In this country we like being citizens of a republic. It’s what we are used to but, nevertheless, most of us are attracted by the broad egalitarian statement it implies about ourselves.
It’s a nobler state, we as a people generally believe, than that that of a monarchy albeit a constitutional one like they have across the water in Britain. To most the title of citizen is preferable to that of a subject- resonant of bowing and scraping and all that. Yet a huge number of our citizenry here keep a curious even avid eye on royal doings – many without a blink, hesitation or qualification whatsoever refer to ‘The Queen’.
Remember the media scrum when Prince Charles came in our midst to visit friends at Lismore Castle. Of course he was more than welcome and mumsie will be most welcome too as the visiting head of a friendly neighbour- a further sign of the mature modern relationship between our two nations.
But that’s a digression from my main thesis today where I want to linger awhile and talk of things like being a republic and the history of all that in out national affairs. Its origins are noble and egalitarian but there have been periods of mixed emotions and some would argue that the original and fine concept of republicanism has been appropriated at various times for sectional political ends.
It was a stirring day in the Dail when Dessie O’Malley about 23 years ago declared he was Standing by the Republic!. It was stirring in the context of that period. But this is a time to move on and for all people to respect and celebrate the ideal of a republic- to live and let live, as they say Viva La Difference!
So what Is a Republic?
The basic definition of a republic is a democratic state which does not have a monarch at its head. The word, derived from the Latin words ‘res publica’ (res means ‘thing or ‘affairs’ and publica means simply ‘public’ – the public affair or republic), was first applied to Rome after the expulsion of King Tarquinus Superbus and the extinction of monarchical rule there. It was used to unite the Romans around the concept of a state ruled by short-term elected consuls rather than a king. Since ‘publica’ is a form of publicus which derives from ‘populus’ in the Latin word for people, democracy is inherent in the term ‘republic’.
The Roman Republic proved to be very successful – it established an immense and stable empire- and thus it became the ideal of later republics. Furthermore the the great values of the Roman Republic -liberty, meaning both freedom from the arbitrary rule of despots (dictators) and the right of citizens to participate in government, and virtue, meaning the public spirit that disposed the citizen to pursue the common interest rather than his own personal interest – became part of true republican theory. (Values, by the way, are those things which in a particular context are thought of as being good; thus equality, justice and freedom are regarded as being democratic values – therefore worthy to be cherished by us all – the birthright of us all.
Many states claim to be republics but in fact they are not. They been dictatorships like Russia under Stalin or oligarchies like the historic Venetian Republic. Not all democracies are republics – The United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Spain, to name but a few. Modern republicanism, the child of the American and French revolutions, is closely associated with democratic and egalitarian values (and claims to be more radically democratic than the ancient republics). It is during this time of political upheaval that that these ideas entered the Irish political lexicon mingled with cries of an Ireland for all, United Irishmen -Catholic, Protestants and Dissenter, more of this below. One of early concerns of the French Revolutionaries was their abhorrence of distinctions between citizens based on nobility: thus, for example, the revolutionaries insisted on addressing Louis XVI as Citizen Capet (his family name) before they guillotined. Doctrinaire republicans they say often affect a Spartan mode of dress and life style. I recall reading Terence McSwiney being very strict on such matters. Indeed, the first Fianna Fail (The Republican Party) administrations purposely projected a non-elitist image through the decision of Eamonn de Valera and his ministers to wear ordinary suits at state functions rather than the then conventional patrician gear with top hats and tails. Did I hear some mutter something about Armani suits?!
Irish republicanism had been developed by the United Irishmen (founded in Belfast in 1791), one of these leading ideologists (or ideologues), Wolfe Tone, declared: …to break the connection with England, the never-ending source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objectives. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means. Tone’s grave in Bodenstown remains a touchstone and a place of iconic significance. This venerable place should be an inclusive symbol as Tone represents Everyman.
Irish republicanism was revolutionary. Above all it was separatist. However, through the 19th century Irish nationalism found its strongest expression in constitutional parliamentary movements, led in turn by two outstanding public representatives, Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. The constitutional process culminated in the passing of the Home Rule Bill for Ireland in the British House of Commons in 1914, to have effect at the end of the so-called Great War. This would have established an Irish parliament with powers to legislate on domestic matters only, which would be under the overall control of the Westminister parliament; and of course, the British monarch would remain head of state. This scenario or prospect became the fault-line for subsequent Irish history, of Redmond, Pearse,Connolly, Easter Rising, Conscription debate, Rise of IRB/Sinn Fein, War of Independence, First Dail, Treaty Debates, Partition and Civil War.
Each of these topics would and have filled many a tome in themselves. I hope these reflections have been of interest and not unduly heavy going. By the way, Jim O’Donnell’s excellent Word Gloss published back in 2000 is a valued guide in these matters. Next time we will continue the story up to the declaration of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 which came into effect on 18th of April1949, being the 33rd anniversary of 1916 Rising.
Next week we hope to swing into more of the Christmas spirit as we begin to get into the swing of things and jingles!!
Go Seachtain Eile, Slan.