Monthly Archives: March 2011

‘Republican’ – a much abused word

Media reports of a range of violent attacks – the shooting of three men in a Blanchardstown public park, recent bomb attacks in Derry and Belfast, a double murder in County Armagh, the conviction of a drug dealer in Ballymena – all have one thing in common, the use of the term ‘dissident republican’. This attribution by the media quite literally comes out of the ‘blue’ – out of police press releases and statements north and south of the border. It makes for a neat package, everything nicely parceled up. No further explanation is required as to who these ‘dissident republicans’ are, what their possible motivation for each separate act is, whether the individual perpetrators share common political objectives, or whether any of the perpetrators is actually a ‘republican’ or even understands what the word means. The public, informed by the media, can take note of the explanation, park the story, and move on with neatly primed prejudices reinforced.

There is nothing new in this. Over the past 40 years the term ‘republican’ has been abused by police, media and politicians. Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are the linked bodies most often referred to as ‘republican’ both by members of those organisations and others. While it is undoubtedly true that many members of both organisations were and are genuine republicans in the Tone/Connolly tradition, it is also patently true that many members were motivated by Catholic nationalist sentiment, a not insignificant factor in the splits that occurred during and after the Peace Process.

The differences between nationalism and republicanism have been the subject of two recent blog posts on this site. There is no reason other than convenience and prejudice for the failure of the media in general to separate these two distinct ideologies in the public mind over the past 40 years, and that failure persists in the current use of the blanket-term ‘dissident republican’.

There is no evidence at all that those who carried out these recent crimes have a republican bone in their bodies. On the contrary, those ‘dissident republican’ organisations – the ‘Real’ IRA and the ‘Continuity’ IRA – demonstrate nothing more than a desire to prolong the ‘armed struggle’ against the British enemy that is well on the road to practical disengagement from the six counties. This is a stupid and futile gesture by narrow-minded men and women who refuse to understand what Irish republicanism is really about, explicit in the intent of the United Irishmen of “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion” and reinforced by that incisive line from the Proclamation of the Irish Republic …oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”.

That the shooting of three men in a public park in Dublin, allegedly for ‘anti-social activities’ could be labeled as an act by ‘republican dissidents’ demonstrates at best laziness on the part of journalists and editors and at worst a further attempt to attach a pejorative meaning to the word ‘republican’ that it does not deserve. Whether or not those who ordered the shootings, or those who carried them out, want to gratify themselves by describing themselves as ‘republicans’, that does not make them republicans. They are not. They are criminals.

But there is no evidence offered, and a police briefing to journalists is not evidence, that so-called ‘republican dissidents’ were indeed involved in these shootings, which brings the spotlight to bear on the media. It is important that citizens who understand and commit themselves to republicanism are vigilant and vocal in opposition to the easy abuse of the term ‘republican’ through laziness, ignorance or to promote ideological prejudice on the part of the media for its own ends and to suit the political class which is essentially anti-republican.

Those of us who have taken the trouble to understand what Irish republicanism is and what it signifies need to reclaim the concept, not just from so-called ‘republican dissidents’ (and from the utterly discredited Fianna Fail party), but also from those disseminators of information and misinformation, those moulders of public opinion – the Irish media – abusers of language and of ideas.

 


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Our Stupid Education System

In a letter in the Irish Times (21st March 2011), the authors, Peter Lydon of ‘Gifted and Talented Ireland’ and Catherine Riordan and Karen McCarthy of ‘Irish Gifted Education Blog’ state that – ‘Our education system does not develop our best talent. Gifted or “exceptionally able” pupils are ignored in the Irish education system. While the US, China, India and many European countries have specific, government-mandated provision, we insist that the most able pupils in our classrooms must wait while everyone catches up with “the basics”.’

There is a fundamental problem in what these people write, specifically in how they apply those words ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ to particular children and not to all children. What they appear to want is an elite system of education for those children who, for a variety of reasons, are able to excel in certain subjects or who demonstrate particular talents to a higher degree than is the ‘norm’ – whatever that means.

It is not difficult to understand why some children do well in particular disciplines and many do badly. Physical nourishment during pregnancy, infancy and childhood plays no small part, as does emotional nourishment – sometimes difficult for parents who may lack maturity or support or who may be struggling in extreme conditions for survival. Early intellectual stimulation is also vital, and good quality early schooling helps, particularly in language acquisition and development of other communications skills, and in building self-confidence. The quality of teaching across subjects, size of class, range of teaching aids available, a proper mix of mental and physical exercise, access to external stimuli such as nature studies, music, art, museums, theatre, etc. all play into the development of the child and the opening up of talents and potential.

