A tribute to Anthony Coughlan

A book of essays celebrates the life and work of the veteran campaigner against the EU

Prof Anthony Coughlan speaks at the   Europe of Freedom and Democracy conference in the RDS this year.  Photograph: Bryan Meade

Prof Anthony Coughlan speaks at the Europe of Freedom and Democracy conference in the RDS this year. Photograph: Bryan Meade


It is our privilege to bring forward this collection of essays to acknowledge and celebrate the ongoing contribution to society and academia of one of Ireland’s most clear-headed thinkers, consistent campaigners and prolific authors: Anthony ‘Tony’ Coughlan.

In addition to his academic career in social policy at TCD (1961-97), over the past six decades Tony has championed the interests of Irish sovereignty and democracy throughout the island of Ireland, in Britain, and on the continent of Europe. The causes and campaigns that he has espoused principally include: student politics at University College Cork; concerns for their home country of Irish immigrants in Britain through the Connolly Association; the Wolfe Tone Society; radicalisation of Irish republicanism; civil rights in Northern Ireland; the campaign for nuclear disarmament in Ireland; the Common Market Defence Campaign that opposed Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1972; the Irish Sovereignty Movement; and the Desmond Greaves Annual School.

Anthony Coughlan at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London in the 1950s
Anthony Coughlan at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London in the 1950s
Desmond Greaves addresses a Connolly Association gathering, including Anthopnjy Coughlan, in London
Desmond Greaves addresses a Connolly Association gathering, including Anthopnjy Coughlan, in London

In more recent decades – in the era of the European Union and the near-global domination of transnational capital – with the National Platform, Tony has consistently held that the most important political task for all democrats is to join in international campaigns in defence of the nation state. He has tirelessly campaigned against the centralising and unaccountable EU bureaucracy; articulating instead the alternative case for a Europe of independent and co-operating nation states as the most effective means to impose social control on private capital and multinational corporations.

Most notable, perhaps, has been Tony’s prominent role in decisive legal actions at the highest courts in defence of Irish constitutional rights, and his leadership in campaigns against the imposition of a succession of EU treaties into Irish law. Even as we editors and the essayists combined to fashion this festschrift, Tony continues in the vanguard of the Brexit and Irexit debates and developments, and has actively engaged with the State’s Citizens’ Assembly on the question of how referenda can best be conducted in a democratic manner.

Festschrifts (from German, Fest ‘celebration’ + Schrift ‘writing’; and published during or soon after the lifetime of the honoree) are not very well known in Ireland, and have heretofore been largely confined to outstanding writers and poets, and men and women working in academia. Among them have been collections in honour of Samuel Beckett (1967), and John Hewitt (1985), but within the last decade the festschrift for labour historians Elizabeth and John Boyle (2008), with its strong connections to the Irish Labour History Society, has extended the boundaries. Similarly, in the Irish language, while publications here also tend to be for academic notables such as the English-Irish lexicographer, Tomás Mac Donnchadha de Bhaldraithe (1986), the boundaries have recently been extended by the féilscribhinn for the late Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (1949-2011) the professor of Irish folklore at UCD, who also became a well-known broadcaster on radio and television. Accordingly, this present festschrift for Tony Coughlan, whose academic career has been accompanied and complemented by his broad public involvement in society, may well break new ground.

A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association demonstration in England in the 1960s
A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association demonstration in England in the 1960s
A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Assiociation protest in London
A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Assiociation protest in London

The essays
The festschrift comprises a set of 18 essays, divided into four parts, the first of which we have entitled Assessing Anthony Coughlan. This part has three personal observations that are addressed directly to Tony’s life and times. As befits our only non-Irish born contributor, the essay by the former Danish MEP, Jens-Peter Bonde, takes pride of place as our opening essay. Jens-Peter and Tony’s relationship spans nigh on five decades as they co-operated on the basis of their mutual commitment to the supremacy of national parliamentary democracies, and their similar struggles against the transformation of the European Communities into a European Union. When we editors invited Jens-Peter and all other contributors to submit, we made plain that we were not seeking articles of hagiography. In the event, the Dane states that their co-operation did not ‘require unanimity in all questions’, and he does not hesitate to identify where and when ‘the Tony-road’ does not accord with his own thinking and strategies.

Similarly, the senior journalist, Deaglán de Bréadún, states that he is ‘more comfortable with Tony’s views on Northern Ireland than on the EU.’ Yet he is adamant that he accords with the principle ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ to support Tony’s right to make his case, and have it heard. Indeed, Deaglán concludes that in such a sense Tony can be considered as ‘something of a national treasure.’

In his aptly entitled ‘360-degree examination’ of Tony’s vision for Ireland, Ray Kinsella deploys all his skills as a prominent economist, scholar and Christian activist to value-check Tony’s lifeworks against the roots and principles of classical republicanism, from its birth in ancient Greece through to its application in Irish contexts by Wolfe Tone and James Connolly. He also drills a deep artesian well into Tony’s written work on the future of the EU, and more recently on Brexit and Irexit. Prof Kinsella adjudges that what springs from the well does not contain: ‘any hint of xenophobia or an overly inward-looking or narrow view of national sovereignty’; and that Tony has pursued his vision, ‘with great integrity in season and out of season’.

