Some Hard Questions for Serious Republicans

Guest writer Liam O'Ruairc poses a number of serious questions to contemporary republican thought.

There are a number of hard questions republicans should pay more attention to and discuss more thoroughly. The first one is the concept of the nation. For Des Dalton:
The Republican position is based on the premise of the existence of the historic Irish nation. Documents issuing from the Irish College in Louvain, in what is now Belgium, 400 years ago used terms ‘naisiun’ with regard to Ireland and ‘Eireannach’ instead of ‘Gael’ and ‘Gael-Ghael’ in reference to an Irish person. We are not a revolted colony nor as Thomas Davis said ‘a sandbank thrown up by caprice of wind and wave’, but an ancient people. - (Sinn Fein President address university conference, Saoirse, April 2014).

But what is this ‘historic Irish nation’? In Des Dalton’s speech, it appears as a quasi-biological entity. But there is nothing natural about the nation. One has to ask if the nation is a product of nationalism rather than the other way around. Like Irish republicanism is an ‘invented tradition’, the Irish nation is an ‘imagined community’.

Far from being ‘ancient’ it is a product of modernity. It is no accident that the documents from the Irish College in Leuven mentioned by Dalton are the first printed Irish ones; as Benedict Anderson has shown the development of nationalism is dependent upon things like printing. The issue of how many nations there are in Ireland is also a vexed question. On the basis of six different frameworks it is possible to answer that question with anything from zero to three. (Michael Gallagher (1995), How many nations are there in Ireland? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 18 :4, 715-739).

It is interesting to note that in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal of 20 June 1916, Father Michael O’Flanagan (vice-president of Sinn Fein from 1917 and president of the party in 1933-35) wrote :

Geography has worked hard to make one nation out of Ireland; history has worked against it. The island of Ireland and the national unit of Ireland simply do not coincide. In the last analysis the test of nationality is the wish of the people.

O’Flanagan concluded by stating that as Antrim and Down looked to London as "the centre of their patriotic enthusiasm", it would be wrong to compel them to love the rest of Ireland by force.

A tentative republican concept of the nation would be a political community organised around universal values. All cultural and ethnic aspects are subordinate to the political one. It is not based on the so-called rights of an allegedly ‘ancient people’ but on universal values. (Terry Eagleton, Nationalism and the Case of Ireland, New Left Review, Issue 234, March-April 1999). It is no accident that under UN laws of self-determination, the international community has opted to define the ‘self’ entitled to self-determination in terms of a territorial criterion rather than an ethnic or cultural one. 

Which brings us to the second hard question; that of the relation between nation and state. There are currently 195 independent states, 60 dependent areas and 5 disputed territories in the world; but if every nation was to be entitled its own state there would be hundreds more. While the nationalist militant writes about the ‘eternal nation’ the materialist historian only writes about how the idea of the nation can mobilise certain social groups at specific times and how this can in exceptional circumstances lead to the formation of a state. The island of Ireland is divided between two states, but there is nothing that entitles it automatically to one state -Hispaniola, Tierra del Fuego, Borneo, New Guinea and St Martin are also cases of islands under divided sovereignty. Republican Sinn Fein organised a campaign last year on "Derry is an Irish City" – "Derry is as Irish as Cork, Dublin or Belfast". (We must prove ourselves worthy of the historic title deeds of nationality, Saoirse, September 2013).

In a geographical sense Doire is an Irish city, however there is nothing anomalous with Londonderry being constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. The reconcilation of southern Irish nationalist identities with the 26 Counties state rather than a 32 Counties one should also be emphasized. In the early 1960s, Eamon de Valera commented that 'France was France without Alsace and Lorraine, Ireland is Ireland without the north.' (quoted in : John M. Regan (2007), Southern Irish Nationalism as a Historical Problem, The Historical Journal, 50 :1, 218).

Republicans have not paid sufficient attention to the issue of a growing proportion of people seeing the Irish nation as co-extensive with the 26 Counties. In 1988 Danny Morrison declared:

People of the 26 Counties that don’t want the 6 Counties, let us know. If they’re telling us to fuck off, telling us they’re happy with the state they’ve got and fuck 1916, then tell us … If they think the’ve got an Irish nation inside the 26 counties they should build a wall and lock us out. » (quoted in : Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion : Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland, London : Hutchinson Radius, 1989, 206).

 ‘Tell us’ and ‘let us know’ got its answer in 1998 when the people of the 26 counties voted 94.4% in favour of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, partition if not embraced was recognised.  

If 26 counties voters have effectively ‘built a wall’ and ‘locked out’ the six counties, it is also worth noting that the republican struggle in the north was much more a case of "ghetto corporatism" (Henry Patterson, op.cit., 207) and specific northern phenomenon than a national project. In 1989, Danny Morrison was arguing that:

the IRA doesn’t claim to be representing the people in the 26 Counties … the IRA isn’t killing people in the name of the people of Limerick or Dublin.