It is patently obvious that a defining factor in the proper development of the child is likely to be, apart from parental love, economic. Of course there are instances where the child of wealthy parents will not ‘do well’, and conversely that the child of a poor family will. But simple research shows that it is the children of better-off parents, particularly children who have access to private schools, who succeed across a range of professions, while poorer children either do not access university education or, if they do, generally opt for courses that train them for functional employment and not leadership.

Surely we should begin with a different premise – that all children are gifted and talented, until their gifts and talents are stifled. 100 years ago that great educationalist and patriot Patrick Pearse wrote a profound essay on education, a critique of the British education system which he named ‘The Murder Machine’, and his vision of a better way of teaching. That vision can be reduced to the principle of ‘fostering all that is good in the child’. Pearse did not differentiate between poor children and wealthy children. The aim of all teachers, Pearse said, must be to ‘foster all that is good in the child’. But to do that the system must also foster all that is good in the teacher.

The ‘education’ system that we inherited from the British on independence, and did little to change, was one, according to Pearse, whose primary aim was to turn out obedient subjects, ready for work. Rather than stimulating each child’s strengths and potentials it ‘molds’ the child according to the needs of the economic system and the State. That system, from which the only escape could be the privileged private school system whose aims were different to the State controlled public system has failed utterly to foster all that is good in the child, and in fact has failed to provide even the most basic of skills necessary to function in and to enjoy adulthood.

According to the latest OECD findings almost a quarter of our 15 year-olds are functionally illiterate! That is a catastrophic state of affairs, and is matched by abysmal figures for competency in reading and maths. As a teacher at post-leaving cert level these figures come as no surprise to me – they are confirmed from experience. Further, very many school-leavers have little knowledge of history or of the political, social or economic world, and have virtually no philosophical foudation outside of narrow Catholic teachings on which to evaluate a position and make a sound, informed, moral or ethical judgement.

Instead of providing the tools and the space for young people to grow and develop their talents and gifts, and to prepare to be fully functioning intelligent human beings in a fast-changing world, the Irish education system is geared towards using a bogus points system based on supply and demand of and for courses at third level, the most crude way of determining what is wheat and what is chaff. It is an Irish ‘murder machine’. It is a disgrace!

In what purports to be a republic the failure by the State to provide equal access for all children to a top-class system of learning and development must not be allowed to continue any longer. Not only does it create unfair advantage for the few over the many, but it is a grotesquely stupid policy in economic and social terms. Throwing 20-30 per cent of our children onto the scrap-heap to maintain an unfair two-tier system, condemning them to a lack of opportunity to generate wealth for themselves and for the nation, makes no sense at all.

When it comes to education we have to stop being stupid. Nothing less than a revolution in our approach will do. It is time to dismantle the Murder Machine, time to foster all that is good in every child, time to be intelligent.


Naming National Children’s Hospital

The news that the new National Children’s Hospital will most likely not be built on the Mater Hospital site in Dublin’s city centre is a welcome turn of events. It is widely believed that this major project was to be shoe-horned onto the very restricted Mater site because it was located in former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s constituency, coupled with the fact that Ahern was formerly employed by the Mater Hospital.

That the site was unsuitable goes without saying. To fit the children’s hospital on the site meant that it had to be a 16 storey building, with a multi-storey car-park underground. Traffic congestion is frequently at critical level in the streets approaching the site from all directions. Air quality in the city centre would hardly be considered to be a positive factor in the treatment of sick children.

It is likely that the new hospital will either be built on the site of the existing Crumlin Children’s Hospital or a green-field site even closer to the M50 ring-road, making access from all parts of Ireland much easier and quicker. Either of the new site-options would also allow for a lower-rise building, and one which would allow sick children to see the sky and the Dublin Mountains, and to breathe fresher air than in the city centre – altogether a far more sensible and pleasant prospect for sick children and their families.

Building this much needed National Children’s Hospital also allows for another significant act – the naming of the hospital. No doubt there will be many and varied suggestions on this subject, but none more suitable than to name it in memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, one of the true heroes of the 1916 revolution, a revolution that she carried on to her life’s end in a very practical way in her work as a doctor and founder of St. Ultan’s Hospital.

