Can we build a real republic?


IRISH POLITICS:The contributors to this collection of essays reflect on what went wrong with our political foundation and on how we can remake it, learning from past mistakes

Up the Republic, edited by Fintan O'Toole, Faber and Faber, 240pp, £12.99

One of the themes addressed at the MacGill Summer School in 2010 was the possibility of “building a Republic that reflects the ideals and ambitions of its founders”. This was just one example of the past being invoked as a response to the contemporary economic and sovereignty crises.

It partly reflected nostalgia for a generation deemed noble and full of public purpose and focused on building a new, independent and better state. Many of the generation who fought for independence nearly 100 years ago did indeed carry that genuine idealism, but the talk’s title was also built on a degree of myth, highlighting the danger of assuming that those ideals and ambitions were always clear-cut, progressive and marked by unity of purpose. In truth, as with most revolutions, ideals were compromised and distorted and often forgotten at a very early stage in the Irish revolution of the early 20th century.

To his credit, this book’s editor, Fintan O’Toole, who also provides the lengthy opening essay, and the rest of the contributors are not enveloped in nostalgia for a better past; they are frank and honest about the failures of the Republic over many decades and the contexts relevant to those shortcomings. Nor are they stridently roaring out a hastily drawn-up manifesto for specific change. They also refuse to explain republicanism solely in terms of Ireland and the recent past but instead look at its long-term, international evolution and remind us that the “crisis of public trust” dwelt on in this book is not confined to Ireland.

The combination of contributors and what they represent – journalism (O’Toole and Dearbhail McDonald), political science (Elaine Byrne, Iseult Honahan and Philip Pettit), legal studies (Tom Hickey), social policy (Fred Powell) and poetry (Theo Dorgan) – means that this intense volume roams widely in pursuit of defining a republic.


The Irish Republic, O’Toole reminds us in his provocative, lively and clearly elucidated opening, has fallen between the two stools of a classic republic (a strong state but with divisions of government and citizens respecting the state yet contesting unaccountable power) and Rousseau’s notion of a single, sovereign general will decided by a popular assembly and then obeyed and accepted without contestation: “the Irish Republic has strong elements of both but has never functioned as a coherent expression of either.”

The notion of general will became replaced by the idea of “national interest” and the duty of citizens to be “resilient”, with a parliament that passes already decided legislation rather than initiating it and with no transparency for citizens. Although Irish culture has developed a sense of the “permanence and robustness” of the nation, it has tended to see the Republic and nation as coterminous, as opposed to seeing a republican citizenship that is conscious, active and needs to be watched over with the vigilance of civic virtue.

Iseult Honahan argues that participation in government and the dispersal of power are essential to political reform; that we need to look at what sovereignty means in an interdependent world; and that it would be a mistake to ape other models (such as those of France or the US) as blueprints. Reclaiming power, she contends, requires more extensive probing than what was involved in the We the Citizens project of last year, on which Elaine Byrne, one of its initiators, elaborates in her chapter. Those who participated in the meetings expressed a willingness to be involved in political decision-making, but in relation to the proposed constitutional convention there has been no consultation with the public about topics for discussion, and a third of the seats are reserved for politicians, “which defeats the very notion of deliberative democracy”.

Tom Hickey elaborates on religion and education and the need for balance; he suggests there is little point in replacing “a Gaelic and God-fearing republican citizen” with a republic overly focused on “the autonomous and secular citizen”. Not all religious schools, he argues, are “totalistic”, therefore “the concept of religious schooling is not necessarily in conflict with the civic mission and so cannot be perfunctorily dismissed by republicans.”

Dearbhall McDonald’s examination of the Irish legal world is frank in its criticism of “entrenched judicial conservatism”, reflected in a reluctance to compel government to take steps to protect citizens’ rights. Judges, scandalously, are still political appointees, while access to civil legal aid is “woefully inadequate”. She also argues that not enough attention has been devoted to big questions, “such as under what law was the transfer of resources from generations of Irish citizens to French and German bondholders mandated?”

Fred Powell gives an overview of those who historically have explored the concept of civil society, including Hobbes, Locke and Paine. He too looks at the origins of the crisis of trust and yet, at the same time, the extent to which, still, “social justice is a forbidden language”, as demonstrated by the suppression of the Occupy movement. Austerity, he suggests, “doesn’t seem to have a point – other than an ideological point – all of the escape routes have been closed off by the markets. The crisis has become political paralysis.”

Simplistic responses

Philip Pettit warns that two suggested responses to the crises – downsizing and marginalising government, or the exact reverse – are both simplistic. Market domination, or relying on centralised planning and co-ordination to establish a viable system of credit or a functional market, are both “wholly implausible”; what is needed instead is a regulative regime that can accommodate and nurture both. He suggests the Occupy movements need to give more attention to specialised associations for the interrogation of government policy and focus on institutional design.

At the heart of Theo Dorgan’s question – how do we frame our laws and governance so they are animated by civic passions? – are language and power and the failure to expand both.

He brings us back to the beginning by quoting Michael Hartnett’s 1975 poem A Farewell to English in relation to how, in 1922, during the transition from foreign to native domination, it was never asked what was appropriate for Ireland and how an Irish state could be built on consultation with the people. “We could have from that start made certain of our fate / But we chose to learn the noble art / Of writing forms in triplicate.”

He sees this as a vivid invocation of the state as it was and is encountered by citizens; continuity and not change was the hallmark, as the language of government did not break “with the dead weight of the language of law”.

At the outset of this book, O’Toole poses the essential question: “How to begin again?” This book offers no easy solutions; what is provided instead is a series of philosophical, thoughtful and nuanced reflections on what went wrong and the issues that need to be addressed to confront and learn from mistakes.

Because of the failures dwelt on, much of this book is bleak, but that is simply because the truth hurts. For all there is to lament and regret in a failure to realise a working and fair republic, there is also in the book a dignified and humane intelligence that makes it an original and constructive contribution to the literature of Ireland in crisis.

Fintan O’Toole, the Literary Editor, had no involvement in commissioning or editing this review of his book

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