Republicanism: Political Philosophy or Perverted Theology?

Liberty Leading the People

Liberty Leading the People

I’m a republican. But then so is George Bush. And so, they claim, are the organisations presided over by Gerry Adams and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. So what sort of republican am I? I’m a Wolfe Tone republican; a James Connolly republican. But so, they would say, are Adams and Ó Brádaigh. So that doesn’t get us very far. How else can I define my republicanism? I’m a republican in the French tradition. I believe in the guillotine.

Having stolen that joke from a comrade, I should point out that there is much more to the French Republican tradition than the guillotine. Yes the first French Republic preserved itself through the combination of a controlled economy, popular mobilisation, military power, and ruthless repression known to history as the Terror. But we need to bear in mind what the purpose of those extreme measures were – the defence of a democratic political system that sought to place the control of their own destiny in the hands of the French people. The constitution written by the Jacobins in 1793, although suspended before it came into operation, was the most progressive the world had ever seen, guaranteeing not only the right to vote to all males over the age of 21 but the right to subsistence as well. But the French Revolution and French Republicanism (along with the American Revolution) have made another fundamental contribution to republicanism as a political philosophy – what the French call laïcité and what we know as secularism. The idea not only that church and state should be separate, but that religion should have no part to play in politics.

This democratic, egalitarian, secular ethos, encapsulated in the revolutionary battle cry of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, also lay at the heart of the programme of the Society of United Irishmen, the first representatives of the modern international revolutionary tradition in Ireland. The United Irishmen sought the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter not only to break the connection with England but also to draw a line under the sectarianism that poisoned Irish society. The people of Ireland would no longer be divided by religion, but would instead be united by a common citizenship in an independent, democratic, secular republic. Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen recognised, as James Connolly did later, that such a republic could only be founded upon the “men of no property”, and would have to be run in their interests. The modern international revolutionary republican tradition that has its roots in the French Revolution is therefore built on a number of basic principles: democracy, secularism, and social justice. Any individual or organisation that fails any one of these tests cannot claim to be a part of that revolutionary republican tradition. Hence I discount the claims of Adams and Ó Brádaigh to be part of that tradition – despite the rhetoric, the reality of seeking to act as the representatives of one section of the Irish people, variously defined as Catholics or more recently as nationalists and republicans, though as often as not used interchangeably. This is at its least a damaging communalist approach. At its worst, it has found its expression in Kingsmill and other vicious sectarian attacks.

Republicanism as I have defined it above is a living and developing political philosophy, that has culminated in revolutionary socialism. However, in Ireland, republicanism has in the popular imagination become reified into a simple adherence to Irish independence, to be achieved by the use of violence if necessary. This seems to me to be an adequate description of Adams’ organisation’s view of republicanism, going by its actions over the last several decades. For Ó Brádaigh’s organisation, on the other hand, it is a set of political strategies that evolved in the era of the First World War. Primary among these is abstention from any political assembly that has not been elected by an all-Ireland process. For Ó Brádaigh’s movement and the other main dissident nationalist paramilitaries in the Real IRA, the use of arms in asserting the right to an independent state regardless of whether it has popular support or not has become a principle.
These are the issues that Paddy Murphy has been addressing in his latest column in the Irish News (the link should work until Saturday May 9th, after which it becomes subscription only. For another discussion of this article, see this thread on Sluggerotoole.).

Murphy approaches these questions with his usual acerbic and penetrating analysis.

In most countries republicanism is a political philosophy. In Ireland it has evolved into a religion. It is in that context that we can most usefully appreciate the argument between Sinn Fein and their former colleagues in dissident republican groups.
On the surface the argument is about the legitimacy of the use of violence. But since they both appear to agree that violence, at the ‘right’ time, is justified, the debate is more about timing and who has the authority to determine that timing.
Sinn Fein argues that Provisional IRA violence was justified by circumstances. Dissidents claim that the circumstances have not changed and that the time is still right. To resolve that stalemate, both sides seek authority in the religious dogma of republicanism.

As Murphy points out, the Provisionals themselves started life as a dissident breakaway from the-then Republican Movement, claiming legitimacy on what must seem to us after the last few decades as absurd grounds.

