New civic republicanism is useful in relation to EU


WORLD VIEW/Paul Gillespie: 'Res publica res populi - the republic is the people's affair," wrote Cicero in the second century AD, summarising an abiding republican tradition in political thought and action.

It starts in classical Greece with Aristotle and continues through Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau, Madison, Tom Paine, Wolfe Tone, de Tocqueville as well as many more liberal and socialist writers in the last 200 years.

There is a significant revival of republican thinking throughout the world after the end of the Cold War, and in Ireland after the Belfast Agreement.

There is a need to find ways of making public affairs more democratically accountable beyond the nation-states which are no longer capable of delivering fully on that objective in a globalising world. Republican thinking has been applied fruitfully in this sphere.

It is worth reflecting upon this new civic republicanism as Ireland goes to the polls again in a second referendum on the Nice Treaty. In doing so it is necessary to think beyond some of the inherited Irish assumptions on the subject, including the narrowly anti-British, anti-monarchist ones and the violent methods associated with the Northern troubles.

Provisional Sinn Féin does not own Irish republicanism any more than Fianna Fáil does. We could all benefit from a renewal of these traditions, drawing on our own rich historical experience as well as the wider international ones.

The proper relationship of republicanism to nationalism bears scrutiny in this re-examination. So does the prospect of applying republican insights to constitutional innovation in the EU's developing political system.

Indeed within Sinn Féin's rhetoric there is often a striking contrast between their traditional republican attitudes to sovereignty, which stress its inviolability, and the experimental approach to sharing sovereignty exemplified by the Belfast Agreement, which they have committed themselves to make work.

On European integration they share more with the Tory Eurosceptics than with most of the Republic's major political parties.

One of the principal organisations on the Yes side, the Irish Alliance for Europe, says the Nice Treaty is "too important to be left to the politicians".

They say the main reason they are here is because of the politicians' failure to communicate with citizens concerning the issues at stake.

This time the political parties are more actively involved on the Yes side. There is a similar mobilisation of organisations from civil society on the No side, working together now with an impressive grouping of left-wing TDs in the Alliance against Nice.

It will be interesting to see whether this increased activity makes a real difference to citizens' awareness and engagement with European affairs as a result of the campaign.

One of the main findings of research on last year's referendum (in which the No side won by 54 to 46 per cent on a low turnout of 35 per cent of the electorate) was the high level of dissatisfaction with the nature of EU decision-making and unhappiness about the level of public knowledge about the issues involved.

That is grist to the mill of republican thinking. It puts active and informed citizenship, civic virtue, participation in public affairs and accountability at the centre of political affairs. It stresses social and political interdependence.

And it puts special emphasis on the development and maintenance of a deliberative public sphere capable of sustaining such engagement through lively media and political institutions.

Such values are mocked by the low levels of public awareness, knowledge and interest revealed in recent surveys of EU issues among the Irish electorate.

It may well be that the underlying alienation coming through them applies more generally to the political system as a whole.

Other surveys show roughly one-third of the electorate expressing a keen interest in political affairs, one-third expressing relative indifference and one-third with no interest at all. That makes it easier to understand declining turnout in general elections, and in such "second order" contests as referendums, European Parliament and local government elections.

But perhaps such growing indifference on the part of many citizens is a rational response to several major trends in Irish public life which tend to remove public affairs from democratic accountability?

The first might be described as a combination of neo-liberalism and corporatism.

This is a distinctive Irish approach which narrows political choices to those thrown up by market requirements and uses social partnership to deliver the resulting consensus outcome. In doing so it tends to impoverish citizen involvement and democratic accountability.

This is justified theoretically with reference to a pessimistic view of democracy. It accepts the tripartite level of public interest found in those surveys; the priority of representation over participation; constitutional protection of rights from political interference; and the inevitability of dominance by elites.

Republicans would reject the idea that liberty is best protected from politics. They would argue rather that it is a consequence of self-government - meaning many more points of access should be opened up for citizens to government and public affairs.

The logics of politics and markets, the public and private spheres, differ markedly, as we see in Ireland with traffic congestion and housing.

The second major trend is cultural, involving a celebration of consumerist spectacle, commodities and entertainment values which elevate the private over the public spheres of social critique and political deliberation.

The consequences for media include diluting political engagement, thereby depriving citizens of context and potential alternatives. Republicans would argue the case for maintaining media's critical edge.

Because they ground their politics on interconnectedness and multiple identities rather than cultural homogeneity republicans are better placed to respond to the third such trend, the Europeanisation of public policy-making.

That requires putting more politics into the EU system by increasing political accountability at home, electing the Commission president directly or indirectly, and encouraging the development of more effective parties, interest groups and a transnational public sphere capable of deliberating change.

This agenda is developing in Europe, and the campaign may help to publicise that fact. Such a renewal of politics could be one positive outcome from the referendum process.