In 1993 Morrison wrote from prison that 'no one I know in this jail has lifted a gun or planted a bomb in the name of the people of the 26 Counties.' (quoted in : Brian Hanley, Attitudes to the IRA in the Irish Republic since 1969, Irish Historical Studies, 38 :151, May 2013, 455). With re-unification now a low-intensity aspiration in the 6 Counties and the reconciliation of a sufficient proportion of nationalists to its state institutions, partitionist identities have never been stronger. The difference between nation and state has not lead to a legitimacy crisis for state institutions either north or south of the border.  

The third difficult question is that of self-determination. Who has the right to self-determination and what is the legitimate unit for its exercise? (Michael Gallagher (1990) Do Ulster Unionists have a right to self-determination? Irish Political Studies, 5 :1, 11-30) The prevailing interpretation of the principle of self-determination is that it is the right of the majority to establish an independent state within any area administered as a political entity by a colonial power. For republicans, Northern Ireland was an artificially created entity; its genesis was illegitimate not merely because it partitioned the island but because of the particular boundaries drawn. Consequently Northern Ireland’s inclusion within the United Kingdom constitutes a denial of the right to self-determination of the majority within the island. But after the 1998 Belfast Agreement in terms of international law it is no longer possible to argue that London denies the Irish people the right to self-determination:

Both the Irish and British governments have accepted Northern Ireland as the appropriate unit for the exercise of the right of self-determination based on the principle of consent. As the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent referendums firmly established, there will be no change in the legal status of the jurisdiction unless such changes are premised in a majority democratic vote by referendum. In short, the historical claims of alien occupation, or a de facto war of national liberation is likely to be dismissed in the Northern Ireland context. (Fionnuala Ni Aolain, The Politics of Force, Belfast : The Blackstaff Press, 2000, 237)

Post-Belfast Agreement it is difficult to argue in terms of international law that self-determination is denied to the Irish people or that there is still a conflict about it. The problem for republicans is to prove that the 32 counties is the legitimate unit for self-determination. How can the 32 counties be the legitimate unit when the 6 counties is the internationally recognised one? Some say that partition was ‘artificial’ therefore implying that a united Ireland is somehow ‘natural’. But:

There is much to substantiate tbe Irish nationalist claims…that the administrative boundaries of the Irish colonial state constituted the obvious historical (not natural) unit within which the exercise of self-determination should be decided. (Joe Cleary, Literature, Partition and the Nation State, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 34)

How one can move from the historical unit to the legal unit is still to be determined. 

Some serious thinking by republicans is required on the concept of nation, the relation between nation and state, who has the right to self-determination and what is the legitimate unit for its exercise and on what grounds. But above all, how do these issues relate to emancipatory politics and the project of universal liberation and freedom? If they are not connected to something universal, then the national question in Ireland becomes just another border dispute and is no more significant than say the South Tyrol problem or the issue of the Comoros islands. What Edward W. Said said in a Palestinian context also applies to an Irish one:

It struck me as implicit in the Palestinian struggle … that we from the very beginning as a movement said that we were not interested in another separatist nationalism. That’s when I joined the movement. We were not interested in just anothern nationalism, resisting theirs in order to have ours, that we were going to be the mirror image of them … But rather that we are talking about an alternative in which the discriminations made on the basis of race and religion and national origin would be transcended by something that we called liberation. That’s reflected in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That, it seems to me, is the essence of resistance. It’s not stubbornly putting your foot in the door, but opening the window.   (Edward W.Said, The Pen and the Sword : Conversations with David Barsamian, Edinburgh : AK Press, 1994, 165-166)

How to ‘open the window’ should be the first thing on the agenda for Irish republicans today.


  1. Interesting article. Certainly there was greater movement of people centuries ago than we may be conscious of. At the time of the Flight of the Earls 1607 Spain were building Intramuros in Manila, Philippines (begun 1606) which were a stronger, more expansive and a significantly more robust version of Derry's Walls (1613-18). The Spanish were also in the process of conquering Latin America and the Irish Earls turned their back on Ireland after the Nine Years War to seek their fortunes with the Spanish and French Catholic forces. (Today they'd just enter Stormont). Throw into the mix that there was never a unified Irish nation under any single leader up to this time and the idea of nationhood is something of a myth.

    Brehon laws existed but institutions or authority of rule over a unified state never did. Advanced nationalism after the Famine created the idea of a Gaelic Ireland in response to the popularity of Queen Victoria's visit in 1849 when the Famine wasn't even over. This was done in much the same way as Sir Walter Scott 'invented' Scottish national identity incorporating Highland tartan and kilts and bagpipes into the modern notion of a Scots culture.