When Provisional Sinn Fein broke away from mainstream Sinn Fein in January 1970, those walking out of the Ard Fheis claimed authority because they had with them Joe Clarke who had fought in 1916. Legitimacy was derived from a republican relic.
Following their formation, the PIRA was granted an imprimatur by Commandant-General Thomas Maguire (1892-1993) who, as the last surviving member of the Second Dáil (1921), somehow claimed possession of the true republic. He decreed that the Provos were its legitimate inheritors. In 1986 he revoked his blessing on the PIRA and imparted it instead to the Continuity IRA. Maguire giveth and Maguire taketh away. (His claimed possession of the one true republic raises the question as to how a republic should be kept in the house. Should an Irish republic be stored in a specially-built tabernacle behind velvet curtains with subdued lighting and piped organ music, or would it be acceptable to just keep it in a box on the mantelpiece?)
Satirical as that sounds, the concept forms a thread of reasoning in the present argument. Flann O’Brien built a successful literary career on notions less fanciful than that of a man in possession of a republic.

Here Murphy identifies what is bad about militarism, and what led to the rethink initiated by the Republican leadership in the 1960s after the disastrous Border Campaign. The Republic is to be achieved not by the mass action of the Irish people, but by an elitist group regarding itself as the keeper of the national flame. It would decide when violence was to be switched on and off even when the people were opposed to it. The consequences of such ideological and political poverty was isolation and futility. We can see the bankruptcy of this position in the most recent murders of the two soldiers and policeman.

Even though the Provisionals may have abandoned violence and abstentionism, Murphy argues, they remain trapped by the failings of politics-as-theology (with the leader as Pope).

Previous converts to the paganism of politics, such as Michael Collins (1922) and de Valera (1932), simply left the IRA to its military manoeuvres. But the PIRA leadership claimed victory (remember the parade of black taxis) which meant that they did not have to leave the IRA. They took it (and thus the true republic) with them, thereby retaining their claim of republican infallibility.
It was on that basis that they claimed legitimacy for their entry into Stormont. (By now they had downgraded Maguire’s status as a saint, claiming instead a direct link to Pearse. This presumably explains their penchant for dressing up in historical costume at Easter parades.)
The success of this remarkably clever strategy depended on one of two achievements – a united Ireland or radical social and economic policies in the north. Apart from Caitriona Ruane’s education policies, Sinn Fein has avoided the latter and focussed on vague promises to deliver the former.

While they remain fixated on ensuring their status as the legitimate legitimists, the real issues that affect the daily lives of working people are ignored

Meanwhile in the real world, 400,000 people are unemployed in the south. Where, in the inter-republican argument, is the case for a nationalised banking system? Where is the policy for state investment in the manufacturing industry? Whatever happened to the concept of cooperatives and mutual help in rural society?
Instead we have competing claims on the quality and legitimacy of one organisation’s historical pedigree over another’s. It may not be best religious practice but it is time for Sinn Fein to concede the argument and walk away. Otherwise the row will drift into a republican civil war with Britain on the side of Sinn Fein. Britain has never lost a war in Ireland. It will not lose this one. Dissidents will be imprisoned and probably killed, giving gainful employment to a new generation of ballad-writers and graveside orators. That will present Sinn Fein with a won war and a lost argument.

A party of government ought to be focusing, Murphy says, on more pressing matters.

There are more demanding political responsibilities, such as addressing the crisis in capitalism.
Like all religions, these two sects of republicanism offer little in terms of material benefit in this life.
True happiness can be achieved only in the heaven of a united Ireland. In the meantime, we continue to suffer in their six-county purgatory where, for many, a significant part of that suffering is listening to inane arguments while the real world passes us by.

Once again, Murphy cuts to the quick. His criticism here could be applied to our entire political elite. While the governing parties argue about symbols, about kids in GAA tops packing bags at Tescos, about which party will better represent “their side” in the European Parliament, the ordinary working people of Northern Ireland and their children face crisis – economic, educational, and social. The problems they face are not entirely the responsibility of the governing parties in Northern Ireland, but they are doing little to improve things, and in some cases – especially the transfer of pupils from primary to post-primary education – are making matters worse.

So for those of us who view republicanism as a political philosophy, what can we do? We must revivify the efforts made since the turn to the left in the 1960s to make it relevant to the lives of ordinary people, while at the same time fighting sectarianism. Only a socialist alternative can change the course of Irish history, and build a better society. That is a long-term project, but it starts with the everyday problems of all our people.