Kathleen Lynn was born into a wealthy protestant family, her father being the Church of Ireland Rector of Killala in County Mayo. After her secondary education in Alexandra College in Dublin she studied medicine, graduating in 1899 – one of the first women in Ireland to achieve this. Life in Killala had made her aware of widespread deprivation still evident in Mayo after the famine of 1847-48 and this would influence her work as a doctor, putting her firmly on the side of the poorest of the poor.

When she was elected to be House Surgeon to the Adelaide Hospital her appointment was resisted by her male colleagues on the grounds that she was a woman. She became active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and was drawn towards republicanism through her feminism. Like Countess Markievicz, another Protestant from a wealthy family, Kathleen Lynn went against type with this support for republicanism, and like Markievicz was met with the displeasure of family members for doing so.

She supported the cause of the workers during the 1913 Lockout and worked with Countess Markievicz and others in the soup kitchens in Liberty Hall and became close to Markievicz and James Connolly. Connolly appointed her Chief Medical Officer to the Irish Citizen Army and she gave the Citizen Army ambulance and first aid training, and was involved in weapons smuggling. On Easter weekend, 1916, Kathleen was appointed Captain in the Irish Citizen Army and second-in-command of the City Hall Garrison in the revolution. When Sean Connolly was killed early on in the revolution, Kathleen took command of the Garrison before it was forced to surrender.

Released from British custody in 1917 she, together with her life-long companion, republican activist and feminist Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, nursed the ill during the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918. The following year, while Kathleen was practicing as a GP in Rathmines, the two spearheaded the opening of a children’s hospital in Charlemont Street, Dublin, named St. Ultan’s. The first hospital of its kind and staffed entirely by women, St. Ultan’s catered for children of the tenements who suffered terrifyingly high mortality rates, and concentrated on infectious diseases. This led to pioneering work in the treatment of TB including the use of the BCG vaccination, and later the experimental use of Streptomycin, which later facilitated the work of Dr Noel Browne and the TB eradication programme.

Kathleen Lynn was elected a Sinn Fein TD between 1921 and 1926 but, opposed to the Treaty of 1921, did not take her seat.

Kathleen and Madeleine, and the group of prominent republican women who supported them, managed to keep the hospital open despite opposition from the Catholic Church, and the State. Operating in a period that was expressly counter-revolutionary, hallmarked by official meanness, rigidity and cruelty, when women were being marginalised, censorship was rife, and politics and the Catholic Hierarchy worked hand-in-hand against the interest of women and of the poor, Kathleen Lynn kept her eyes firmly on the prize of saving and enhancing the lives of Ireland’s most vulnerable children who had been discarded by both Church and State.

Kathleen Lynn may have left active participation in politics in 1926 but never gave up on the Republic or its citizens. She personifies the finest ideals of republicanism and of patriotism. There can be no doubt about her bravery, not just in battle, but in the war against disease and deprivation in the tenements of Dublin and in the struggle to keep her great little hospital open and in pushing the boundaries of medicine without asking for permission that would have been denied.

Kathleen Lynn was effectively written out of history by not being spoken about in the ‘official’ version of history. Those who knew her knew she was remarkable, and lovely and kind and generous. Perhaps, apart from her unyielding republicanism, it was the question of the nature of her relationship with Madeleine that powerful men in the Church and State could not cope with. When Madeleine died in 1944 Kathleen wrote in her diary on her return from the burial to the house they had shared –“..the loneliness of coming back, with no Madeline to greet me and say what a barren wilderness it had been while I was away.”

Kathleen Lynn died in 1955 and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery. To the very end of her life she dreamed of and worked for the establishment of a National Children’s Hospital. Almost 100 years after she fought to create the Irish Republic that dream looks set to be realised in time for the centenary of the 1916 revolution. It would be right and fitting that the hospital should be named ‘The Kathleen Lynn National Children’s Hospital’.


Exit From EU Essential

It is long past time when Irish citizens should seriously consider the Irish State exiting the European Union, but the growing evidence of Ireland’s second or third-class status within the Union makes this much more of an imperative now. For far too long Ireland’s political class has engaged in a hard sell to have Irish citizens endorse a series of treaties that have dragged the State and its people further and further into a subservient position in the EU relative to the powerful axis of neo-imperialist countries – Germany, France and Britain.

The banking crisis and the resultant collapse of the Irish economy show that that axis – simultaneously neo-imperialist and neo-liberal – is not just prepared to countenance but insists on the enslavement of the Irish people for the purpose of paying the debts of private gamblers, principally the banks and money markets in those countries. If they are to allow for even marginal easing of the terms of what they describe as a ‘bail-out’ but what is in fact extortion, then we must surrender on the issue of our rate of corporate tax.