    Rather than unionists/loyalists retreating into an ever decreasing area in isolation from the rest of the island it might be better in advance to study the likes of Switzerland and Belgium where they seem to have managed different national and religious aspirations very successfully. The idea of loyalist Gaza strip type geographical area in Ireland is a ridiculous notion, but unfortunately something the Unionist 'leadership' are well capable of contemplating.

    Maybe with regard to the size of an area feasible for designation as a nation, this might be relevant to Israel just now; trying to reduce Palestine to almost zero.

  2. Well Tyrone ( the County Council) voted itself out of the 6 Counties in 1922..The Unionists ignored this attempt at self determination..This act alone undermines the 6 County credability.As for the GFA. The people in Ireland were told from a very young age, that Ireland, South Africa and Palestine would never have peace.
    So, it is no surprise that they voted yes. But that cannot be seen as a vote on articles 2 and 3. Or a rejection of same.
    In the Irish Times of 2011 over 56% of the Free State are in favour of a UI.With about 20-odd % don't knows and an even smaller 20-odd % in favour of partition.

    As for articles 2 and 3 The Free State never had any intention of acting on them..So Why is their loss significant?.Oh If the Free State bought some SU-35 Jets from Russia, Some S-300 missiles. some tanks, Bullets, etc..Then Articles 2 and 3 may be significant.
    But the "Irish Army" is a joke outfit in terms of equipment.
    Has the Free State even used soft power with regards articles 2 and 3?
    I don't recall ever reading any attempts at using these at the UN for instance.
    In short I never give much thought to them.
    Where we are now, seems to be where we have been since 1922..The vast majority of Irish people don't seem to favour partition but no one seems to know how to end it.
    That I think sums it up.

  3. A challenging piece that poses a lot of complex questions.
    Not to intentionally single Moriison out, but his name was mentioned several times in the piece!
    Five years after that quote he was complicit in bringing about all that he allegedly found so repugnant.
    Not from a position he would have undoubtedly like to have been in, more a position of ( big Gerry is our true God and there will be no false ones before him.),
    They could worship money and power of course, as the leader had well and truly succumbed to that.
    Nationalism was reduced to a by product and all power was thrown behind this sorry excuse for a state.

  4. Apologies, if my comment was slightly off thread in relation to this piece which presents a lot of question, that as Liam says needs to be given serious consideration.not least, the whole idea that the 'six counties' now enjoys International recognition.
    I wonder, how those who poured the cement over the guns and the cracks in their own principles would answer this Enigma given the fact they profess to be on course for Unification??

  5. A very interesting discussion, but how many will take any note of it.
    U.I. under capitalism will make absolutely no diference to my life, neither will patriotism, or even identifying myself with a 'nation'.
    I find this part of the article of most interest;

    ' A tentative republican concept of the nation would be a political community organised around universal values. All cultural and ethnic aspects are subordinate to the political one. '

    Even at my age I'm still trying to work out what is meant by 'culture'. I enjoy opera and classical music, reading and conversation, to me this is culture. I can enjoy this no matter what my nationality.

  6. @ michael.
    The best definition. I ever saw about culture. Was in a book "Losing Small Wars" About the british in Iraq and Afghanastan.
    In it the author says Culture is the Stories we tell ourselves about Ourselves. And that is it.
    I liked it. i think it says it all. Perhaps the Orange Order could take it on board.

  7. Ozzy says,
    The vast majority of Irish people don't seem to favour partition but no one seems to know how to end it.
    That I think sums it up.
    Of course the vast majority want a UI but not now. Recent polls in the north show that people want a UI in some mythical future, and therein lies the dilemma for republicans. The Dublin establishment don't want to have to police the north, pay for duplicated services, find jobs for all the civil servants or have Paisleyites causing trouble in their wee fiefdom of the Dail. They refused a UI in 40 and 75 and would do so now. If republicans want the 26 to covet the wee 6 then they are going to have to play their part in normalising society by finding agreement on Flags, Parades and the Past as well as help create an economy that pays its own way, otherwise Dublin will continue to look the other way.

  8. I read something tonight which I found unbelievable.
    It was a piece by Jonathan Powell in the financial times, warning that a yes vote in Scotland could upend the Peace Process. Powell states, ' we never go a settlement here, just an acknowledgement to agree, disagree and share power.
    This claim by one of the main protagonists throws up even more questions about this place.

