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


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.

The flaws within our governmental structures are well rehearsed. But it is worth noting that the weakness of our legislative branch most likely contributed to deficiencies in law mentioned above.

One of the points of contention between Adams and his French correspondents was the power that the American constitution left to the states. The French republic is a more centralised one and, emerging from a feudal state, the republicans saw this as an important feature, cancelling the regional and national powers of the aristocracy and the Church.

The milieu from which the American republic emerged was very different. It was marked by a vigorous civil society with vibrant local government structures that emerged from the bottom up according to local needs. Subsidiarity, devolution of power to the lowest appropriate level, was valued as a check on the power of the federal government but also as a means by which large numbers of citizens could partake in government activities. There was a value placed on the idea of progression through the ranks of the various offices and assemblies of state, learning the art of government as one went.

Any republican reforms in Ireland will have to include radical changes to our local government structures, with real power, including power to raise certain taxes, given to local and regional bodies. These will have to be accompanied by measures to make the executives of local authorities properly accountable and bring the budget under the control of the elected members and the people through local plebiscites.

If people in a particular region want to spend more on education or retain a hospital then they should have the power to raise taxes for that purpose. A structure of properly accountable government that stretches through different levels from town halls to the national parliament (and beyond to Europe) would provide a training and proving ground for our elected representatives.

A myth has grown up here that Ireland is vastly overrepresented.

Reluctant to speak of duties
In fact, in terms of local government, we have one of the lowest ratios of representatives to population in Europe and are well below the average. The key difference here is that our local authorities have far less power than is the norm in other European states.

Crucial to most of the above is the key ingredient of a republic: the active citizen. Our culture has become curiously reluctant to speak of duties, beyond those imposed by law. Yet a republic requires a vibrant civil society and the exercise of civic virtue by its citizens.

Citizenship must extend beyond merely voting and paying taxes. We have a duty to inform ourselves of the business of State and society and then to vote accordingly, not rewarding corruption and incompetence at the ballot box. To protect against government abuses, high levels of civic engagement are necessary.

It is said that GK Chesterton responded to an inquiry from the Times asking “what is wrong with the world?” with a simple “I am.” Political reform could, in all humility, take that as its starting point.

Alan Hynes works as a political assistant in Dáil Éireann.

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