Ireland’s geographical position as an island separated by not one but two seas from the continent of Europe requires that the State devises methods of attracting investment into Ireland. While not defending the morality or otherwise of favouring international corporations with low tax rates, the fact that the powerful EU states insist on dismantling the limited advantage that this offers as a prerequisite for making it slightly easier for Irish citizens to refund debts that they do not own and cannot pay demonstrates the absence of fairness and parity of esteem between the powerful centre and the periphery.

But there are other permanent features of the EU’s position in the world that demand that the Irish State and its citizens examine their collective conscience about our involvement with a project that exploits, dominates, enslaves, manipulates and wages war directly or by proxy on less powerful regions, nations and people of the world.

It is unethical to engage in the international arms trade, but that is what European countries do in a highly aggressive and corrupt way and most often to vicious regimes who pile the cost of the weapons on to  national debt while exploiting the treasuries of their countries for personal profit and depositing the proceeds in secret accounts with European banks. It was illuminating and disgusting to see the British prime minister, David Cameron, arrive in Egypt while the people’s revolution was still active with a posse of some of the most notorious British weapons manufacturers and dealers to discuss arms deals with the military regime that controls that country.

These same European countries systematically exploit, with the client governments complicity, the resources of the client states, importing their raw materials to Europe where great value is added through manufacturing and sales. The impoverished people of the third World who attempt to follow the jobs into Europe are harassed, exploited, criminalised and very often expelled. Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is reaching fever pitch in many of the so-called ‘enlightened democracies’ in Europe, and is facilitated if not encouraged by the governments of those democracies through thinly veiled incitement and the enacting of very repressive laws aimed at those immigrant communities.

EU countries are heavily involved in the illegal and brutal wars being waged against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars which would not have begun and could not be sustained had those countries not joined the ‘coalition of the willing’. The EU is also actively complicit in the slow genocide of the Palestinian people in not only failing to exert strong pressure on Israel and the US to end their criminal oppression of an innocent indigenous people, but also in exploiting all trade possibilities with Israel in both directions. Not content with that, the EU is currently absorbing Israel into the European Union (well documented by David Cronin in his book “Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation”).

The leaders of the neo-imperialist states which control the European Union are not people that any reasonably moral person would want to associate with. The scale of destruction that these leaders wreak on the world and its people is massive, and criminal. It is in effect no different from the havoc their ancestors created in the Americas, Africa, and the Middle and Far East. Their record is the direct opposite of the record of the Irish people who, throughout history, have never sought to dominate or oppress other nations, but who have been the subject of colonisation and genocidal policies inflicted by one part of the axis of European neo-imperialism, Britain.

Given the current banking and fiscal crisis that Ireland is going through which will cause massive hardship on the Irish people, the prospect of disengaging with the EU and engaging with the 118 countries of the non-aligned movement is just a different challenge, but a far more rewarding one if planned for and handled correctly.

Not only is there a bright future for the Irish economy in a wider world, there is the opportunity for the Irish State to re-establish itself as a neutral peace-loving defender of human rights in the world. That is a prize worth working for. The debate on our future is urgent and must begin.

For more on this read a previous post – https://theirishrepublic.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/atlantean-irish-in-the-wider-world/


Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 2

By the time the American and French revolutions had taken place at the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland had been dominated by the English for half a millennium.  Substantial parts of the island, especially the north-eastern area, had been planted with Protestant and Presbyterian settlers from Britain. The Treaty of Limerick had turned Protestants into first class citizens, Non-Conformists into second-class, and Catholics into non-citizens and the subject of Penal Laws.

Parliament was reserved for the Protestant landlord class, who controlled, according to Wolfe Tone ‘…five-sixths of the landed property of the nation…the quiet enjoyment of the church, the law, the revenue, the army, the navy, the magistracy, the corporations – in a word, of the whole patronage of Ireland.’

Although there were twice as many Dissenters (mainly Presbyterians) as Protestants, they did not enjoy the same privileges, and were engaged mainly in farming and manufacturing, centred principally in Antrim and Down.  The Dissenters had supported the American Revolution and saw, both in it and in the French Revolution, the model which they could adopt and, by uniting with their Catholic fellow-countrymen, create an independent democratic secular republic.