Constitutional imperatives
The second part has three essays, which are authored in turn by two barristers and a public representative. They were, at different times, closely involved in vital Irish constitutional challenges that were also of deep concern to Tony. In 1995 Patricia McKenna, while campaigning in support of the constitutional change to lift the ban on divorce, successfully challenged in the Supreme Court of Ireland the government’s use of state funds to exclusively promote and fund the Yes side of the referendum debate. Her brave action against the political elite in the highest courts in the land resulted in the establishment of the Referendum Commission, which is charged with the responsibility to provide the electorate in subsequent referenda with fair and impartial information. In her essay here, Patricia lifts the lid on ongoing reactions to the McKenna principles from powerful forces in the fields of politics and pro-EU vested interests.

Séamas Ó Tuathail was a junior member of the legal team that acted for Raymond Crotty during the momentous victory at the Supreme Court in 1987, which ruled that ratification of the Single European Act by the State required the approval of the Irish people by means of a referendum. In this way the group-think attempt of Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, Tánaiste Dick Spring, both houses of the Oireachtas, and President Patrick Hillery to transfer significant areas of economic and legal powers – and independent formulation of foreign policy – from the sovereign Irish State to the then EEC, was thwarted. Séamas’s essay provides an insider’s account of the proceedings before the court, and is an overdue salute to the late Raymond Crotty (1925-94), whose courageous action ensured that all subsequent treaties to transfer powers to EU institutions would be submitted for popular approval to the Irish electorate.

In 2012, in the midst of the financial crisis, Deputy Thomas Pringle became concerned that the European Stability Mechanism, which was enacted by an intergovernmental treaty agreed by EU heads of states or government, would transfer significant control from Ireland of its financial affairs to the EU. He held that a referendum was required to pass the treaty as had been established by the Crotty ruling. His challenge in the High Court of Ireland and on to the Supreme Court led to a referral of three cogent questions concerning the treaty to the European Court of Justice for its consideration. At first, Thomas ‘naively’ looked forward to a positive outcome and his article here sets out the details of what transpired in Luxembourg. Suffice to say at this point that his conclusions are rather downbeat, as is his observation on the willingness of many of his fellow members in Dáil Éireann to ‘cow down’ before those in command.

The European Union: perspectives and alternatives
Part three, whose four authors bring their respective philosophical, political, economics skills to bear on an institution that has been the focus of so much of Tony’s lifework, the EU, has the distinction of containing an essay on the twin topics of the nation state and the right to self-determination, and is written in Irish by Mícheál Mac Aonghusa. For Irish readers it promises to be a boon for their reading opportunities to have presented here a discourse on topics (to cite but a few) such as differences between the nation and the state, the relationship between nationhood and language, and an historical discussion on the component parts and symbols of the multinational Great Britain and the former Yugoslavia. For those of us with rusty Irish, may we editors assure readers that the effort to dig out the trusty foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla from the back of the bookcase so as to engage with Mícheál’s ‘aiste den chéad scoth’, will be memorably rewarded.

Finbar Cullen’s philosophical perspectives on the EU as set out in his commanding essay, can positively be considered in the same words that he uses in it to describe what Marxism can provide in terms of making sense of human action and society: ‘rich and complex’. His themes include: centrality of production; nationalism, war and state interests within the EU, the ‘optimum’ level of subsistence capitalism might afford workers; and comparisons between social relations in republican-inspired societies versus those which Marxist societies could offer.

Tommy McKearney’s essay is concerned with laying the foundations for an Irish socialist republic. He marshals his evidence and arguments on: necessary material conditions; obstacles to be overcome; dangers posed by military and finance imperialism; slavish adherence to the EU; the promotion of fraternal and equal relations between countries, and the necessity for the Irish working class to take state power. Tommy tellingly concludes on the importance for progressive opposition to the EU to counter that offered by the extreme right.

Eoghan O’Neill’s essay is an evidence-based and eloquence reminder that Ireland’s odious and permanent indebtedness, arising from EU-imposed bailouts during the financial crisis, continues to drag like a millstone around the necks of the people. His deployment of statistics from authoritative sources, both state and labour movement, and presentation of tables and graphs combine to present a convincing picture of the extent to which billions were paid out of national coffers and to which Ireland’s economy will be burdened for decades to come. Eoghan charts a way forward: steer a radical and revolutionary path in the interests of the majority of citizens.

