Building a public consensus for a new vision of Republic is vital
We are a people in search of an appropriate public philosophy
“Building a public consensus for a new vision of our future is vital: a vision which commands widespread agreement is necessary to provide a beacon for our collective endeavour.” File photograph: iStockPhoto
Recent calls for a “Republic Day” have been given additional force by events in Derry and Dublin where our ambiguity about “republicanism” has come back to haunt us. Ireland formally became a Republic in 1949 moving from a “dictionary” republic under the 1937 Constitution.
However, we have never fully embraced what it means to be a Republic: we are a people in search of an appropriate public philosophy to underpin our formal status. It is time to reclaim “republicanism” from sectarian terrorist movements by articulating as our public philosophy civic republicanism. A “Republic Day” is one means in such a process but much more is required.
Building a public consensus for a new vision of our future is vital: a vision which commands widespread agreement is necessary to provide a beacon for our collective endeavour. A vision, if well-articulated and celebrated in the public sphere, will communicate to people where, as a political community, we are going - a sense of purpose and destiny is a key component of a healthy society. A vision will frame the agreed norms and values which are essential to govern our political and social behaviour as we meet the challenges of the future. Without such a vision we cannot flourish as a society.
The 'common good' does not just happen – it requires the co-operative efforts of citizens to create and sustain it
However, we also need to be realistic and aware of the difficulties of scripting a comprehensive vision for Irish society when so many people are disillusioned, disenchanted and disengaged from the public sphere.
Centralisation, corporatism, clientelism, and corruption have greatly eroded citizenship in Ireland. We must not allow terrorist forces to exploit those who now feel excluded: we must inspire and engage especially those who feel dispossessed. We should never underestimate the power of an exciting and alternative public narrative and of an inspiring vision of an expansive future to kindle active citizenship in Ireland.
Civic republicanism is based upon political wisdom about human flourishing compellingly expressed in classical political thought as well as in the more recent and remarkable revival of civic republican theory. It is based, in addition, upon a growing volume of empirical evidence about the conditions which promote human well-being.
We need the rigour of a coherent and systematic political philosophy to govern our vision. We need to base our actions upon empirical evidence as to what makes for “flourishing” societies rather than upon the current eclectic mix of consumerist aspirations.
The key concepts in civic republicanism are freedom, equality and solidarity. Each of these concepts requires to be expressed clearly and to be widely understood by citizens. Civic republican freedom is understood as freedom from domination in a society which places the common good at the centre of all public life.
This definition contrasts sharply with the liberal idea of freedom defined as freedom from interference by the State or by others. Critical policy and practical implications arise from whichever definition of freedom we adopt: to take just one pertinent example freedom from interference is perfectly compatible with our “two-tier” health system whereas freedom as non-domination is not: a single tier universal health system is a sine qua non in a genuinely republican society as it positively eliminates the dominance of wealth in determining access by citizens to medical care. Civic republicans down the centuries have designed public institutions to empower citizens to exercise collective direction over their lives and destiny. Such institutions prevent domination by external or internal interests and are equipped to counter corrupt interests which undermine the common good. The “common good” is a crucial concept in civic republican thought: it consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people.
The “common good” does not just happen – it requires the co-operative efforts of citizens to create and sustain it. The clarity of our vision of the new Civic Republic depends upon clarity about the specifically civic republican definitions of freedom, equality, and solidarity.
The challenge is to freshly articulate civic republicanism as the most relevant and apposite public philosophy as our State approaches the centenary of independence in 2022. To build a consensus will require a network of civic forums to define and share a civic republican vision. The successes of the experiments with the Citizens Assembly and other forums at national level such as the all-island Civic Dialogue on Brexit should motivate us to take the methodology to local and county level. Deliberative public engagement, when well resourced, has proved its worth both in Ireland and Scotland. In addition, we have the enthusiastic responses at local level to the decade of centenaries to build upon in developing new civic forums in conjunction with local authorities and local civil society.
We should aim for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to quote Abraham Lincoln.
Representative democracy urgently needs to be enriched by participative democracy and we need to invest in this process. The new Civic Republic of Ireland will, I believe, stand for a great and generous experiment in human wellbeing and happiness. It will be founded upon an educated and intellectually vibrant citizenry imbued with the civic virtues and dedicated to the common good. It will develop a society where every person will be enabled to exercise the whole range of their human capacities and live rewarding and fulfilling lives as part of an energetic and humane political community.
Dr Fergus O’Ferrall is a member of The Irish Times Trust and an author and historian