A growing number of radical intellectuals in Dublin who were also informed by Enlightenment ideas and excited by developments in Europe and in America, including Thomas Russell, William Drennan, Napper Tandy and Wolfe Tone, began to formulate a  political philosophy which was grounded on modern democratic principles.

Wolfe Tone’s pamphlet An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland helped convince the northern Dissenters of the possibility of common cause.  In October 1991 Tone was in Belfast to assist in the formation of the first United Irishmen’s club, and a short while later formed a club in Dublin. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”. By 1797 records show that the United Irishmen had 128,000 sworn members spread mainly across nine counties.

The society was legal until 1794 when it was finally suppressed by the government, but it continued to operate underground.  By now, its well organised propaganda campaigns had succeeded in politicising the population at large, and the British were very well aware that the unity of purpose between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter looked set to threaten its carefully worked out project of colonising, dominating, and eventually assimilating Ireland. A reaction to this was necessary.

In the north, in 1795, the Protestant Orange Order emerged.  Members quickly took up positions in large numbers in the yeomanry, whose function was to supplement the military arm of government at local level. This could not have happened so quickly without the government’s consent, or more likely encouragement.

The second event of significance in 1795 was the founding of the Catholic seminary at Maynooth which cemented relations between the Roman Catholic church and Dublin Castle.  The French Revolution and the closure of seminaries there had cut off the supply of priests, just as the Catholic population in Ireland was expanding.  The fear was that if those seminaries were to reopen in the future, then young seminarians who were sent there for their education might pick up bad revolutionary habits.

That is the basis of the paradox that has beset Irish republicanism, the weaning away of the very people who might most consciously adhere to the ideals of republicanism – the Protestants and Dissenters, and the beginnings of a new brand of Catholicism known as Ultramontanism in Ireland.

Ultramontane Catholicism puts an emphasis on the supremacy of the Pope over local spiritual leaders such as Bishops, but also over rulers and governments. The British had never been able to subdue the rebellious Catholic Irish, the intention now was that the Pope and his bishops and priests in Ireland would take over that task, and that Maynooth College would turn out the new brand of priest with a new authoritarianism and a sectarian message which had not been explicit in the old semi-autonomous Irish Catholic  Church.

So there is the double wedge that the British government used to destroy the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the banner of Irish republicanism. We live with the consequences of that to this day.

What was it that Wolfe Tone said? It was“England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”.

It is not that the English, or more properly the British, were done with that double act in Ireland. It became the standard British policy all around the world in every country that the emerging British Empire colonised – ‘Divide and Conquer’. The effects of setting tribe against tribe, religion against religion, do not disappear when the coloniser leaves, or in the case of Ireland, leaves partially. The negative, destructive, destabilising consequences live on and on with lethal outcomes.

Despite all that the British did to destroy Irish republicanism it survived and adopted to new ‘isms’ – nationalism, socialism, feminism – and absorbed them into the movement’s evolving ideals, the best expression of which is to be found in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. There is a line in paragraph four of the Proclamation which refers back to the events of 1795 and the British manipulation of Irish society for its own ends – “…oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past“.

There is more, of course to this story. It will be continued.


Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 1

In Ireland, and abroad, Irish  republicanism and Irish nationalism are often taken to be interchangeable terms, and both are frequently assumed to be the preserve of catholic Ireland. These assumptions are incorrect, and are damaging to the prospects of reunifying the island of Ireland through reconciling the people of Ireland with one another across religious and political divides.

Irish nationalism is motivated by by a love of Irish culture, history, language but not necessarily, historically, by a demand for national independence from English/British domination. Those who pushed for Home Rule described themselves as nationalists, and were content to seek autonomy but not a break with rule from Westminster and the British monarch as Head of State. Even Patrick Pearse, who pushed for Home Rule before he came around to republicanism, was in favour of independence from Britain but with the German Kaiser’s son as constitutional monarch of Ireland. Arthur Griffith, a committed nationalist, proposed that Ireland be independent from Britain but that it would share the British monarch.

Irish republicanism, from its first incarnation in Ireland in the 1790s through to today, is based on the demand that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. That republican ideal comes straight from the European Enlightenment and particularly from the French Revolution and its ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

What republicans share with nationalists is a love for Irish culture, history and language. Where they differ is in their ideal of a unified Irish republic, and in terms of the right-left political divide. Republicans by the nature of their ideology tend to be left-wing, whereas nationalists tend to be conservative ranging from the political centre to the right – and sometimes to the extremes of the right.

