A mission statement for Ireland
What sort of country do we want? It’s hard to say, because from 1916 to the present day the general public has had little input into our national mission statements. Maybe it’s time for a new one
Illustration: Paul Scott
In April 1957 an Irish-American commentator, John V Kelleher, wrote a provocative article for the influential journal Foreign Affairs, under the title “Ireland . . . and Where Does She Stand?” He lamented that there had been “no push at all in the Irish political situation since before the war. Instead of vocal discontent, there is silent emigration; and in what emigration leaves behind there is apathy below and smugness above . . . To a great extent this has been achieved by a round-robin process of politicians, clergymen, professional Gaels, pietists and other comfortable bourgeoisie looking into each other’s hearts and finding there, or pretending to find, the same tepid desires.”
The revolutionary promise of 40 years previously seemed to have faded, and Kelleher struggled to find any evidence of a dynamism that might challenge the status quo, but he also wondered, “What sort of a nation is it that the government is supposed to rally?”
Were there any national aspirations worth considering any more? Such was the muteness and despondency identified that Kelleher referred to “the extraordinary shrinkage of Ireland”.
But was it the case that in the preceding decades Irish aspirations, as traced, for example, through the documents of the revolutionary era, were boldly and accurately depicted and truly representative?
The 1916 Proclamation may not have been solely written by comfortable bourgeoisies pretending to find “the same tepid desires”; after all, the influence of James Connolly and the Labour movement is apparent. It promised equality of social and economic opportunity and the guarantee that the republic was committed to “cherishing all 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”.
This was a convenient ignoring of the intensity of Ulster Unionist opposition to Irish republican aspirations, but acceptance of uncomfortable realities was not a feature of such declaratory and idealistic documents of rebellion. The Proclamation also committed the rebels to Ireland’s “exaltation among the nations”, a typical Patrick Pearse flourish.
The general public, of course, were not consulted on the Proclamation’s contents; instead they were asked to retrospectively endorse it, and Sinn Féin’s momentous victory in the general election of December 1918 was regarded by many as its vindication.
DEMOCRATIC PROGRAMME OF THE FIRST DÁIL
The following month the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil was enunciated. Authored by Thomas Johnson of the Labour Party, some of its initial content, deemed too socialist, was watered down by Seán T O’Kelly of Sinn Féin.
Nonetheless, it promised it would be “the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland”.
Few in the Sinn Féin movement took this seriously as a reflection of Irish aspirations, and it was largely ignored in practice. As Charles Townshend makes clear in his new history of the revolutionary period, those who propelled the Irish revolution were more focused on the idea of separation from Britain “rather than implementing any concrete political programme . . . The new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the ‘self’ that was to exercise self-determination.”