Republicanism should involve a lot more than asserting national independence
Opinion: Classical theorists saw it as a state in which laws, not men, were paramount
Irish republicanism has a rich tradition of political thought, and its founding father, Wolfe Tone, is honoured at Bodenstown every year. So surely it should mean more than ‘Brits Out’? Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Dail Chamber at Leinster House. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
In 1995 I took a walk with a colleague along the canal from Maynooth to Kilcock. Coming up to a bridge we spotted that someone had painted “Brits Out!” on it. I sighed and observed that this was, “one man’s entire political philosophy summed up in just two words”. My companion replied: “But that’s republicanism, isn’t it?”
He had a point. At that time republicanism in Ireland was popularly (if unfairly – Irish republicanism has a rich historical body of thought) understood as being against British rule in the North; there was also idea that a republic was simply the opposite of a monarchy. With the birth of our current difficulties a public debate on what it means to be a republic and what reforms might be needed to achieve one has begun and is gaining some traction.
Following its adoption, the United States constitution was judged by some French philosophers and statesmen to be insufficiently republican. Its later second president, John Adams, responded to these criticisms in his essay A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States. For Adams there were two features essential to any republic: the rule of law and checks and balances on the exercise of power.
Adams viewed the rule of law to be of critical importance, declaring “ . . . the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men”. The rule of law is understood in the republican tradition as being a body of law that is clear, predictable and legitimate. Most of all it has to be non-arbitrary.
As Fintan O’Toole recently (July 30th) noted on these pages there is ample cause to believe that the rule of law is not properly in place in this State, particularly for those belonging to or connected to sections of our political class. Some of the examples offered by O’Toole detail wrongs perpetuated against large numbers of what might be termed “ordinary” citizens by institutions of the State, wrongs for which no one has yet been held to account.
Laws do not exist
What is striking in some of O’Toole’s examples is the absence of laws of sufficient clarity, scope or strength under which offenders may be held to account. The public mood certainly demands justice and expresses impatience with the lack of progress but fails to recognise that in many cases the laws simply do not exist to prosecute the behaviour that they so rightly feel aggrieved by.
This “deficiency of law” is perhaps not accidental given that it often seems to favour the powerful, unlike the laws that prosecute so-called blue-collar crimes. Against all expectation we have actually seen a decline in prosecutions for white-collar crime since the tribunals completed their work and in the context of the collapse of our banking sector. In a sense, the rule of law is compromised here, in that there is every appearance of different arbitrary approaches being taken to crimes on the basis of the class of those most likely to breach them.
Any deficiency in law is the responsibility of the legislative branch of government. This brings us to the second feature of a republic: checks and balances. This is commonly understood to simply mean the balancing of power between the three functions of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.