Opportunity to reclaim the idea of 'republic'


THE PRESIDENTIAL election happens at an important moment in our history. The centenary of the Proclamation of the Republic is approaching, our fiscal sovereignty has been all but lost, and our new Government has committed to the establishment of a constitutional convention.

The election provides the opportunity for us to ask the most fundamental political questions. What does sovereignty mean, and what is its purpose? What does the “Republic”, such as it is, evoke in the minds of citizens? What would it mean to enjoy citizenship of a real republic?

These are the kinds of questions that the great luminaries of our history – Tone and Davis, O’Connell and Davitt, Robinson and Hume – asked themselves and asked of others. In their different ways, they gave meaningful answers and we should expect no less from our political leaders.

There has been a striking deployment of the language of republican idealism in recent weeks. Michael D Higgins has been particularly forthright on the theme, while Gerry Adams invoked republican vernacular ad nauseam in his speech proposing Martin McGuinness. McGuinness himself has spent his political career describing his movement as “republican”.

It is striking, because this rich old philosophy that emerged more than two millennia ago in Rome – and that stirred those who argued so trenchantly for human liberty in 17th-century England and beyond – has been sullied in this country. For many, republicanism is a dirty word, gradually conflated with sectarian nationalism. It became a byword for bigotry, and for the idea that “we”, a particular ethnic group, with a particular religious identity, should be left to ourselves, alone.

The restoration of our Republic is urgent. But we must strike again for an authentic republic, of the kind envisaged by Tone, and in Easter 1916. That restoration process must begin with an appropriate understanding of the idea of “republicanism”.

The idea may be thought to rest on two distinct pillars.

The first is the sanctity of the public space, and of the common, public good. Citizens of an authentic republic are committed to the fact that they share a social and political community with other citizens. They appreciate that their own individual good, and the good of their families and local communities, is intimately connected with the common good of the republic.

Moreover, this common good is not a crude aggregation of competing private goods. It requires meaningful deliberative engagement on the part of all citizens, and participation. But this participation must be based on public-spiritedness, not on ambitions for the advancement of private interests. Republicans abhor the use of public power to promote private or factional gain. This prompts us to reflect on the ways in which we as citizens, and our representatives, exploited the democratic process over the past decade or two.

Participation in the political realm was about pilfering as much of the wedding cake for our own table; it had little or nothing to do with deliberation on the public interest.

The wretched clientelism that continues to bedevil our electoral system should be seen in the same light. The strategy of so many of our political representatives of securing as much gain for their own constituencies as possible, disregarding of the impact of the common good, is a shameful betrayal of these ideals.

The second pillar of republicanism is the idea of equal citizenship, which translates as equal immunity from arbitrary power (domination). Fundamentally, this requires all power in the political community to be checked, so that no individual or institution enjoys the capacity to interfere in the choices of other citizens arbitrarily, or at will.

The more each power-wielder is accountable to others for their decisions, the deeper the liberty enjoyed by the citizenry. (The populist proposal to abolish the Seanad should be considered in this light. It amounts, essentially, to the removal of a check on the power of an already dominant executive branch). Because of the resilient protection of the citizen from arbitrary power, they do not owe their liberty to anyone, in the manner in which the slave of a “kindly master” owes their liberty to their master’s kindness.

The citizen of a republic of laws can walk unafraid. They need not enjoy association with a majority ethnic group, for instance, nor need they have a network of friends in high places, nor subscribe to a particular set of religious beliefs. They do not have to ingratiate themselves with anyone, nor keep any master sweet, to enjoy their liberty.

Republican idealism has as much relevance in modern Ireland – the Ireland of the International Monetary Fund, of the schooling system run by kindly masters, of the electoral system that encourages clientelism and clout – as it did when it moved the likes of Tone and Davis.

If we are to renew our Republic in advance of 2016, we must first restore the idea of republicanism. We must retrieve it from the grip of ethnic tribalism, and rest it again on the pillars of “deliberation on the common good” and “liberty as non-domination”. In the days and weeks ahead, we must challenge the various candidates for the highest office in our Republic, so that we can identify who, if any, among them is a republican in the authentic sense. And who is not.

Tom Hickey is a lecturer at the school of law, NUI Galway. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton in 2009 where he worked with the Ballygar-born republican philosopher Philip Pettit

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