Republicans are, by the nature of their ideology, often avowedly secularist and certainly anti-sectarian. Nationalism, while containing a cohort of Protestants at various stages, tends to be widespread among Catholics, and indeed the Irish Catholic Church has associated itself strongly with nationalism while reviling republicanism at all stages since the 1790s. That outright rejection of republicanism is one that the Church shares with Unionism, which itself is mainly Protestant and is an expression of a different nationalism – a far more extreme British nationalism than most English, Welsh or Scottish nationalists would express, or even understand.

While the Catholic Church’s rejection of republicanism is in a way understandable – the Church is after all monarchical itself, the rejection of republicanism by Northern Protestants, who tend to be non-conformists (Dissenters) – Presbyterians and Methodists, is paradoxical. After all, the American Revolution, fueled in the main by non-conformists, did not set up an alternative monarchy, but a republic. And when republicanism was introduced into Ireland in the 1790s it was by Northern Dissenters and conformist Protestants initially, later joined by Protestants and Dissenters and Catholics from the South. The myth that it was introduced by returning Catholic seminarians from their studies in French colleges who had been influenced by the French Revolution is largely just that, a myth, carefully constructed to place the Catholic Church at the heart of the 1798 rising and to displace the unifying ideal of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter of the United Irishmen. The myth was founded on a lie.

The truth is that Unionists, in the main non-conformists – Presbyterians, Methodists, etc., should be, because of the values of their faith and belief-system, more naturally republican than monarchist. Nationalists on the other hand should be, due to the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church with the Pope as monarch and a strong code of obedience to authority, more naturally monarchist, although since independence they are not, in the political sense.

If it seems confusing, it is not. Many of the myths are lies, the paradoxes can be explained. There’s a clue in the words of Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, one of the principal leaders of the United Irishmen:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connexion (sic) with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects.  To unite the whole  people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.”

There it is – “England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”. More on this another day.


First Principles Fundamental To Constitutional Reform

‘There needs to be real political reform’ was the mantra of all parties in the last General Election. Judging by the text of the Coalition’s Programme for Government constitutional reform can be taken to mean tinkering around with the existing Constitution. But this reform needs to go far deeper. Real change requires the scrapping of the 1937 Constitution – a flawed, misogynistic, sectarian, anti-egalitarian document which has institutionalised inequality and injustice under a range of headings, making it anti-republican in a country that claims to be a republic.

The tone of the current constitution is set in its  preamble which states:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,

We, the people of Éire,

Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,

Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,

And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,

Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

It is legitimate to argue that this preamble is inappropriate to today’s Ireland in which reside many citizens who worship a different version of ‘God’ to the Christian one, or who are non-believers, including Atheists. It is not for the State but for the citizen to pay homage to a ‘God’ or not to do so. There is a valid argument that the State should guarantee religious liberty while maintaining a strictly secular stance of not seeking to interfere in the personal beliefs or practices of the citizen with regard to religious or spiritual belief or lack of same.

A more appropriate preamble in the constitution of a republic would be one which lays out the founding principles and ethos of that republic, and names the republic, and that from this preamble all subsequent articles of the constitution and all legislation by parliament both past and present should flow in accordance with the principles and ethos of the republic. By way of comparison with the existing preamble here is one option:

The Irish Republic is a Sovereign Independent State and is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of all citizens. The Republic declares the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and all of its natural resources and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible, and will strive to achieve this in full by peaceful means. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights, respect and opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts.

This is of course a reconstructed synthesis of the key points of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic which takes into account  the political reality of partition and divided allegiances on the island now, and the need to redress these physical, cultural and psychological divisions through dialogue in parallel with the practical application of progressive enlightenment republicanism, and through this the construction of a State and society worthy of realising the ambition of the unification of the island and its people to the advantage of all.

It is worth using that proposed preamble as a way of gauging how any of the key issues that affect citizens would have to be determined either in the Constitution or through legislation. For instance, there are two words in that preamble that are significant in their own right – one is ‘happiness’, and the other is ‘all’ which is repeated a number of times. The use of ‘all’ with respect to citizens removes any qualification of or diminution of citizenship and fundamental rights by reason of religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, social class, disability and so on. The use of ‘happiness’ has significance if it is applied to the State’s duty in providing for the fundamentals of life – sustenance, health, education, housing, care of children and the elderly, human respect and dignity, and so on. It is a word that is subversive to authoritarianism and corruption – the ‘happiness of the whole nation and of all of its parts’. What a great concept! It is time to make those words work for the citizens and by extension for the nation.

