'nationalism' is a word that still signifies all sorts of undifferentiated things, but it serves me quite adequately to identify the mobilizing force that coalesced into resistance against an alien and occupying empire on the part of peoples processing a common history, religion, and language - Edward Said (Champion of Palestinian independence and anti-colonialist)
Today’s seminar has been stimulating as well as challenging, engaging with ideas about the future direction we believe that Ireland should take. I believe that we agree on far more than separates us. However, that is not to say that we can simply ignore certain first principles. I believe that to do so is dishonest and will never provide the basis for meaningful and ultimately fruitful engagement.
I think that we are now in a changed political landscape, I am not naïve enough to believe that Brexit and all the political upheaval and potential economic upheaval that accompanies it will somehow magic a New Ireland into being. But again, we should not be blind to the possibilities that it does present to Irish Republicanism. At a minimum it has shone a spotlight on the illogicality of partition and has begun the first serious discussion about the possibility of a free and united Ireland in over thirty years. In the Éire Nua programme we have something substantial to contribute to that discussion. Indeed, amid this current political upheaval in Anglo-Irish relations between Dublin and London I believe that as traditional Republicans we have a duty also to continue to articulate the aspiration for real All-Ireland democracy.
To begin I would like to establish a couple of first principles. Beginning with parameters and definition. Language is not inconsequential, as all with even a cursory interest in Irish politics or history will readily agree. Even how we refer to Ireland is loaded with meaning. Language frames the entire debate around defining the Irish nation. Over the past twenty years at least there has been an increasing usage of the term “the island” to refer to Ireland. It appears that even to refer to Ireland, or even All-Ireland is simply too much of an acknowledgment that such a thing as the Irish nation exists as a geographic entity, let alone a political or cultural one. During the current Brexit debate I have detected an even further shift, with many within the media and the Leinster House political class referring to the 26-County state as Ireland. Previously even the most died in the wool “Free Stater” would always refer to the “state” never to “the country” when referencing the 26-County state. This was a recognition that Ireland as a nation extended beyond the border. Now the air is laden with references to Ireland and “Northern Ireland”, with the underlying idea being of course that two countries exist on “the island”. This is where the importance of language comes in. Once we accept these labels, we accept the parameters of the debate as set by the partitionist political class. Having done so we abdicate the very idea of Ireland. We have essentially been defeated before we even start, we have conceded the very basis of Irish nationalism let alone Irish republicanism. Once this language enters everyday parlance it soon became a way to think of Ireland and so it goes on.
This no idle academic debate about terminology. This is key to our starting point, our first principles. Because the definition of the Irish nation ipso facto defines the unit of decision making which brings us back to the heart of the matter. Parameters and definition. The importance of the unit of decision making has never been lost on the British government. Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell hammers home this point in his memoir of the so-called “peace process” Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland.
One of Tony Blair’s attributes as a leader was his ability to go back to first principles (…) Tony had zeroed in on the fundamental principle: what was the unit that had the right to self-determination? Was it Northern Ireland (sic), the island of Ireland, or the islands together including Britain? He believed the key point to be that of the consent of the people being ruled, and that meant it had to be the people of Northern Ireland (sic) who should have the say. For the unionists this was of fundamental importance, unlike the issue of decommissioning, which was purely transient because, after all, any group that gave up its weapons could easily acquire new ones. The principle of consent, which had been accepted by the Irish government in progressively stronger terms in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, would be the most difficult concession for Republicans to make.
To quote from the contribution of Sylvie Kleinman of the Department of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin, to a volume entitled “Reinterpreting (Robert) Emmet” with particular reference to Emmet’s mission to France:
A common thread runs through the extensive manuscripts detailing official attitudes in France towards Ireland and the United Irishmen, namely that they were consistently described as representing une nation, un people, which to French perceptions could already claim its place among the nations of the earth.
Documents issuing from the Irish College in Louvain, in what is now Belgium, 400 years ago used terms “náisiún” regarding Ireland and “Éireannach” 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 earth”, but an ancient people.
The British state is in the midst of an existential crisis as a result of Brexit. The fault lines that lie at the heart of the British state have been exposed by the whole debacle. The undemocratic nature of the so-called United Kingdom is exposed for all to see. The narrow jingoistic little England nationalism of the Eton and Oxbridge elite trumps the sovereignty of the people of Ireland, Scotland or Wales. None of this will come as any surprise to Irish Republicans, who have never been under any illusions about the true nature of English government’s relationship with the Irish people. But now it has been laid bare for all to see.
Once more the “Irish Question” has come back to bite the British establishment as they try to square the circle of British occupation of the Six Counties and its consequent denial of the inherent unity and sovereignty of the historic Irish nation. The call, by characters such as Jacob Rees Mogg etc, to protect the integrity of the so-called United Kingdom are breath taking in their lack of historical or political awareness. They do so, sure in the knowledge that their imperialistic bluster will go unchallenged. Where are the voices raised in defence of the territorial and political integrity of the Irish nation? The British Tory elite know only too well that even a basic Irish nationalist position was long ago abandoned by the Irish constitutional nationalist parties on both sides of the British imposed border under the terms of the 1998 Stormont Agreement.
The silence of the constitutional nationalist establishment on even the most basic tenets of Irish nationalism is damning. Not for the first time, it falls to traditional Irish Republicans to articulate the right of the people of Ireland to national independence. Unequivocally we take our stand on the principles of the 1916 Proclamation.
