Monthly Archives: November 2011

Create the Republic to Unify the People

A conundrum that seems to beset some Irish republicans concerns both the Irish Republic and reunification of the island, and the issue of which of these must come first. Some argue that the republic can only exist in a unified 32 County Irish State. They most often use the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as justification for that stance, but to do so allows Britain, or more precisely the English establishment, to maintain a semi-permanent barrier to both the republic and reunification by continuing to manipulate public opinion in the Six Counties, and political opinion, and consequently public opinion, in the 26 Counties.

The Proclamation states ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people’. Adopting the approach to resolving the conundrum of ‘republic first or unification first?’ that is suggested in this article does not alter that declaration one jot, or the desire that is evidently present among a significant majority of the Irish people that it should so come to pass.

It is an unfortunate, inescapable fact that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, imposed under threat of terrible war, partitioned Ireland by creating a border between the six north-eastern counties and the rest of the island. Despite the desire of a majority of the people on this island ever since to see the border removed, and despite almost three decades of war between the republican movement and Britain in the most recent campaign, there has been no change to the territorial status of either entity.

It has suited the political class north and south of the border to maintain this status quo. In the north, unionist domination of a nationalist minority prevailed from partition to the Good Friday Agreement when its worst aspects were ameliorated, while in the south what was effectively an ultra-conservative Catholic State was maintained through from 1922 to the 1990s when it finally morphed into a full-blown plutarchy, a combination of plutocracy and oligarchy – never a republic, despite the spurious description. This situation allowed for a carving up of political, administrative and professional posts along sectarian lines on either side of the border, and allowed for two entities in which right-wing regressive policies could be pursued, benefiting the upper middle class, large farmers and business, and the wealthy in both societies.

To any rational mind, the border must have seemed, from the outset, a ridiculous concept – unless the selfish interests of the English establishment and local self-interest in both parts of Ireland demanded the suspension of rational thought. For the English, the border provided a way to weaken any prospect of an independent Irish economy threatening British economic interests. For the northern unionists, the border provided the means by which the Unionist Party could maintain its hold on power, its dispensing of privilege and therefore wealth on a social class basis, and its domination of an antagonistic minority –  northern nationalists including republicans. For the southern political class, from independence through to today, the border allowed for the creation of a hegemonic capitalist state aided by an extreme form of the Catholic church, organised along ultramontanist lines, whose use to the political class was, among other things, its capacity and determination to inculcate obedience to authority into the citizens of the state, the vast majority of whom were Catholics, and its absolute rejection of the validity of either socialism or republicanism which suited the interests of the political, professional and business ‘elite’.

What partition has given us today is a small island with a contrived, porous border that distorts the political, social and economic life of both entities, demands two separate civil administrations and a duplication of the full range of public services, operates with two different currencies and tax systems, and two often very different legal systems and sets of legislation and regulation. That porous border creates a black economy on both sides, damaging local business and farming interests, diminishing tax revenue receipts, and thereby cumulatively affecting employment and economic expansion. It separates cities, towns and villages from their natural hinterlands. But worst of all, that border has divided the Irish people, not just northern Protestants and Dissenters from their southern Catholic counterparts, but as the recent presidential debates in the South showed, the citizens of the 26 Counties from those ‘north of the border’. Over the past 90 years partitionist thinking, and suspicion of the ‘other’ has become embedded among elements on both sides of the border.

In those circumstances, getting rid of that border so as to reunify the island is impossible in the short term, highly unlikely in the medium term and problematic in the long term – as long as the status quo in both parts of the island remains more or less the same. What would change that is a radical transformation in either or both parts of the island. There has been change north of the border in recent years, not enough to satisfy some, but it is incremental and reasonably progressive. If the North wrests economic independence from Whitehall that could speed up the rate of change. But south of the border, despite the virtual annihilation of Fianna Fáil at the recent general election, no change. The emperor is dead, long live the emperor. The right-wing political hegemony persists, albeit wearing the fig-leaf of Labour Party participation in a government determined to follow the diktats of the Goldman Sachs dominated EU.

If those ‘republicans’ who insist on no Irish Republic prior to the eradication of the border have their way, then not only will the border stay put for a very long time, but the 26 Counties will likely remain a hegemonic right-wing plutarchy. If the border is an absurdity, then equally absurd is the belief that a northern unionist, or a northern nationalist for that matter, would want to be part of such a corrupt, regressive plutarchy as is the southern state, that falsely describes itself as a republic when it is patently not.