If we are to reform the Constitution then we must start at the beginning and define precisely what sort of Republic we want to have. That is what the signatories to the Proclamation intended, and left the template as their legacy to us.

It remains to us to live up to that legacy. The time is right to do it now. We, the citizens, must take control of reform away from the sectional interests of political parties, and must settle for nothing less than our full legacy.


Democracy’s Child, Dictatorship

Contrary to what the German ‘elite’ think of the Greeks at the moment, we can generally expect to find the pearls of wisdom we need there, even if they have to be excavated from 2,500 years ago.

Plato had something to say that might sound warning signals about the Fine Gael-Labour coalition: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty”.

With a combined strength for the Coalition of 113 Dail seats, just 52 TDs will occupy the opposition benches, and several of those are likely to be sympathetic to Fine Gael on a range of issues and policies, with Fianna Fail already indicating that it will be supportive where government policy is in accord with the previous administration’s. That leaves fewer than 30 Dail Deputies between Sinn Fein, the United Left Alliance, and left-leaning independents, who are ideologically opposed to the stated programme for government.

In these conditions, there can be no expectation of close-run votes in the Dail, even on the most contentious of issues. When it comes to the matter of standing orders in the Dail where these affect issues like speaking time and order of business it will largely be in the gift of the governing parties to make concessions and not because it is right, or equitable, or fair, or indicative of parity of respect for the voters who put those Deputies there to give voice to their concerns.

Between the parties that make up the Coalition there will undoubtedly be tensions, and within the parties too. But given the likelihood that the opinion poll ratings for both parties will drop substantially there will be little appetite for publicly expressed discord within or between the parties. Despite Eamon Gilmore’s closing oration at the Labour Delegate Conference when he presented a rosier outcome for Labour at the next election than history would indicate, many of the newly elected Labour TDs will have a serious fight on their hands to hold their seats. It is likely that Fine Gael’s position will be little different. The need for survival is a great gagging device.

It is quite likely that we will see legislation or regulation proposed that under normal conditions would either not be proposed or would be modified because of tight voting conditions that normally prevail in the Dail. With the majority it will command this government need not be so restrained, and those who think that Labour would guard against the introduction of repressive legislation don’t know their recent history. Section 31 of the Boradcasting Act is one example, introduced by a Labour Minister, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and there are others.

It is likely that Sinn Fein will shine in opposition. The party has seen returned as Dail Deputies not just a cohort of intelligent and highly articulate TDs but also a leader who has demonstrated exceptional political skills, is a good communicator, and is a person with considerable international stature. There is no doubt that Sinn Fein is ready in the starting blocks, rarin’ to go.

The United Left Alliance too will shine. Again, they have a group of intelligent and highly articulate TDs, with street ‘cred’. They will relish the thought of getting stuck into Labour from the word ‘go’.

It may well be that the most effective opposition will have to be fought on the streets outside Leinster House, and the United Left Alliance and Sinn Fein will be primed for that too. That may well be the place that dictatorship will be denied, and democracy enhanced. The republic is after all, according to another Greek, Cicero, “the property of the people”.

So it must remain.


Let Black Bloomers Be Our Banner

‘The Queen is coming’, the delighted RTE reporters and presenters tell us, seemingly thrilled by the prospect of producing several-months-worth of guff, and, who knows, even of being in the same air-space as herself – all in the call of duty, of course. No doubt, celebratory dinner parties with live flat screen coverage of the ‘real’ banquet, are already being planned by society hostesses in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. ‘It is a sign of the growing maturity of our relationship with the Old Enemy’, the commentariat tell us, as if we were, up to now, mere children.

Déjà vu! Yes, the Irish have been here before. When Ms Saxe-Coburg (Elizabeth mark 2 if you prefer) arrives, it will be 114 years after her great-great-granny Victoria came to view her Irish subjects – at least the ones who had survived a long famine over which she presided with a large degree of indifference. Then as now there was sycophantic adulation by some, and sincere, creative and sometimes humourous opposition by many others as well.

Maud Gonne and James Connolly combined in organising public protests. They set up a magic lantern projector in a room in Parnell Street and projected images of famine and eviction scenes across the street to a gable wall, to be seen by a large crowd of protesters in the street. The police baton-charged the crowd and one woman was killed. The protest headed down O’Connell Street, led by a hand-cart on which there was a coffin with the words ‘British Empire’ painted on it. Some protesters carried placards with slogans or with statistics of famine deaths. As they approached O’Connell Bridge the police made to stop them and there was a pitched battle. The coffin was hurled into the Liffey by the protesters to shouts of “Here goes the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire”. Connolly was arrested.