9 Responses to “Republicanism: Political Philosophy or Perverted Theology?”

  1. nineteensixtyseven Says:

    Great post, Garibaldy. I agree with every word of it. The bourgeois nationalist ethos of Sinn Féin is totally at odds with socialism and every Kingsmill was a step away from the unity of the people of Ireland. Violence for violence’s sake and an obsession with mythical ‘republics’ is a distraction from creating a system that will benefit all the people, regardless of nationality or religion.

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks 1967. Nationalism and unionism are indeed impediments to building a better society for the people on the ground. It seems like the Green and Orange Tories have a firmer grip than ever.

  3. D. J. P. O'Kane Says:

    ‘We would have had socialism long ago if it wasn’t for the socialists.’

  4. Garibaldy Says:

    Can you expand on that a little DJP? I think you might be saying that we might have had a republic long ago if not for the sectarianism and violence of those claiming the title republican, but then again you may be saying something entirely different.

  5. yourcousin Says:

    I remember a weird episode where the worlds of “Republicans” collided when John McCain gave a speech attended by the McCartney sisters and essentially said that Grizzly Adams and the provos weren’t deserving of the name “republican”. I mean you don’t really get more ironic than that that, a man tortured by the NVA chastising a man who tried to emulate Ho Chi Minh. But again it all comes down to context doesn’t it?

    The French Republicans built temples to reason, instituted a ten day week and attacked the Church because it was so intertwined with the Monarchy. In Ireland the Church was for centuries the only voice of opposition that the people had, for better or for worse the policy of England ensured that by discriminating againt people due to their religion that the religion itself would continue to play a role in the political sphere. Unfortunately the Church refused to decamp from the political sphere later on, but then again the Catholic Church has never been one to exit the stage of power gracefully.

    Also by your own standards traditional republicans such as the French, Americans, and those who might have gone out in ’98 are not Republicans. The unity of Catholic, Protestant etc. was Tone’s means to his end, breaking the link with England. Admittedly, it was a means that would affect what the end picture looked like, but again a means never the less. Also republicanism is a political school of thought. To refer to Tone and his writings constantly as a litmus test of what is and isn’t Republican is in itself dogmatic. Even Michael McDowell and Enda Kenny are republicans in the sense that they don’t believe in monarchy as a form of government. But Irish republicanism as most understand it stems from specific contexts along the historic path and there are many contradictions that were never reconciled at any historical point. Pointing out those contradictions now is quite unfair when expelling someone from the republican family (though pointing them out is quite obviously fair game)

    Also I would note that modern day international revolutionary republicanism sounds an awful lot like a code word for socialism as seeking parliamentary democracy through force of arms (even in the French tradition of a mass populous uprising) does not inherently require a dedication to secularism or even really social justice in a meaningful sense.

    That’s all of the semantics I can muster for one night. I’ll see if I’m up to tackling the article later.

  6. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi YC,

    Sorry for the long delay in getting back to you. Partly it’s because it’s such a great comment, I needed to think about it. To take the last point first, yes it does sound like a code word for socialism doesn’t it? Guilty as charged. I think that the logic of the dynamic of popular sovereignty at the heart of republicanism in modern conditions is socialism (both in Ireland and abroad).

    The McCain thing is interesting. Yes, context does mean a lot, and has to be borne in mind. Your comment about Adams trying to ape Ho Chi Minh brings to my mind the fact that the Provos denounced and derided the Republican Movement (Official) as the National Liberation Front for a lot of the 1970s. That was how they referred to it during the attack in 1975 for example. The agenda of course being that in linking them to the Vietnamese they were attempting to smear them in the eyes of Irish nationalists. The IRA (Official) prisoners in Long Kesh did in fact send the Vietnamese a message greeting their victory.

    My point is that in today’s (as well as yesterday’s conditions) what lies at the heart of Irish republicanism is the vision of an independent, secular, democratic republic. In today’s conditions, I think, as I noted above, that to keep with what for want of a better term we could describe as the revolutionary spirit of republicanism in the late 18th and subsequently, then we need to be social revolutionaries too.

    Yes Irish republicanism was a broad movement at times, especially in the 20th century, but that level of explicitly Catholic religiosity was the exception rather than the rule when compared with what had gone before (the United Irishmen, Young Irelanders and Fenians were all explicitly secularist). I take Tone as shorthand for the philosophy of the United Irishmen as a whole. The secular thing was much more than a means of gaining support, but central to their vision and political activity. In my view anyway.

