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The State of Us, Part 4: The ties that bind

Fintan O'Toole: A reimagined republic should define the new Irish identity

Irish people like to think of themselves as very strongly bonded to each other. Eurobarometer polls find that people in Ireland are the most likely in the EU to agree with the basic proposition that people in their own country "have a lot in common": 92 per cent of us believe this as opposed to, say, 59 per cent in France.

This sentiment is strikingly consistent across gender, age and social class differences: 95 per cent of managers agree and 92 per cent of manual workers.

We may take this sense of commonality for granted, but it is a remarkable phenomenon in a country that has a very recent experience of large-scale immigration and that has experienced bitter divisions on emotive questions of religion, morality and identity.

And it is perhaps all the more remarkable if the argument of this series is taken into account. The easiest way to reinforce a sense of common identity is to emphasise sharp distinctions between them and us. But I’ve argued here that this kind of thinking has largely lost its grip in Ireland. Ireland is certainly distinctive but the forms our distinctiveness take are now too complex and ambiguous to function as clear dividing lines.


Indeed, we might say that the most distinctive thing about contemporary Irish identity is precisely its radical openness.

It is characterised by paradoxes: simultaneous emigration and immigration, a nationalism that is post-nationalist, an identity that consists partly in recognising that there is no such thing as a single identity.

So what’s the problem? Ireland is an extreme case of globalisation, and maybe this is just what an extremely globalised identity looks like: multiple, shifting, paradoxical. We seem to be able to live with it and retain that unusually strong sense of having a great deal in common with each other. Is there still a need for a national “story” at all?


There are, however, good reasons to think that there is.

Firstly, globalisation is not itself a stabilising force that enables a sustainable sense of commonality – on the contrary, in its dominant form, it produces ever-greater inequalities that tear societies apart.

Secondly, the resurgence of toxic nationalism in democracies whose elites thought they had long moved beyond all that is a warning against complacency: if there is not a sophisticated and positive national story there will ultimately be a crude and negative one.

Thirdly, whether we like it not Brexit has put national identities back in play. What used to be called in peace process-speak "the totality of relationships on these islands" is up for grabs again. Processes are under way which will take decades to unfold, and in this uncertainty there is every chance that all of the complexity and ambiguity will be swept away and we will revert to the coarse majoritarianism of what Gerry Adams openly calls a "50 per cent + 1" democracy.

The lure of a monolithic “us” has not gone away.

The question, then, is whether there is a notion that, on the one hand, packs enough emotional power to sustain an idea of “us” while, on the other, being capable of containing multiple and fluid identities.

The only one that seems remotely capable of squaring this circle is both familiar and curiously unresolved: the republic.

Extreme violence

Last year’s centenary commemoration was successful, in part because it allowed citizens to reclaim a word that retains great emotional resonance. For too long “republican” in Irish politics meant the opposite of what it ought to mean. It meant extreme violence – it is supposed to mean civility. It meant exclusivity – it is supposed to be a way to create a shared space that transcends difference.

People cannot be free citizens if they are at the mercy of the market for the things without which they cannot lead a dignified life: decent work, healthcare, education, housing

It meant coercion – it is supposed to mean, in the definition of the philosopher Philip Pettit, "non-domination", a system constructed precisely to ensure that no citizen is subjected to the arbitrary will of anyone else, be that bishops, business oligarchs, overweening public authorities or any other self-interested force.

The desire to take the word back suggests a deeper desire: to give it meaning. The difficulty with doing that is twofold.

Firstly, how do you avoid being politically and psychologically dominated by outside forces when you depend as much as Ireland does on a small number of multinational corporations?

It is surely striking that if we were to ask what Ireland's main collective act of self-assertion in the last decade has been, it would be its defiance of the European Commission over the order to collect over €13 billion in back taxes from Apple. The State was remarkably docile when it came to following the commission's lead on the implementation of austerity but it became fiercely defiant when Apple's interests were threatened.

Secondly, a republic needs a state that can deliver at least a basic equality. People cannot be free citizens if they are at the mercy of the market for the things without which they cannot lead a dignified life: decent work, healthcare, education, housing.

Social provision

One of the unpleasant ways in which Ireland is distinctive is that Irish people are far more worried about basic social provision than citizens of other European countries. In the most recent Eurobarometer survey, 50 per cent of Irish respondents cite housing as the most pressing issue – compared to 5 per cent in France and 13 per cent in Germany. Likewise, 38 per cent cite health and social security as the most important concern, compared to 9 per cent in France and 13 per cent in Germany.

The obvious places to start, therefore, are with form and content. How do we do democracy in such a heavily globalised society? And what do we actually want to do with it?

In a final paradox, the State needs to be at once weakened and strengthened.

Weakened in the sense of being radically democratised by being made much more accountable to citizens and having as many of its powers as possible devolved to genuine local democracies. If the sense of place and community is what we identify as “us”, we need to give it real political form. Why shouldn’t Ireland be at the forefront of experiments in local and community democracy?


But the State also needs to be strengthened in two vital ways. It needs to do something it does not do at the moment, even among its social elites, which is to command respect for its laws. It is far too easy, especially for those with power and money, to treat citizenship as a roll-on, roll-off conveyance, useful for its rights but avoidable in its obligations.

And it needs to set clear and achievable goals for itself – and then stick to those goals with rigour and ruthlessness.

In the end if we still want to have an “us” we have to call it into existence through vigorous engagement with ideas about where we want to go. We need a large-scale, structured national conversation in which we decide for ourselves what our republic will look like.

The Republic was proclaimed by summoning its members in the name of the dead generations. It will live only if we summon the living in the name of future generations.

Series concluded.