Address by Daltún Ó Ceallaigh, political-historical writer and analyst, to the NUIG Cumann of Sinn Féin, Wednesday 31st January 2001


Before considering Irish republicanism in the new century, I want briefly to look at republicanism more broadly and then zone in on its manifestation in Ireland up to the point we are at today and as it is developing.


Republicanism, in both the ancient and modern world, has three chief characteristics - legal, political, and social. Legally, it holds that sovereign authority is not divinely bestowed on a monarch, but derives from the people. Politically, this raises the question of how the will of the people is to be discerned, and most rational approaches to that give rise to citizens’ rights and democratic structures, although those phenomena can take various forms. In the social aspect, we are led back to the very word republicanism deriving as it does from res publica - literally ‘the public thing or matter’, but translated more contextually as ‘the welfare of the people’. Because what is the purpose of recognising the sovereignty of the people and ascertaining their will, if it is not to satisfy their weal?


However, the more one proceeds through the three levels of republicanism, the more challenging it becomes. Popular sovereignty is a simple and clear principle, but does it just obtain in existing (and some of them multi-national) States or must it rest on a specific nation? Democracy, as noted, brings choices that have to be addressed, and in terms of efficacy and practicality, which will vary from country to country, e.g. democracy can be indirectly representative or directly participative, decisions may be arrived at by a parliament or through a referendum, and so on. Maximising the welfare of the people, in contrast to that of an overlord or an aristocratic elite, would now probably be generally regarded as axiomatic. But there are those who maintain that it can best be accomplished in the shape of capitalism and others who assert that it necessitates socialism, to mention two ends of the spectrum. Speaking myself as a socialist republican, I think it is too simplistic to say, as some have done, that socialism can be seen (at least in modem times) as automatically the other side of the republican coin. Rather does socialism require a well thought out and substantiated argument which demonstrates and convinces that some version of that ideology (and ‘which’ is a big debate in itself) is essential if the greatest good of the greatest number is to be attained and ‘the republic’ fulfilled. That is not an easy or straightforward conclusion and does not follow as immediately or readily as democracy does upon popular sovereignty. In considering how far the policies of a party serve the welfare of the people, it might also be asked ‘what people’? Are ‘the people’ the entire populace or has the term been arrogated to a subset thereof? In other words, the welfare concerns of a party may be assessed by identifying its class base.


In Ireland, republicanism emerged in the late 18th century with the United Irishmen and was best articulated in the writings of Tone. External influences were, in particular, the American and French revolutions. Thenceforth, the national movement had two wings - the republican and what might be loosely grouped together as the federalist. Republicans sought, for the Irish nation, the establishment of an independent, democratic, and secular State (or republic). Federalists varied from acceptance of the duo-monarchical and empire-sharing ideas of Grattan and Griffith to the devolutionary (or ‘home rule’) compromise of Butt through to Redmond, although the latter demand was seen by some as a stepping stone to independence. Federalists believed in democracy, yet could be quite limited in their definition of the demos; O’Connell, albeit under pressure, only secured Catholic emancipation at the expense of severely limiting the franchise. Moreover, many federalists came to be effectively allied to the Roman Catholic church. In their later phase and principal organisation, they were generally referred to just as nationalists.


Nonetheless, it should be said here about republicanism and nationalism that, in their original and correct senses, they are not antagonistic or alternatives. Nationalism signifies obtaining for a nation the degree of autonomy which will permit it to realise itself psychologically, culturally, politically, and economically. In Ireland, for some, that meant devolution within the United Kingdom; for others, it pointed to separation. (The notion of separation combined with an Irish monarchy, although mooted, never really took off.) In other words, from the late 18th to the early 20th century, all republicans were nationalist, but not all nationalists were republican. From 1922 to ’49, however, the latter distinction began to fade with the establishment of the Free State, through the 1937 constitution, to the formal proclamation of a republic in 1949 and the associated departure from a Commonwealth headed by the British monarch. Today all non-unionist parties in the Assembly and the Dáil are republican at least in a legalistic sense,[1] but how far some of them are more profoundly so, given contemporary Irish conditions, we shall turn to shortly.


