A ‘republic’ commonly means a system of government which derives its power from the citizens rather than from another basis such as heredity or divine right. Currently 135 of the world’s 206 sovereign states use the word ‘republic’ as part of their official name. States as different as the Republic of France, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea all officially claim to be a republic.
If a ‘republican’ can be defined as a person who believes in or supports a republican form of government, the Republican Party in the United States is very different from Fianna Fail (‘The Republican Party’) in Ireland. Republicanism is ideologically elusive –the Republic of Plato is not that of Philip Pettit and Irish republicanism is very different from republicanism in France for example.
In Ireland itself republicanism is capable of being claimed in some form by everyone in politics from Fine Gael to Republican Sinn Féin. A leading republican once told me that if you asked the eight members of his cumann what the three cardinal principles of Irish republicanism were, the result would likely be 24 different answers. So what is this republic to which republicans in Ireland claim allegiance to?
Ruairi O’Bradaigh gave a clear and concise answer this question from a traditionalist republican perspective:
In the strict sense, an Irish Republican was one who gave allegiance to the 32-County Republic of Easter 1916 and who denied the right of the British government to rule here. With the establishment of the first Dáil Éireann in 1919 as the Government of that Republic its supporters were Republicans, just as were those who opposed the setting up here of two partition states –Six County and 26-County- in 1921 and 1922. The ‘Treaty’ states …suppressed the All-Ireland Dáil which was the embodiment of the Republic. For the Republican Movement then, a Republican today is one who rejects the Partition Statelets in Ireland and gives his allegiance to and seeks to restore the 32-County Republic of Easter Week. (Ruairi O Bradaigh, Our People Our Future, Dublin : Sinn Fein, 1973, 3)
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic on 24 April 1916 thus is the foundation of the republican position. The Republic is a reality, not an aspiration. The all-island Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 exists as of right, and that right can be "asserted in arms" until an independent government for the whole island is established – all this of course incompatible with the 1998 Belfast Agreement. For Irish republican legitimatism, the Republic proclaimed in 1916 is the sole legitimate political authority on the island of Ireland and republicans will recognise ‘no other law’. Splits and splinters happened once some political actors decided to abandon the high ground of the Republic for the practical acceptance of partitionist institutions, dis-establishing the Republic in order to restore it.
If by ‘republic’ is meant a system of government which derives its power from the citizens rather than from another basis, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on 24 April 1916 raises very difficult issues. Who are ‘the people’ who supposedly guarantee the legitimacy of the Proclamation? As Jacques Derrida pointed out, Declarations of Independence (or Proclamation of the Republic) turn on two questions: “who signs, and with what so-called proper name, the declarative act that founds an institution?” (Jacques Derrida, Signature, Event, Context, Glyph, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977, 172-197)
"Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government". But what authorized the seven signatories? The seven signatories of the Proclamation were at the moment of signing not democratically authorized to play this role. What authority could possibly be claimed by the signatories ? As Jacques Derrida shows, with declarations of independence there is an ‘undecidability’ between the ‘constative’ and the ‘performative’ realms of discourse. Does the Proclamation announce that “the people of Ireland”, - Irishmen and Irishwomen - are freed from British rule and are now, by at least having others sign on their behalf, simply describing their freedom? The signatures of the “Provisional Government” are both descriptive (of an already existing state of affairs) and performative (establishing a state of affairs – ie. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the owneship of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible.”).
There is an indecidibility between the constative and the performative. All this can hold only in the act of the signature. The signatures invent the signer. The representatives sign on behalf of the people, but the people do not exist before the signature. The authority of the people is only conjured through a retroactive affirmation. The subject of the 1916 Proclamation is radically unstable.