    Basically, as far as I am concerned – and this won’t shock you – the contradictions were resolved in the 1960s and 1970s with the shedding of the catholic nationalist elements, even if new contradictions later arose. I presume you would disagree.

    On the church as the voice of resistance, I seriously disagree. Again context is key here. I think we need to separate out religion as an expression of identity from the institutional church. There was nothing unusual in religious discrimination in Europe when it could be said that the church offered the main way to express and organise resistance, such as during the 1640s. However, by the C18th new ways had emerged (secret societies etc), and it must be remembered that the church opposed all these forms of popular resistance to exploitation by landlords and clergy as well as the state. Religion did continue to represent an expression of defiance to some extent, but not the institutional church, which sided with the forces of the old regime throughout the C18th, most of the C19th and most of the C20th. The land war and 1918-1921 are about it. Again, that’s simplified, but fundamentally how I see it. By the by, I also think that we should not see things like O’Connellism and Redmondism as fundamentally opposed to the British connection. Quite the opposite.

    As I said, great comment that made me think a lot.

  7. yourcousin Says:

    Thanks for the reply, I figured it was just one more time of me shouting into the abyss. I quite enjoyed Sean Swan’s book as I’ve been looking for a book on the Officials for quite awhile now. The book (which I finished Saturday after work) was informative on the mindset of the Officials and showed many of the complexities, contradictions, and illusions the republican movement, (whatever side you look at) laboured under. One of the really interesting questions it raises is about the nature of Defenderism within Northern Republicanism. While the Provos utilized it (and were partially born from it) and the Officials derided it there’s been no really analysis on how to square that circle.

    As for the NLF thing. As Swan points out the Officials did have a NLF planned, though it never really went anywhere. I would also point out that the socialist/nationalist(ie traditionalist) dichotomy of the provos has never really been worked out (aside from the split in ’86) so you have things like street theatre in Belfast and fairly out and out socialists within the IRA and PSF and then go West of the Bann and run into “FF with guns” from the same organization. As Vonnegutt used to say, “so it goes”.

    My point on the Catholic Church being a voice of opposition full well recognizes that the Church as an institution never really wanted to be that voice, but it fell to them due to the lack of any other outlet for their congregations to voice their anger. Now I will fully admit a bit of subaltern action here in that opposition was indeed voiced through agrarian violence, but that the Church was in a unique position of being having the ear (and the soul) of the populace and being able to have some sway with the powers that be in a way that the vast majority of the population could not. I believe they inserted themselves in the latter campaigns in order to ensure that they didn’t lose that de facto political authority once other alternatives became available to the population. And that the idea of Catholic=nationalist/rebel far outlasted the institutional church’s willingness to express such a line.

    For me the difference between the French Republicans and their Irish contemporaries was summed up when the French said (paraphrased from “The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism”) that they would not give any more arms to the Irish until they stopped shooting ravens. I couldn’t make this shit up.

    As for O’Connell and Redmond. I have some sympathy for both of them. You’ve pointed out in debates that vast number of people in Northern Ireland although exposed to the same or similar environments as the provisionals never turned to armed struggle. I think that highlights a human tendency to look for a way of compromise within any givin situation and system. So too for those two. Both men viewed armed seperatism as folly and so made the best with what they had. They also both tapped into the threat of paramilitary (in a general sense of the word) action when it suited them but wished to keep their actions within a reformist framework in which small steps would eventually lead to larger things. Fair enough, they did what they though was right and fair play to them for it, even if I disagree.

    I would say that in regards to the UI, Young Irelanders, and the Fenians, none of them were ever able to square up northern Ireland’s sectarian issues either although I take your point about them being secularist. I would also say that those movements could afford to be extremely secular because they were in an extreme minority for most of their existences and that the UI while secular in prinicpal (I think that’s the right “principal” anyways) were sectarian in function being that they recruited amongst the Orange Lodges and Defenders with those members keeping those identities while within the UI.

    I appreciate the idea of Tone as philosopher for the UI movement but I feel we must not only look to the words of the revolutionary, but also to the results of their revolution. And it must be in the actions, not the words that we we find final judgement.

    You presume correctly in regards to contradictions. But my response to that will have to wait for another time as I’ve got to get to bed.

  8. Garibaldy Says:

    Another great response! I;m not really sure though what you mean about squaring the circle regarding Defenderism. Do you mean you’re not really clear on what its role was in the split, or the early events of the Troubles?

