Reclaiming the unwritten code of our duties as citizens


Fintan O'Toole suggested recently that the key slogan for the proposed new political party in Ireland should be "Reclaim the Republic" (New Party Must Be National or Nothing, The Irish Times, July 8th, 2000).

O'Toole observes perceptively: "What ties together opposition to corruption and concern for social justice and the environment is a desire to live in a real republic where citizens are genuinely of equal value and have equal access to public space".

Living in a real republic will require the exercise of republican citizenship. We must replace "the liberal citizen" by the "republican citizen" if we are to reclaim the republic.

There are at least seven vital elements of republican citizenship which must be developed if we are to replace our impoverished public life with a real republic. These elements are suggested by the recent revival of civic republican political theory. This revival has been inspired by the fact liberal citizens of Western democracies have too often thought the best way to maximise their individual interests is to minimise the demands made upon them.

(i) Republican citizenship is based on a view of human nature which recognises both the social constitution of human beings and the fact we have human motivations other than self-interest. In contrast "the liberal citizen" is generally non-political most of the time and therefore, one might add, inadequately human all of the time. The emphasis on rights must always be accompanied by responsibilities: we must reclaim our interdependence as human beings, and the values of mutuality, of solidarity and of participation in shared and communal action. The "republican citizen" achieves full human development only in shared activity serving others in the public sphere.

(ii) Republican citizenship is based on a clear commitment to "the common good". Republican citizens have a strong sense of social and political obligation to others, to their communities, and to the public interest. In sharp contrast, "the liberal citizen" is neutral about what constitutes "the common good", has no duty to participate actively in politics and no requirement to place the public above the private. We have to learn how to subordinate private interests to "the common good". This may well be the major public lesson of the Flood and Moriarty and tribunals.

(iii) Republican citizenship is centrally concerned with civic liberty. In the words of the epigram by the radical Irish judge and politician John Curran in 1790: "The condition on which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." Republican civic liberty has been described as "freedom as non-domination" (Phillip Pettit in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government). In this understanding of freedom, arbitrary treatment of citizens by the state or by other interests would not be tolerated. Yet how many people experience "arbitrariness" in their lives in modern Ireland? The only way to assert the civic liberty of citizens is through effective citizen participation: the res publica, the things of the public, are the business of all citizens. As Pericles put it in ancient Athens: "We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all."

(iv) Republican citizenship is based on a concept of civil and political life as a "free way of life" which has as its core an ethic of care guided by concern for others. This requires the constant development of civic virtues (examples of which are the capacity to discern and respect the rights of others, willingness to engage in public deliberation, moral courage, law-abidingness, and open-mindedness) to sustain a republican society. In such a society a prime value is to use one's independence and autonomy in the public sphere to serve others and the common good. The liberalism we have so eagerly embraced has eroded the public-mindedness of citizens by emphasising selfish individualism and the consumer values of the market-place. We have almost forgotten what it should mean to live as citizens in a "free state".

(v) Republican citizenship is based upon a broad concept of "the political": it embraces all voluntary activities undertaken in civil society by citizens. All such activities provide opportunities to develop the civic virtues and to live an engaged life of public service. To live fully is to live politically; we can each play an important part in shaping the character of republican society in Ireland.

(vi) Republican citizenship involves an enlarged view of human capacity for living a civil and humane life - one which can accommodate and utilise human struggle and diversity within a conception of public law-making and pubic law-abidingness. In this conception laws are developed by public participation and free consent where there are widely accepted norms in civil life about how differences are resolved in the public interest and for the common good. "Contestability" is as important a feature of republican society as "consent".

(vii) Republican citizenship depends on "the intangible hand" at work in society. This is what Pericles called the "unwritten code" which "cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace". It involves the use of public approval or disapproval and of the benefits of being well-regarded by others to motivate citizens' action. We have relied too much on either the "invisible hand" (based on market concepts) or the "iron hand" (based on statist managerialism) to impose either a free-market society or a statist regime.

Indeed, the Irish Republic has often been an unfortunate blend of both invisible and iron hands. What we ought to have in a republic is a regulatory environment which encourages the intangible hand to flourish and which will support the development of the civic virtues essential if we are to "reclaim the Republic".

Dr Fergus O'Ferrall is director of the Adelaide Hospital Society and author of the recently published Citizenship and Public Service: Voluntary and Statutory Relationships in Irish Healthcare.