Gene Kerrigan: ‘Little changed, but it would mean so much’

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Gene Kerrigan: ‘Little changed, but it would mean so much’

The declaration would not change the lives of the citizens – but none of that mattered, writes Gene Kerrigan


Taoiseach John A Costello
Taoiseach John A Costello

In 1916 we took over the GPO and proclaimed the republic. In 1918 we voted for the republic. From 1919 to 1921, we fought a war of independence in the name of the republic.

We took a break for a year or so to have a row amongst ourselves; then we fought a civil war over the failure to put the republic into the treaty we’d signed with the British.

Twenty-six years after that, in 1949, a Fine Gael Taoiseach declared we were finally a republic, and passed legislation to that effect.

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At which point, the Fianna Fail opposition leader claimed that we’d actually been a republic from when he was Taoiseach, in the mid-1930s.

Given all this, we might conclude that this notion we have of ourselves as a republic is and always was a pretty big deal. We might conclude that the republic was very, very important to us.

There’s a problem, though.

While the word “republic” was freely used, there’s no evidence of any great political debate on what the shape and content of the republic might look like.

The urge to simply break free from England is understandable. Ireland was a wholly-owned subsidiary of an arrogant, cruel and careless empire run by inbred aristocrats.

The parents and grandparents of those alive in 1916 had lived through the horrors of the famine, when the government in London had priorities it considered more important than a million people dying of starvation.

The empire’s lord lieutenant in this country, the Earl of Clarendon, said that Ireland “was sacrificed to the London corn dealers”. The government’s chief adviser on statistics, Sir Robert Giffen, noted that Ireland paid the empire £7m a year in taxes, when it, by right, ought to pay only half that.

Quite reasonably, the nationalists wanted the Brits out. The desire for a “republic” was understood mostly as merely a rejection of the empire – and “republic” was just another word for separatism.

And, although the word was flung about loosely, the desire to break with the empire – full stop – remained stronger than the desire to create a particular form of society.

One extraordinary incident illustrates this.

On the first day of the 1916 Rising, in the GPO, Patrick Pearse, Joe Plunkett and Desmond FitzGerald discussed possible outcomes to the rebellion. Pearse and Plunkett were executed – but FitzGerald later wrote about the discussion.

Pearse, he said, was open to the possibility that the Germans would provide Ireland with Prince Joachim, youngest son of the Kaiser, to become our king.

This was shortly after Pearse proclaimed the republic in front of the GPO.

It’s a fairly broad definition of a republic that includes the coronation of a 26-year-old layabout prince.

Two documents give us an idealistic notion of what the leaders of the revolutionary movement meant by the republic.

The Proclamation was ahead of its time, in its notions of fairness and equality, of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”.

Its very deliberate use of “Irishmen and Irishwomen” signalled solidarity with the ideals of the suffragettes.

In a world of monarchies and empires, where voting was a novelty and where trade unions were still struggling for basic rights, this was heady stuff.

The Democratic Programme of the first Dail was likewise idealistic: “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter”.

Again, in a world of free markets and contempt for the losers, this was stirring idealism.

The Proclamation was influenced by the socialism and feminism of James Connolly. The Labour Party he left behind influenced the Democratic Programme.

But these were just documents. However we might admire them, documents mean little unless they are brought to life by a political movement that can win mass support to turn aspirations into concrete social change.

And there was no such movement.

The leaders who survived the revolution were the most conservative. Connolly left behind a Labour Party, but it was already shrinking to its eventual role as a prop for the larger parties.

The civil war was fought over the technical language of the treaty. There was no battle of differing visions – what the argument came down to was: fight on, or take this compromise.

Almost certainly, fighting on would have ended in crushing defeat, reducing even further the British concessions.

From the savagery of the civil war came the two entities that became Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two wings of the same party that have come back together in today’s cartel arrangement, designed to maintain their virtual monopoly of the political field.

The Proclamation became revered and ignored; the Democratic Programme never became the basis for political organising, it remained a mere idealistic wishlist. The idealism of the two documents was lost.

By 1937, the independent part of Ireland had a new Constitution, written by conservative politicians, who had to run each clause past the Catholic hierarchy, for approval. The deep religious emotions of the Catholic people had been leveraged by the hierarchy, to achieve a virtual coalition alongside whichever of the two parties got the most votes at elections.

This form of party-Church governance was never in anyone’s manifesto, but it was the reality of power. If you dared antagonise the bishops they’d denounce you, with devastating consequences at the ballot box.

The feminism reflected in the Proclamation was forgotten. From the Magdalene Laundries to forced retirement from work if they married, women were treated with a contempt not even the inbred aristocrats had dared employ.

The bishops deemed the children of unmarried women to be “illegitimate” and that was the word put into legislation. Since the births weren’t legitimate, such mothers were not true mothers. The children were stolen, imprisoned in “homes”, mistreated – and eventually some were sold off to rich Americans.

The grand phrases of the Proclamation, which lauded equality and fairness, gave way to a pinched, aggressive paternalism. The aim was to shepherd us from birth to death with the minimum amount of sin – and the bishops had a very wide interpretation of sin.

The lack of clarity, from the beginning, about the kind of Ireland we were building in place of the old regime, allowed the Catholic Church and the conservative politicians to define the new Ireland.

Much of the politics of the years after de Valera won the election in 1932 involved tweaking reality to scrape away bits of the old British political infrastructure that survived the change of power.

The fact that we weren’t formally a republic gave the dissident IRA of the day a reason to exist. And it irritated the politicians. We weren’t one thing or the other, and that reminded them of their failure.

When Fine Gael eventually declared the republic, in 1949, it didn’t change anything. The coalition continued between the unelected bishops and one or other of the dominant parties. The first crack in that undeclared but very real system of government came shortly afterwards, when the bishops stopped the Mother and Child scheme.

It was a sensible health reform, first mooted by Fianna Fail, but the bishops feared that State involvement in health would reduce their own control.

When the health minister Noel Browne published the correspondence from the bishops, showing them giving orders to the politicians, the reality of the system of undeclared coalition governance was made clear.

It was the beginning of the end. Eventually, the bishops’ own behaviour undermined their dominance, and that unspoken coalition between the Catholic Church and political parties was broken.

The notion of the republic helped create the revolution against the British. The failure to get the republic mentioned in the Treaty, and the hangover of some of the trappings of British rule, made the lost republic a romantic ideal, for some.

The idealism that propelled some within the revolution died off, and the notion of the republic became just a word.

The declaration in 1949 was ill-planned, provoked by a snub to the Taoiseach of the day – it meant nothing to the lives of the citizens, but none of that mattered. We got to declare yet again that we were a republic.

Sunday Independent

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