What applies to the American Declaration of Independence also applies to the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic :
One can understand this Declaration as a vibrant act of faith, as an hypocrisy indispensable to any political, military, or economic coup de force, etc, or, more simply, more economically, as the deployment of a tautology: in so far as this Declaration has meaning and an effect, there must be a final legitimizing instance. - (Jacques Derrida, Otobiographies : L’Enseignement de Nietzsche et la Politique du Nom Propre, Paris : Galilée, 1984, 9)
And the instance in the 1916 Proclamation is God and of the dead generations from which (Ireland) receives her old tradition of nationhood, - the Most High God Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms. Such is the recourse to a "transcendental signified", a power that underwrites those signatures and gives them the force an authorizing word immune to the vagaries of historical circumstances. Questions of legitimacy are pushed out of sight by the mystique of origins.
Also one must look at the legitimacy of the claim for the notion of "people" by a given political group. The philosopher Alain Badiou has examined the very grammar of the phrases that effectuates this claim. He distinguishes the use of identity-based or national adjective before the word ‘people’ when such use is made in an ‘official’ context and when it is made in the context of a political struggle. In other words, when the very notion of "people" is forbidden to those who claim it as in the case of colonisation for example. What are we to think for example of: In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.?
Badiou thinks that the "people" always refer to a minority, not necessarily in terms of number, but rather in terms of relationships of power:
We need to abandon to their reactionary fate phrases such as ‘People of France’, as well as other expression in which ‘people’ is compromised by an identity. Currently, ‘people of France’ only signifies ‘inert ensemble of those to which the State has given the right to be called French’. We should accept only this word assemblage in the case where an identity is in fact, a political process in progress, such as ‘People of Algeria’ during the French war in Algeria, or ‘People of China’ when this phrase is pronounced from the communist basis of Yenan. In these cases, we notice that ‘People of + national identity’ exists only to violently oppose to another ‘People of + national identity’, the one that carries the colonial army, the one that claims to forbid to the insurgent any right to the word ‘people’, or the reactionary State’s army, the one that desires the extermination of ‘anti-nationalist’ rebels.” (Alain Badiou, Vingt-quatre notes sur les usages du mot peuple, in: Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Buter, Georges Didi-Huberman, Sadri Khiari, Jacques Rancière, Qu’est-ce qu’un peuple ?, Paris : La Fabrique, 2013)
The claim that in the strict sense, an Irish Republican is one who gave allegiance to the 32-County Republic of Easter 1916 can be challenged as a republican position can be derived from an alternative and far more radical source. The 1916 Proclamation was after all the second time an Irish Republic had been declared by the same organisation. On 4 March 1867 the London Times received a Proclamation from the Provisional Government, -“Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.”
The 1867 proclamation had none of the religious and mystical language of the 1916 Proclamation. God, invoked twice in 1916 is entirely absent. Ireland is not invoked as an abstract entity, summoning “her children to her flag”. The 1867 references to the country are concrete: “the soil of Ireland”; “the Irish people”. On the other hand, the 1867 Proclamation does mention certain things absent in 1916: a republican form of government (as against both “oligarchy” and “the curse of Monarchical Government”); economic injustice (“the oppression of labour”); and economic equality (“we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour”).
The 1867 Proclamation resists ideas of either religious or ethnic solidarity as the basis for the Irish Republic. It is explicitly secular. “We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.” And it does not create a simple opposition of “Irish” to “English”. It declares war on “aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields”. On the other hand it claims a common cause with the English working class. “As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms.” (Cfr: Fintan O'Toole, "What Kind of Country is This?" The Irish Times, 3 November 2012) The first Proclamation of 1867 can thus be read as a critique of the Proclamation of 1916 from the left.