  9. Peter there is agreement on flags.
    It's designated Days. Even in Nationalist areas, where the locals wanted it not flown at all.
    You'll see very few flags in England..So why should you see a Union flag in Ireland 365 days a year.
    Doesn't happen in England.
    As for parades See Derry 75% CNR and the apprentce boys still parade..with consent.
    They talked with the residents, So why can't the OO.??
    The past?
    SF is calling for truth commission.I would support this.As long as the truth comes out about Pat Finucane, The FRU/The MRF. The Glenanne gang Dublin/Monaghan Dublin 1972 etc..etc..etc.
    Are the Brits up to it?
    As for the economy The Tories have singled out the North and the North East of England as areas where they are planning on cutting back the government. We shall see how this develops. And after the Election of 2015.
    I will like to see the walls come down..Doesn't seem likely at present.
    As for the Irish state..Well in 1940 DeValera didn't believe the Brits would carry through..The Brits never asked the Unionists before he made that offer in 1940.
    The irish state is involved in the North in quite a big way already. So taking full control won't be such a big step. Just a few weeks ago the Eu forced the UK to hand over control of the 6 County airspace to Dublin Govt. So in the skies there is one Island.
    The ESB and the Gas network is all-island.
    As are GAA, Rugby, other sports..The Orange Order HQ is in Dublin.
    The biggest airlines flying outta Belfast are Ryanair and Aer Lingus Semi State.
    And Nama is the biggest land owner..The Irish bad bank.

  10. whatever ireland is or isnt now, whatever u want to call it or not call it, whatever a republic or a nation or a non-nation is, this is what ireland is now - a people with no sovereignty and a people with no concept of sovereignty. slaves. who cant fish their waters. are in debt to their and their grandchildrens eyeballs, as paul hill said - for somethin i didnt do - and havent organised against it, whove given all their resources away - for nothin!!! - let shell terrorists beat the fuck out of a community in mayo and destroy livelyhoods and businesses and stand idly by, as they stood idly by when u nordies were getting ur heads kicked in. who watch telly and get pissed more than any other people on earth. then they tell everyone on paddys day they the greatest little people on earth. the problem with ireland is the irish. they lost 400 years ago and were then genocided off the face of the earth for a few hundred years. thats why we are so weak now. we were the testing ground for the worst shower of empire building bastards to roam the earth. the gaels were married to the land. they were a mighty tribe. they were wiped out. by genocidal maniacs. i believe in generations to come people will live like the gaels did because they will have to to survive the damage we have done to the earth air water and it wont be a republic or a nation or a state, it will be a sovereign life for all. the saordonians are there already. its time u stupid bastards followed. brits out.

  11. Ozzy don't get me started on the OO. The difference between the rural and urban brethren is massive, the urban OO is full of basket cases and the rural with god botherers. I'm cool with designated days and would love to see the flags come off the lamp posts too. As for a truth commission, I can't see any agreement possible, there's still so much hurt. But no matter what the south don't want to have to pay for or police the north so there won't be a 32 county state.

  12. Grouch

    Steady on old chap!! Personally I like being able to walk across the road to Dunnes and get me groceries (survival kit) and a few beers in the 24 hr shop opposite my house. Only thing I'm a tad miffed about is the absence of a wee motor car at the door for exploring the county and coastline with the Mrs and the wee dog. All being well that will be sorted shortly.

    Content yourself by looking at all the revolutionary/liberation struggles ever fought and a quick look at who benefitted. Life is too good and too short to stress over that shit. Whoever rules the place will be no different.

    BTW will you be in Galway 8th-9th Oct? If yes, get them in!!

  13. Peter

    the Free State cute hoors are as money mad just like the 'loyal' Unionists. Not a hope in hell will they upset the criminal little apple-cart in Dublin for the wee 6 counties.

    Actually think Unionists can trump SF by putting the tricolour on government buildings along with the Union flag. That's as Irish as most nordies need to feel.

  14. Larry, the tricolour is too associated with the IRA to ever be embraced by unionists, but I would be willing to see the green harp flag fly with the UJ just like Redmond had at his house.

  15. Peter

    I'm at a loss as to why nationalist councils in the wee 6 haven't democratically elected to hoist both up long ago, maybe with the USA rag (sorry flag) in the middle. Both communities could be equally disgusted at the others fleg....PARITY OF ESTEEM and all that!

  16. the saordonians won without ever having to fire a shot. see u soon larry and u can check out saordonia for urself.

  17. Does this whole discussion not fall apart when we take in to account that Ireland was a united geographical unit with a population classed as a unit i.e., Irish, prior to 1916!!!! It was Irish people who built the Titanic, it was Irish people who fought WWI but it was British people who divided her colony - not the Irish people. Once again, we are looking at Ireland through British spectacles!

  18. Does this whole discussion not fall apart when we take in to account that Ireland was a united geographical unit with a population classed as a unit i.e., Irish, prior to 1916!!!! It was Irish people who built the Titanic, it was Irish people who fought WWI but it was British people who divided her colony - not the Irish people. Once again, we are looking at Ireland through British spectacles!