There is a way of speeding up the whole process. It involves a radical transformation that lies within the collective power of the citizens of the southern state to achieve, if they have a mind to do it. Given the on-going destruction of our economy and with it the extreme social disruption that that has caused a sufficient number of citizens may be much more amenable to consider radical options than they might have been in the past. That way of speeding up transformational change is to put back into place in the 26 Counties the Irish Republic as outlined in the Proclamation of 1916, ratified in the Declaration of the first Dáil in 1919, and in suspension since the passing into law of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922.

In the history of the independent Irish state there has never been a more auspicious time to place the Irish Republic on the table as a major part of the process of reunifying the people of this small island. The election of a new president whose main election pledge was to work towards creating for the first time since independence a ‘true republic’ provides one opening for discussing what the Irish Republic outlined in paragraph four of the Proclamation might offer, not just to the citizens of the southern state, but to the people of the island as a whole. A series of centenaries of key moments and events in modern Irish history will occur over the next four years which will inevitably involve consideration of the various ‘isms’ – nationalism and unionism, republicanism and socialism, feminism, sectarianism, and so on.

In considering these things, it will be important to go further back in history, to the late 18th century and to the aims and objectives of the Society of the United Irishmen, and the Society’s origins among Protestants and Dissenters, mainly in the northeast of the island. Arising out of that, the imp of sectarianism will need to be confronted, and its origins in the machinations of the English coloniser , acknowledged in paragraph four of the Proclamation. In other words, the English succeeded through fomenting sectarianism from 1795 using the newly created Orange Order to turn the importers into Ireland of Enlightenment republicanism, Protestants and Dissenters, into becoming unionists, dividing them in the process from the Catholic majority. There lies the origins of partition.

The ethos of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic springs directly from the ethos 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”. Written in the main by Protestants and Dissenters, it is echoed in the text of paragraph four of the Proclamation, updated to address Irish women as well as Irish men – ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past’. No better guarantee of Liberty, Equality and Community than this to be found, and it is a legacy left by the Protestants and Dissenters – and Catholics – of the 18th century to all of the people of the island today.

None of the above should be taken to imply that the process of bringing the northern unionist population to consider the potential of having direct input into the shaping of a new republic will be simple or easy. There is the central question of personal and national identity, no simple thing to deal with in any community. Understanding why and how unionism in its modern maifestation came into being and how it was developed through to the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and beyond, and whether its central aim can be realised at a time when the British government is implicitly showing a willingness to disengage from the northern state for, of course, its own selfish reasons, can and should be explored during the centenary of the Ulster Covenant in 2012. The question to be asked of Ulster unionists is what ‘ism’ will replace unionism if the link with Britain is substantially broken, as it will be.

Ulster unionists are descended substantially from the Plantation of Ulster by mainly Scottish ‘settlers’ imposed by the English on lands owned by the indigenous Irish people. The Protestant people of the six counties are most often described as ‘Ulster-Scots’. It is well worth exploring the possibilities of forging a strong alliance between an independent Scotland – with the possibility that it will be a Scottish Republic – and a 32 county Irish Republic,  and of this connection being the source of a realignment of the main source of identity for northern unionists while simultaneously acknowledging the very strong connection over thousands of years between the people of Scotland and the people of Ireland. Such a solution, part of a very progressive Green Party policy document on resolving the conflict in the north in the mid 1990s, that regrettably fell at the last hurdle of ratification by the party, would represent a win-win solution for Irish nationalists and unionists and for Scottish nationalists and unionists.

How to engage Ulster unionists in the process of dismantling an absurd border? The answer lies in demonstrating serious intent to construct in the 26 counties a true republic that protects religious and civil liberties, that aims to create the conditions not just for prosperity for its citizens but their happiness too, that guarantees to treat all citizens equally and in a just and fair manner, and that sees all of the children of the nation – all of them – as the greatest resource for the future, to be encouraged and fostered in their development to full citizenship through progressive and enlightened policies.

The greatest prize for the republic would be the active participation in all decision-making and implementation of policy of the people of the six north-eastern counties, Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter and people of other religions and none, with their particular attributes and characteristics adding to the governance of a republic owned by its citizens for the benefit of all and the exclusion of none. When those voices from the north are part of a national parliament and administration the revolution will be complete, and the vision of the United Irishmen, kept alive by the revolutionaries of 1916 in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, can at last be realised.

