non-Christians from becoming primary school teachers. It is clear that the education system is in need of a radical overhaul. The focus of it should be ensuring that all students, with particular focus on those from low income backgrounds, are given the tools necessary for navigating a constantly changing world of work but are also taught how to be citizens in a true Republic.
A massive amount of change is need at government level. Here are a few pointers:
· An overhaul of the structures of power is required, with as much as is reasonable devolved to local level. The Dáil should be about legislating rather than sorting out local issues.
· Freedom of Information should be rolled out to cover practically every area of government as is feasible. If this is to be a true Republic, then the citizens need to know how government is run.
· Greater accountability is needed by ministers and senior civil servants. If there has been an error, it should be clear to the public who was at fault.
· The recent Constitutional Convention should become a recurring event with a few changes. It should be made up entirely by ordinary citizens with facilitators there to ensure smooth running and the majority of topics should be selected by the citizens themselves.
· An actual effort should be made to get women, young people and those of other ethnicities to engage with politics. A more representative Dáil would likely govern in a fairer way.
· Limit the use of the ‘guillotine’. The guillotine is a mechanism used by government to limit debate on a bill in the Dáil.
· Reform the Seanad, the second house of parliament.
Since the economic crash roughly 400,000 people have emigrated from Ireland. That’s five Garth Brooks shows’ worth. These Irish citizens need to be engaged, with the hope they eventually return. A start in this would be giving them the vote in Presidential elections, followed by engagement with the numerous organisations which represent the Diaspora to serve their needs.
These steps would bring Ireland closer to being a true Republic.