    I understand what you’re saying about the Provos being quite disparate, although I think you shouldn’t underestimate the sectarianism within the cities, and especially Belfast. One need only look at the record of the people in Ardoyne and the New Lodge to see that. I’m also highly sceptical that the people at the sharp end were ever really interested in socialism, and those that talked about it used it mostly as a rhetoric to attract support I think. It’s telling that those who talk about it most now picked it up in gaol – what does that say about them before they went away?

    I’d be mostly in agreement with what you’re saying about the church, although I think that the Irish church was quite representative of its flock – partly due to the absence of state funding – and that we should bear that in mind. If it was a conservative church, it was because it was a conservative people.

    The raven thing was reflective of the particular poverty and isolation of the west it seems to me, and not necessarily reflective of the situation as a whole. But yes, in the 1790s the UI attracted a wide variety of people to their cause, with different agendas. I’d agree with that. Which relates to your point about the UI and sectarianism. To an extent what you say is true, but there are examples of the opposite too. Sometimes more successful than others. Tomás Mac Giolla loves to quote the bit from Tone’s diaries in Rathfriland where having successfully negoatiated a truce among the feuding sectarian groups, things restarted, and when he went back the united to drive him out. I think the actions of the UI by and large stand up to scrutiny given the circumstances of the time. (which room for understanding of darker behaviour had gone by the time of the recent Troubles in my view).

    I understand what you are saying about Redmond and O’Connell, and have some sympathy with what you say. They were progressive up to a point on many issues. As long as we acknowldge the other side of their politics as well, the imperial framework. The Tone, O’Connell, Parnell, Pearse succession thing is something that has always baffled me, how people could accept that as reflective of reality. I guess it is the desire of Irish people to be regarded as natural rebels while maintaing their conservatism.

    Swan’s book did contain a lot of good stuff. It was very useful for showing how difficult it was to effect change, and also how 1969 drove some people back into old certainties while encouraing others to complete the transformation.

  9. yourcousin Says:

    My point on defenderism is that it’s always kicked about as a poor cousin of republicanism, but what is never really addressed (or squared up IMO) are the attacks that lead to defenderism. I’ve always said that you can’t eat a flag or an ideology and defenderism rose in response to actual (not just perceived) attacks on the catholic/nationalist community. That fact does mean not mean that the community under attack is deficient is some way, as is often cited of the northern nationalist population, only that they have been put under different pressures than say, nationalists in the south. The provos are often times knocked as modern day defenders, and they are, with all of the baggage and contradictions that go with it, but those that would deride them for that fact offer no real (not hypothetical/ideological)recourse for the circumstances that led to their rise. That was my point.

    I think you’re being particularly harsh on republican prisoners. Take for example the fact that the majority of hunger strikers were in their early to mid twenties and came from deprived back grounds which experienced the brunt of sectarian onslaught in the early years of the Troubles and you’re shocked that they weren’t ideologically fully formed upon entering prison? I would respond to your question of “what does it say about the before they went away?”, that it says they were average people caught up in extraordinary times and events. That doesn’t absolve them of their actions and obvious consequences, only places them in their proper context.

    I agree the raven quote highlights the degree of grinding poverty, but it should also highlight that those same kind of people who, lets face it, have to make up the back bone of the republican movement (1798 or otherwise) are not always ideologically fully formed either and that alone should not discount them from membership in the republican family, especially if they “go out” for the republic.

    The quote about Tone merely demostrates the fact that not even the UI had a clue about how to deal with the North and that ties into my point about defenderism and the ravens, (although to be honest I just found that line funny as hell). Swan pointed out that even by the time of Emmet’s “rising” many of the Protestants who had previously rallied to Tone’s banner had abandoned it in favor of the union jack which furthers my point that we should respect the fact that the Protestant classes were/are free to choose their own course and we should respond to them on the basis of the choices they make, not solely on who they are.

    I would not try to remake Redmond or O’Connell as the epitomy of Irish rebellion, but simply acknowledging the blows they struck for what they believed. I think you could make the argument that Redmond presented the “correct” argument for incremental freedom, but he was surpassed by events that were out of his control. I think the same happened to OSF. That OSF supported the civil rights movement with so little knowledge of it’s potentency is telling.

    This response has taken far too long to compose for how incomplete it is, but alas it will have to remain as such as I’m too tired to deal with all the issues you raise.

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