The conundrum resolved, and important work to be done. The prize is worth it. Let’s start talking.

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Know the revolutionaries to understand the revolution

I never had personal contact with my paternal grandfather, since by the time I was born he was eight years dead, but in my earliest memories as a young boy he was already becoming to me  a man of mythic stature, a heroic figure in our family, a presence. What I knew of him as I grew was gleaned from snippets of information, often just overheard, sometimes the result of answers to my expressed curiosity about this absent man. It was obvious to me even from my earliest days that he was loved and missed by my father and his siblings, and that they were always proud of him and what he had done in his life. I had no image of him either until much later when I was shown a yellowing newspaper clipping that reported on the circumstances of his death with an accompanying postage-stamp sized photo, too small and too faded to give any real sense of the man.

John Stokes - D Company 3rd Battalion - Boland's Mills Garrison

John Stokes – D Company 3rd Battalion – Boland’s Mills Garrison

That newspaper clipping confirmed what I by then knew, that my grandfather, John Stokes, had died in attempting to rescue a young woman from drowning at the Shelley Banks near Poolbeg on the southern side of Dublin Bay. Other clippings, discovered later, gave greater detail to the story – that the young woman had been cut off on a sand island when the tide started to rise, that John had gone to her assistance and that when she couldn’t swim to shore he went back for assistance but disappeared underwater having suffered cramp. The young woman, Nellie Macken of Parliament Street, was rescued by a boatman. At the inquest into his death John was commended for his bravery. He was 63 years-of-age when he died. That one act of selfless bravery, particularly at a relatively advanced age, would have been enough to establish his heroism, but there was more to him than that one act.

Born in County Wexford, in Bunclody, his people were farmers. But they were, according to family lore, also perpetually rebellious, with an involvement stretching back to the United Irish rebellion of 1798, and the short-lived Wexford Republic of that year. As a young man, John had to flee Wexford to avoid a trial at the Wexford Assizes on a charge of holding off at gunpoint a bailiff who had caught him poaching game on a squire’s land. He made his way to Dublin where he eventually met and married my grandmother, Catherine Finnegan of Slane, County Meath.

By 1913 John was employed as a ‘motorman’ – a driver – with the Dublin United Tramways Company. When he and his co-workers walked off the job because of the company’s refusal to allow them membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin and James Connolly, that strike allowed the Employers’ Federation, led by Ireland’s leading industrialist William Martin Murphy, to declare a general lockout of unionised workers, leading to a sustained and highly organised attempt by the employers to starve the workers and their families into submission, a cynical programme that lasted over four months bringing death and sickness to the poorest of Dublin’s poor.

Although records of who was involved in and around Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the ITGWU, are virtually non-existent, it is highly likely that John and Catherine were active there. In our family, James Connolly – a central figure in the Lockout and in Liberty Hall – was revered above other leaders, as was Liam Mellows, a disciple of Connolly’s. And, right up to the time of her death in 1956, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had worked for the welfare of the locked-out workers and their families in Liberty Hall and had been appointed by Connolly as  Chief Medical Officer to the Irish Citizen Army that Connolly led, and later as second-in-command of the City Hall garrison during the 1916 revolution, was a frequent visitor to Catherine at her home in Rathmines, as a friend.

John made the journey from striking tram-worker in 1913 to revolution in 1916 in which he fought in the Boland’s Mills garrison as a member of  D Company 3rd Battalion of the Volunteers, under the command of Eamon de Valera. On April 24th, Easter Monday, he turned up for duty with his Howth rifle and was put in charge of four Volunteers to take over the Gas Works and went from there to the Old Distillery (where the flag of the Republic was flown to divert British Army attention) until Wednesday when they were withdrawn back to Boland’s Mills. On Thursday he was ordered home by de Valera due to a back injury he had carried into the fight. Two days after the surrender he was arrested and taken to Richmond Barracks with the other revolutionaries, and then to Frongoch Prison Camp in North Wales via Wakefield Prison in England. He was released in August 1916. While in Frongoch his commanding officer was Terence MacSwiney. During the War of Independence John provided ‘assistance’ to D Company and to the Active Service Unit, and during the Civil War provided a safe house for guns and men to Anti-Treaty republicans with the active participation of my grandmother Catherine.