As for the social dimension of Irish republicanism, the United Irishmen were not unaware of it. Wolfe Tone is well known for his remark that republicans might ultimately have to rely on “the men of no property”; Henry Joy McCracken opined that: “The rich always betray the poor.” The kernel of social radicalism was there at the beginning of Irish republicanism, although we must not slip into suggesting that Tone, McCracken and others had grasped the concept of proletarian in anticipation of Marx. Social radicalism is also to be found in the Young Ireland movement in the ideas of Lalor, albeit with a rural slant, and in the manifesto of the Fenians. Towards the close of the 19th century, Connolly formed the unambiguous Irish Socialist Republican Party and, of course, led the Irish Citizen Army into the Rising of 1916. The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil clearly showed the signs of social radicalism. Mellowes advocated social republicanism during the Civil War. Gilmore and O’Donnell carried on this tradition in Saor Éire and then the Republican Congress of the Thirties. Clann na Poblachta of the late Forties and early Fifties embodied a socially radical dimension. Sinn Féin, in its various permutations from the Sixties to now, has revealed its consciousness of the republic as a project of social as well as political transformation.


So, where does Irish republicanism stand today in all three of its main characteristics? Legally, if the people are to be sovereign, that begs the question of how they are to be demarcated? Once the people have been identified, how exactly is their will to be measured? Lastly, what are the policies and actions that are to ensure their welfare?


To answer a question posed earlier, a republic usually must be based on a nation, otherwise its citizens tend to view it as lacking legitimacy. The people in our case are thus the Irish nation and the Irish nation stretches throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. But where do unionists feature in that? For republicans, unionists are, in the culture of everyday life, no less Irish than the rest of us. However, if they, or some of them, to one degree or another, do not choose to look at it that way, that is their entitlement. They should not be compelled into accepting an identity that they do not want. On the other hand, boundaries have to be drawn between States. And that is where five key factors arise in determining that the frontier should be between Ireland and Britain:

(1) there are over 4 million nationalists on this island, almost 700,000 of whom live in the six counties;

          (2) there are less than 900,000 unionists located in the same six counties;

(3) the nationalist and unionist populations of ‘Northern Ireland’ are interspersed (e.g. 45% of the population of Belfast is nationalist);

(4) ‘Northern Ireland’ was the first and biggest gerrymander, established by coercion, and is thus illegitimate and not surprisingly, therefore, a failed entity;

(5) the British people have consistently expressed a desire in opinion polls to want to end the Union.

          Given that forced movement of population would not be equitable, repartition is not a solution. Consequently, taking account of all of the foregoing five factors, requires, for reasons of both legitimacy and viability, but also with due regard for unionist minority rights and devolution within Ireland, that the proper delineation of the republic remains the island.

          As for the determination of the people’s will, it then follows that methods have to be devised, bearing in mind this principle and prevailing realities, and I am about to address that subject.

          On the question of social and political policy, I wish to deal with that in the course of identifying the organisation which may currently be viewed as genuinely republican.

