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

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.

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.”

In 1969, when President Éamon de Valera marked the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil with an address to the Houses of the Oireachtas at the Mansion House, Joseph Clarke, a veteran republican who had fought in 1916, was present.

De Valera had barely commenced when Clarke, leaning on his crutches, interjected the following: “The programme of the old Dáil has never been implemented! This is a mockery! There are people on hunger strike in Mountjoy. The housing of the people . . .”

Clarke could not finish his protest, as the ushers pounced on him, took his crutches and moved him outside, where they gave him back his crutches and sent him on his way. Ironically, Clarke had served as an usher at the meeting of the first Dáil, in 1919.

The people did, however, get the final decision on whether to endorse the 1937 Constitution. The Constitution asserted the Irish nation’s “inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions

It was designed to reflect the values that had been developed over 15 years of Irish independence and built on the 1922 constitution with some significant additions, including the principle of judicial review of legislation and extended sections on fundamental rights.

On the whole it has been more praised than damned. It was put to a vote of the people with no guarantee of success; the electorate voted in favour by the narrow margin of 685,000 to 527,000.

Twenty years later a White Paper derived from the proposals for economic development made by TK Whitaker, the secretary of the Department of Finance, was published as Programme for Economic Expansion, with an emphasis on free trade, export-oriented expansion and investment in public capital budgets.

This was an unusual departure in that it was published under Whitaker’s name; until then, though instrumental in the formulation of policy and authorship of proposals, civil servants had been largely anonymous.

Whitaker had been adamant about the need for his department to become creative and assume a leadership role and later explained how he and others felt an onus to effectively chart a new mission statement for the economy: “A number of us felt that things were going so badly wrong – that there was so much despondency and despair around – that we ought to try and do something positive . . . We were a young generation, a new generation of Irish well-trained, well-educated people, and we were at the heart of things in the public service, and there was a certain responsibility on us to do anything we could to pull ourselves out of the rut we were in.”

This report was not something that the electorate was consulted about, but many certainly felt the benefits in the form of reduced unemployment and emigration and increased spending power.

In discussing its genesis and content, Whitaker often referred to “the people”, the despair they felt about the economy and parents’ hopes that a way could be found to ensure their children did not have to emigrate.

In the years since then there have been other documents elaborating on Irish “values” that have involved some form of consultation. When presenting Challenges and Opportunities Abroad, a White Paper on foreign policy in 1996, for example – the first such comprehensive document in the history of the State – Dick Spring, as minister for foreign affairs, referred to written submissions from the public and the holding of a series of public seminars on foreign-policy themes during its preparation and said: “Irish foreign policy is about much more than self-interest. The elaboration of our foreign policy is also a matter of self-definition – simply put, it is for many of us a statement of the kind of people we are. Foremost among the values set out in the White Paper are those which are contained in article 29 of the Constitution. Irish people are committed to those principles: the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation among nations founded on international justice and morality.”

A more recent “mission statement” was presented as a reaction to economic expansion: the National Spatial Strategy 2002-20, which promised a new approach to planning and a more coherent use of spaces “to make Ireland’s economy stronger, our environment better and people’s lives easier . . . The pace of development in Ireland over the last decade has been remarkable. But progress has been uneven.”

The government made much of the fact that the strategy had been assisted by “wide public consultation”, and it was presented under the subtitle “People, Places and Potential”.

Whether, aside from the example of the Constitution, people have felt they have made a genuine contribution to Irish “mission statements”, or what were, after their presentation, regarded as statements of Irish aspiration, is open to question, as this is such a strongly centralised state with little consultation between the State and citizens outside of elections or referendums and what many would regard as tokenistic consultation processes.

The crisis of the past five years has generated much focus on what is wrong with Ireland. Given the gravity of what has happened, it might be worth considering whether some new form of statement of societal aspirations is needed in addition to presidential reflections.

Articulating a vision for a new or reimagined Republic of Ireland would surely need to address the point made by the historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh in 2007, but which still resonates strongly today: “What is striking is the almost total absence of any clearly articulated or elaborated coherent social vision by political leaders in recent decades . . . The general run of statements of social policy have rarely ventured too far from the safe zone of economic managerialism which has become the general zone of political discourse . . . The failure to articulate, still less to systematically take steps to achieving a coherent and persuasive vision of social solidarity, based on a set of values and principles that would enjoy wide public endorsement, has resulted in a series of confused, inconsistent or contradictory strategies being announced and pursued . . . an incoherence which continues to cause widespread frustration, confusion, disappointment and anger among different sections of the community.”

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin

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