The Ladies Committee of the Patriotic Children’s Treat was formed to organise a picnic for children to counter the officially organised celebrations. Shops and bakeries and such-like contributed cakes, buns, lemonade and sweets for over 25,000 children who attended the picnic in Clonturk Park. Many of those children got their first lesson in politicisation on that day. Writing about it in his newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, James Connolly said:

“Last week we witnessed in Dublin the first political parade of the coming generation…Between twenty-five and thirty thousand children turned out and walked in processional order through the streets of the city, to show the world that British Imperialism had cast no glamour over their young minds…And that in the person of Her Britannic Majesty they recognised only a woman – no better than the mothers who bore them, if as good…It was a great sight to see the little rebels taking possession of the city – a sight more promising for the future of the country than any we can remember.”

Six years later Maud Gonne came up with another novel way of registering her opposition to the visit of King Edward VII. Living in a suburb of Dublin that was staunchly unionist at that time , Rathgar, she contrived to annoy her neighbours by hanging a pair of her black bloomers on a flag pole from a window of her house. Naturally, the police were summoned by the neighbours, but it would have taken a brave man indeed to interfere with Maud Gonne’s knickers.

We should save our rotten tomatoes for the compost, and make omelettes of our eggs. We should hold off the unfurling of our Tricolour and our Starry Plough for better days of celebration and of commemoration. We should instead, while Ms Saxe-Coburg is here, remember Maud Gonne – a great, subversive, republican woman – and emulate her.

Let black bloomers be our banner.


Listen To The Dead

Graveyards are usually associated with sadness and loss, and Glasnevin Cemetery is no exception to this. But there is one part of Glasnevin that has the power to evoke very different emotions – the Republican Plot.

It would be difficult for any person who knows that part of the history of Ireland from around 1900 to 1922 not to be moved, not to feel a sense of awe, not to be inspired by reading the headstones and markers in one small area near the main entrance. There, gathered together side by side are revolutionaries who were not afraid to dream a beautiful vision of the future for the people of Ireland, and not afraid to take on the might of the most powerful empire in the world to achieve that vision.

Countess Markievicz grave, Republican Plot, Glasnevin

Consider these names: Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne MacBride, Cathal Brugha, Thomas Ashe, Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, Roger Casement, Peadar Kearney, Dick McKee, Elisabeth O’Farrell, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Helena Molony, Kevin Barry, Harry Boland, James Larkin. There too lie James Connolly’s wife Lillie and three of their children, Nora, Ina and Roddy. And there are more.

Imagine the Dublin of that time with these people moving about the place and developing avant-garde transformational  ideas – feminism and equality, citizenship, secularism, trade unionism, socialism, republicanism and the very nature of the republic-to-be. Imagine what it must have been like to be party to their conversations and their meetings as they debated their ideas with one another and found common ground and brought more people on board, and as they started the process of moving to full-scale revolution.

Think of the number of women who were centrally involved in all of that, of the relatively young age that many of the revolutionaries were, of the number who had families depending on them, of the fact that the revolutionaries included heterosexuals, gays and lesbians among them, that they encompassed various religious persuasions and none, and were spread across the social classes from the lowest to the highest. They would fight, be prepared to die, to be free and equal citizens of the Irish Republic. All sane, rational people. Generous people.

A few miles away at Arbour Hill cemetery lie the executed leaders of the revolution. Seven of them signed their own death warrants by putting their names to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the others through their actions in  the revolution. Their mass-grave is rarely visited. Most citizens know little of Arbour Hill or what it stands for. There is no eternal flame there, no army guard of honour, no line of school buses waiting for their young occupants to come out of the cemetery with an understanding of the sacrifice – and the prize.

1916 Leaders' Grave Arbour Hill

And what if the occupants of those graves in Arbour Hill and in Glasnevin could speak to the people of Ireland today? Would they speak of their despair at the mess we have allowed the political class to make of the country while we stood watching? Would they regret their sacrifice? Would they admonish us? No!

They would tell us that we have it in us, just as they did, to transform the future for ourselves and for generations to come. And if we asked them for a plan, a ‘road-map’, they would turn, in unison, and point to the limestone wall at the grave in Arbour Hill on which is carved the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It is all there. The ways and the means to achieve it lie in ourselves. It is time to do it. Let’s get to work.

Proclamation Arbour Hill


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