Brexit has also exposed the 1998 Stormont Agreement as an empty shell. It’s promised guarantees of enshrining Irish nationalists’ right to exercise Irish citizenship has been exposed as yet more empty rhetoric. Once more the nationalists of the Six Counties have been abandoned by so-called constitutional nationalism, including the 26-County state. In the Six Counties the Stormont Assembly has fallen into abeyance while the British government abandoned any pretence of neutrality on the issue of their continued occupation of north eastern Ireland by forming an unholy alliance with the DUP. Indeed, in recent weeks the historian Paul Bew, in a paper for the policy think tank Policy Exchange, argues that the incoming British Prime Minister must consistently make the case for the union between the Six Counties and Britain. Professor Bew contends that the preservation of the union should be the “absolute priority” of the next British Prime Minister. Paul Bew, as a key adviser to David Trimble, played a central role in the negotiation of the 1998 Stormont Agreement. That entire “peace process”, which culminated in the 1998 Stormont Agreement was predicated on the notion, as set out in the 1993 Downing St Declaration, that the British Government had: “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” Consequently, Paul Bew’s intervention is not insignificant. His candour and honesty are to be welcomed as it helps further to debunk the myth that the British Government is in any way neutral on the question of the constitutional position of the Six Counties.
Once more history repeats itself, this time as farce, as the British Tory elite cling to power by “playing the Orange card”. However, and again in a repeat of the past, the DUP have discovered already that their Tory “friends” are more than willing to abandon them whenever political expediency dictates. A Boris Johnson administration will have even less scruples in discarding them when they have outlived their usefulness. This has always been the attitude of the British ruling elite to unionism. That is why Irish Republicans have continually pointed to the New Ireland that is provided for in the Éire Nua programme. Here the sovereignty of all sections of the Irish people, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter is enshrined. Those within the broader unionist community are invited to take their rightful place within the Irish nation, here their full participation in the exercise of democratic decision making will not be subject to the whims and caprice of a foreign parliament. A new Ireland can never emerge from either Stormont, Leinster House or Westminster.
In terms of the wider debate around Brexit and the EU, Irish Republicans have always recognised the EU for what it is. A club of former imperial powers whose primary purpose is the consolidation of their economic and political power. It is imperialism in a modern form. Republicans have consistently argued against Ireland’s participation in this project. In Ireland we have experienced both forms of imperialism and still do. In the Six Counties British military occupation represents the old imperialism while in the 26 Counties we have seen the social and economic ravages of the new imperialism of the EU.
The result of the British referendum on Brexit was of course welcomed by Irish Republicans on two levels. Firstly it exposed the inherent fissures that exist within the so-called United Kingdom. From our point of view, it will hopefully hasten its demise. We welcome the increased likelihood of a referendum on Scottish Independence. Secondly it strikes a blow against the EU project and gives encouragement to other progressive forces throughout Europe.
Unfortunately, the British right were allowed to frame the debate, there are of course very progressive arguments to be advanced against the EU, but they were lost in a cacophony of right-wing voices clamouring for position within the British Tory party. We are proud of our record of consistently opposing the construction of a militarised and undemocratic super state in every referendum held in the 26 Counties since 1972. This is the only position Irish Republicans can hold if we are serious about creating an independent Ireland based on the principles of the 1916 Proclamation. Talk of a United Ireland is meaningless, we have had unity under British Rule and indeed under the EU both parts of Ireland were largely under the same EU law. The sovereignty and independence of the Irish people is the goal of Irish Republicanism. There is no point in removing the shackles of British imperialism only to replace them with political and economic imperialism of the EU.
Éire Nua builds from the ground up. It is a model of real participatory democracy. Ensuring that the people are involved in the decision-making process from local or community level, through region and provincial, all the way up to national level. Éire Nua addresses the various partitions that have been inflicted on Ireland. Not simply the north south political partition imposed in 1920/21 but also the social and economic east/west partition that has existed since the foundation of the two partition states. Following the old British colonial model, all political and policymaking was centred in Dublin and ergo was in the main Dublin centred. Decisions on economic development, education, health, social services, the environment and employment were and are being made at a remove from the people most affected.
This has been further exacerbated by the further centralisation of power from Dublin to Brussels. The historian, political activist and biographer of James Connolly, C. Desmond Greaves regarded the nation state as the ‘locus of democracy’ arguing that it was only within national communities that people could exercise democracy in a meaningful way. It was the largest or optimal political unit within which rights of minorities could be protected. In building democracy from the ground up we must not, to paraphrase Parnell, set a boundary to the march of democracy. It is not enough merely to create democracy within nations, we must work for a real democracy between nations. A community of free nations as envisaged by Connolly, with cooperation in fair trade, protection of human rights and the environment. The First Dáil in its Message to the Free Nations of the World set freedom and justice as the “fundamental principles of international law,” and declared Ireland’s unshakable belief in “a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights against the vested privileges of ancient tyrannies.” This should remain as the basis of our internationalism.
Ireland is part of Europe and has been for tens of thousands of years. As Irish Republicans we draw on a political philosophy whose roots lie within the European Enlightenment of the 18th Century. This European culture of music, literature and philosophy predates and transcends the EU. A Europe that, in the words of Charles De Gaulle, stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Far from looking inward we as Irish Republicans are looking outward and into the future. We have a vision of the type of Ireland we wish to create. We believe Éire Nua provides the framework within which such a new Ireland can be constructed by all sections of the Irish people.
We are entering a period of radical change which presents opportunities for those committed to fighting for real political and economic democracy not only within nations but between nations. Let a New and free Ireland take its rightful place within such a community of free nations.
⏭Des Dalton is a long time republican activist.