Writing Irish and British history and social policy
Our book’s fourth and final part, with its eight essays, is its largest. With the exception of Micheál Mac Gréil’s submission on prejudice, it comprises works of history. This is a branch of academic endeavour for which Tony’s great mentor, the English historian and activist Desmond Greaves, is now best remembered – especially his towering biography: The Life and Times of James Connolly. Indeed, a familiar Greavesian leitmotif can be detected throughout many of the essays, that of challenging historical revisionism. This is typified by Eddie Cowman’s recollection in his essay of the English historian’s succinct castigation of Irish revisionism: ‘anti-national brainwashing’.

It is in this vein that Owen Bennett’s contribution offers a powerful corrective exposition to the principal negative reactions to Sinn Féin’s role in the peace process, from around the time of the Good Friday Agreement up to the present day. Owen persuasively argues that the British establishment, Northern unionism, leadership of Dáil Éireann parties (with honourable exceptions), and the Irish print media have twisted and shifted their various positions from initial attempts to wreck the process to more recent attempts to claim ownership of it.

Michael Carty’s compelling essay, drawn from contemporary sources, on Tony’s involvement in the Connolly Association in England during 1958-61, and Ruan O’Donnell’s scholarly and complementary outline account of the association’s history from its foundation in 1938 up to the early 1970s, together represent an invaluable body of work towards a long overdue monograph on the oldest Irish campaigning organisation in Britain. Such a monograph would, as Ruan puts it, ‘comprise a valuable contribution to the bibliography of modern Irish and British political history.’

Likewise, Eddie Cowman’s essay is a welcome introductory history of another enduring institution that is close to Tony’s heart: the Desmond Greaves Annual School. Based upon his set of original brochures for the various schools, Eddie (a founding committee member) recounts the context and inspiration for launching the school, discusses its attendances and venues, introduces its four successive directors, and supplies a significant flavour of the themes, topics and speakers that went into making attendance at the annual schools an essential part of the late summer routine for so many people on the republican left in Ireland.

Micheál Mac Gréil’s contribution is a work of social policy which looks at the nature of social prejudice in Ireland towards social minorities and collectivities. He reports on and compares some of the findings of three major pieces of research that he conducted in 1972-3, 1988-9 and 2007-8. Such is the effectiveness and clarity of his methodology and writing, use of tables, and presentation of findings, that we editors can safely say Micheál has succeeded in shining a lighthouse beam on social prejudice in this country.

Kevin McCorry’s study records that when NICRA was founded in 1967, ‘all shades of Northern political opinion’ were represented on its first executive committee, and that its focus was to be on British rights for British citizens. This development was the application of the Desmond Greaves inspired approach (Priscilla Metscher describes Greaves as: ‘the intellectual progenitor of the civil rights movement’) to bring mass political protest to bear on Stormont. Kevin’s account reveals the effectiveness of NICRA’s approach on the ground throughout Northern Ireland in the 1967-9 period, which exposed and undermined unionism’s heretofore unassailable and sectarian power at Stormont. The chorus from Ulsterman Seamus Heaney’s verse adaptation of Sophocles’s play Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy, matches an essence of those two years:

History says, ‘Don’t hope
On this side of the grave’.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Alas, the hopes of that brief time were soon caused to fall out of rhyme, as Kevin’s astute essay all so well exposes.

Priscilla Metscher’s study represents a tour de force on Desmond Greaves’s work on Ireland, putting all his historical subjects into context, but concentrating on the biographies of Connolly and Mellows because, as she puts it: ‘they underline his expertise as a Marxist labour historian.’ While the Connolly book is the better known and received of the two, Priscilla reveals that Greaves regarded his Mellows biography to be of greater maturity. She provides an intriguing quote from the Englishman that may well have an even greater relevance today than when he uttered it. He stated (in part): ‘...the Mellows book was nationalism. And that is dangerous and unwelcome to the powers-that-be in the era of transnational capital and the Common Market’. No serious student in this area of twentieth-century Irish historiography can afford to miss out on Metscher’s work.

If we gave pride of first place to Jens-Peter Bonde in the ordering of our contributors’ essays, we may be forgiven for saying that we have kept a fine wine indeed for the last. In his erudite analysis across the sweep of nineteenth and twentieth-century socio-economic and political Irish history, Eoin Ó Murchú has brought all his experience and skill as an editor, journalist and commentator to address the complexities and vexed choices that successive Irish nationalist leaderships took at various stages of the period – right up to the present day. Towards the end of his powerful, yet nuanced and generous paper, Eoin poses three searching questions regarding Brexit and Irexit: ‘Will we then cling to an EU that will cut us off from British markets, or seek to go back under the wing of Mother England? Or will we look back at our history and recognise that real independence has yet to be tried?’
A Festschrift for Anthony Coughlan is published by Iontas Press, at €34. It is reviewed in The Irish Times tomorrow by Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West and author of Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism. Anthony Coughlan and colleagues will host the 30th Desmond Greaves Summer School on September 7th-9th in the Ireland Institute in Pearse Street, Dublin – the annual weekend of political thought and discussion that on this occasion will focus on four themes: Irexit, is it a realistic possibility?; 1918: a decisive year for Ireland; the Connolly Association, 1938-2018; and the Left and the European Union

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