It has been difficult to maintain an alternative legitimacy based on the Republic proclaimed in 1916 because the growing acceptance of the identification of the Republic with the 26-County state. It is however a mistake to assume that the 26-County state is a continuation of the Republic that was proclaimed in 1916. The founding act of the 26-County state are two Acts of the Westminster parliament: the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, both of them passed after the majority of the Irish representatives had withdrawn from that parliament. However, in July 1945, in what became known as the ‘Dictionary Republic’ speech, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera argued in the Dáil that the Irish Free State was a republic in everything but name. Claiming that this was obvious on the facts, he observed trenchantly:
The State is what it is, not what I say or think it is. How a particular State is to be classified politically is a matter not to be settled by the ipse dixit of any person but by observation of the State's institutions and an examination of its fundamental laws.…look up any standard book of reference and get .. any definition of a republic or any description of what a republic is and judge whether our State does not possess every characteristic mark by which a republic can be distinguished or recognised. We are a democracy with the ultimate sovereign power resting with the people — a representative democracy with the various organs of State functioning under a written Constitution, with the executive authority controlled by Parliament, with an independent judiciary functioning under the Constitution and the law, and with a Head of State directly elected by the people for a definite term of office. - (quoted in : Ivana Bacik, Is Ireland really a republic? Irish Journal of Public Policy, 1:1, 2009)
In 1948 the Republic of Ireland Act was passed, section 2 of which states: ‘It is hereby declared that the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland’.
On 18 April 1949 the Republic of Ireland was proclaimed a third time in less than a century, this time officially. If the first Proclamation in 1867 can be read as a critique from the left of the 1916 Proclamation, the third Proclamation in 1949 can be read as a critique of it from the right. For Republican traditionalists 'it just did not go far enough, and it confused the All-Ireland Republic of 1916 and 1919 with a 26-County republic.' (50 Years Ago: The Scarecrow of A 26-County Republic, Saoirse, April 1999) Brian O’Higgins, one of the survivors of the first and second Dáil wrote a letter published in The Irish Press on 7 April 1949 entitled Bunting and Bunkum:
It is said that a brisk trade is being done in the sale of bunting to be used on Easter Monday when the 26-Counties government with the approval of the 26-Counties Dáil and presumably the benediction of the 26 Counties President will declare 26 Counties a Republic. The whole business is bunkum pure and simple. The Republic of Ireland was proclaimed in arms on Easter Monday 1916. After an All-Ireland election contest, representatives of the whole country met in Dáil Éireann on January 21, 1919 when the Republic was established in the most solemn manner and its Declaration of Independence sent out to the nations. It has never since been disestablished; the Declaration of Independence has never been revoked… Why set up the scarecrow of a 26 Counties Republic decorated with bunting to make as many people as possible believe that it is what it seems to be?
But political will to restore the Republic proclaimed during Easter week has become weaker and weaker since people of the 26 counties now officially had a republic, ‘dictionary republic’ or not. The difference between the de jure Republic and the de facto republic which has been central to the history of Irish republicanism over the last century has in fact become blurred in the eyes of the majority of the population. In legal terms, the Proclamation of 1916 and the 1919 Declaration of Independence have as much weight as the Dead Sea Scrolls. That said, Senator Ivana Bacik has argued that there are three basic features of the 26 counties system of constitutional governance that make their status as a republic questionable – lack of separation of powers; lack of separation of church and state, and the uneasy fusion of between a theocratic ideology and a liberal-democracy ideology within the state’s bill of rights. (Cfr. Ivana Bacik, Is Ireland really a republic? Irish Journal of Public Policy, 1:1, 2009) Despite the 26 counties state having been declared ‘the Republic of Ireland’ a republican critique if its institutions remains relevant today.
Finally, one must ask what the parameters of the debate are for Irish republicanism. Are they essentially between the 32-County Republic of Easter 1916 and the Republic of Ireland proclaimed in 1949 or more fundamentally about the origin, nature, and exercise of authority and rights ; the polemic between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine ? (see in particular : Bernadette McAliskey, "Opening Up Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man," in: Fiona Dukelow & Orla O’Donovan (eds), Mobilising Classics: Reading Radical Writing in Ireland, Manchester University Press, 2010, pp.8-20) Has the essence of republicanism more to do with the distinction between the de jure and the de facto Republic or does it lie in fundamental questions regarding authority, power, and legitimacy? What connections can be established between what could be called the 'Republic of the Mind' and republics proclaimed? Is the prime allegiance of a republican to the 'Republic of the Mind' or to particular republican institutions?