The Lockout exacted a high price on both John and Catherine. As a black-listed worker due to his union activity, and as a man of principle who would not work for certain employers on his own blacklist, he often found himself struggling to provide for his wife and young family. This evidently led to occasional difficulties between these two strong-willed characters, she who had children to feed and he who had principles to live up to.  On Fianna Fail’s accession to power in government in 1932 Catherine wrote to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera asking if there was any work available for John to which de Valera replied that if John came to the Dáil on a certain date there would be a job as a porter. John’s response was that he hadn’t fought in 1916 to get a job for himself and refused the offer. He continued to find what work he could, mainly around the motor trade and occasionally as a hackney driver.

There is no doubt that John and Catherine made a solid contribution to achieving independence for Ireland from British domination, but they made another lasting contribution. In being active citizens in their everyday lives they passed on a set of worthwhile values and beliefs that they held dear to their children, who passed them on to their own children, and the ripple effect goes on.

They were not unique in this, and that is the impetus behind telling their story for the first time.

On the 24th of April 1916, ‘ordinary’ men and women, estimated to number between 900 and 1200, assembled at Liberty Hall and at various outposts to create a revolution against the mightiest empire in the world at that time. But very little is known about these heroic, generous people who would take extraordinary risks to benefit future generations with little prospect of gain for themselves and a high possibility of death, injury or long-term imprisonment as a result of their actions.

These people, these revolutionaries, do not figure in history books, other than as statistics. In writing them out of the story as individual people, each with a personal story to tell of before, during and after the revolution, we consistently fail the test of understanding what the revolution was really about and how important it was for them to achieve the Irish Republic that was the objective of the revolution.

There is no doubt that it suited what was, and continues to be, the political class in this non-republic, to narrow the focus of understanding the revolution by concentrating on its leaders and on its opponents, including the failed constitutional politicians and those who faltered and fell away from the revolutionary movement at the last minute.

Far easier to present the revolution as a ‘Rising’, or an ‘Insurrection’, or a ‘Rebellion’ if the motivations and the objectives of the rank-and-file men and women do not form part of the evidence of genuine revolution. Far easier to underplay the fundamental importance to the revolution of the 1913 Lockout and trade unionism, of the centrality of socialism to the Proclamation, of the most advanced form of feminism in the world which was revealed at the barricades and in the Proclamation, if the revolution could be sold as a ‘poets’ rebellion’ or some-such nonsense. Far easier to allow the Catholic church to successfully sell the spurious notion that it was behind the ‘rebellion’ and therefore a party to the gaining of independence when the direct opposite was the case. And so, far easier to create a permanent counter-revolution the aim of which was to destroy the Irish Republic so as to preserve a privileged class, to avoid redistribution of wealth, to introduce rigid controls on society and social behaviour, to embed capitalism and its local offshoot, gombeenism, as the hegemonic ideology.

Even at this late stage, when those generations with a direct connection with the rank-and-file revolutionaries are dying off, it is still possible to salvage these stories involving the ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries and their families, but further delay in doing so cannot be entertained. A concerted effort needs to be made to reach out to the remaining families of 1916 rank-and-file revolutionaries to gather the stories and where possible photographs, so that we can better know who they were and what were their personal circumstances, why they did what was extraordinary, and how it impacted their lives thereafter.

There is work to be done, first in finding the descendants, then in gathering the stories, collating the information and analysing it, and publishing the stories and the analysis. Once again that work involves, in a very fundamental way, ordinary people. But, given its potential scale, it will also need to involve local and national organisations and societies, sociocultural historians and researchers, archivists and museums.

After almost 100 years of obscurity we need to think of ways to acknowledge and honour these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries. Apart from publishing their stories, one other way would be to ensure that included in the commemorations on April 24th 2016, Republic Day, will be a contingent of citizens, each individual – preferably a family-member – representing an identified revolutionary of Easter Week 1916, and assembled according to the garrison that the revolutionary was part of, to take part in the march-past at the GPO in Dublin.

It is time to give these ‘ordinary’ revolutionaries mythic stature, to understand the extent of their heroism, and to make their presence felt once again as we continue the task of completing their revolution by constructing the Irish Republic that they gave so much to bring to life. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the future generations.


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