          As I have already said, all nationalist parties in Ireland today are formally republican. But when people and the media refer to ‘republican’ (i.e. apart from fringe dissidents), they generally have one party in mind and that is Sinn Féin. Why? To some extent, it is still a linguistic convenience to talk about nationalists, on the one hand and republicans, on the other. But it is deeper than that. In the application of republican principles to Ireland, Sinn Féin is the only meaningful and truly republican party on the island. Because it is the only party organised throughout the island which sincerely strives to give democratic voice to the sovereign people of the 32 counties. It is the only party which puts forward candidates in all elections held among the Irish people. It is the only party that has representatives elected to Westminster, Stormont, Leinster House, and local authorities, north and south, and sits in all but the first of these, for obvious reasons. It is the only party which appoints members of all-Ireland Implementation Bodies on both sides of the border under the Good Friday Document. It is the only party which may end up with members of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council on both sides of the table, should it enter coalition in the 26 counties. It is the only party which will have participants from north and south in the Joint Parliamentary Forum, also following on the Good Friday Document. It is, in fact, also the only truly national party in its extent. It is further seeking and may be granted representation for northern MPs in Dáil Éireann and full membership as of right for nominees of northern political parties in Seanad Éireann. It has also demanded votes for citizens in the six counties in Presidential elections and relevant constitutional referenda, and this is being deliberated on by the current Committee on the Constitution. Until such time as Irish reunification comes fully about, it has adopted a vigorous and innovative approach to diminishing the present national democratic deficit as far as possible, which puts it streets ahead of other self-styled nationalist and would-be republican parties.


But when and how can we expect full Irish reunification to eventuate? Let us be clear. Republicans still do not accept the pseudo-principle of the manufactured consent attaching to the gerrymander of the six counties. However, sometimes circumstances can narrow or eliminate the gap between a principle and a practice. That is to say, if a majority of 50% plus one can be got in a northern poll on unity, that is hardly objectionable as a means to an end. But are the prospects any greater today than they were eighty years ago? The indication is that they are. This year’s census is predicted as showing an overall nationalist population of 45 to 47 per cent; it was about 34% in 1921. Ten years ago, the figure for nationalists in the -1 to 14 age cohort was 52%; it will be interesting to see what it is now and in other cohorts. But demography is not just about fertility. There is emigration of unionists and immigration of nationalists, both of which appear to be occurring, especially in the context of the Celtic tiger. Nor should we leave out of account the increasing number of unionists, if only middle-class, who may come to agree to or acquiesce in Irish unity, whether through actual endorsement or abstention in a referendum, pursuant to both a dawning realism and a sense of abandonment by Britain. Remember that, despite unionist protests at the time of passing the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a majority of the northern electorate never mind of unionists is not needed in British law for unity.


What then marks out Sinn Féin in the social and other political spheres? I would hold that, whatever about varying degrees of lip-service in other parties, it is the only one that can be relied on in relation to certain crucial issues such as: a critical stance towards the European Union, defence of neutrality, a critique of social partnership and exclusion, local empowerment, economic democracy, and promotion of Irish culture in all its forms. It is, furthermore, as green as the greens on the environment. And it is not astonishing that this is so, given the social base of modern Sinn Féin. While it is not oblivious of the rural, it has clearly shifted mainly to an urban working class conscious of radical traditions and Gaelic origins. At the same time, Sinn Féin while retains a broader appeal because of its very nationalism and republicanism, in the Irish sense of those terms. And we should not underestimate the extent to which nationalists and republicans of other social strata will in fact take up that appeal and combine it with an altruistic spirit of recognising the inequities in society which need to be rectified and the necessary transfers of resources made to that end. Moreover, Sinn Féin is not just a party; it is the core of a movement - the republican movement - which can be defined to include republicans in all parties (whatever about their leaderships) and in none.


All in all, it is not then surprising that Sinn Féin commands the support of 45% of the nationalist population in the north and is the fourth largest party in opinion polls in the south, ahead of Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner. Last week’s opinion poll is not the first to reveal Sinn Féin in that position, but it is the first to record it as having as high as 6% backing from the electorate.


Let me be so bold as to conclude by quoting the final passage from my last book:


“In summation, republicanism does not hesitate to be visionary in a way which is youthful and committed, nationalist and internationalist, idealistic and practical. There is a psychology and an ethics to it as well as a politics and an economics. Republicans want people to be suffused with a pride in their country and a sense of injustice at deprivation. They want them energetically and devotedly to challenge and change things. Republicans want people both to cherish their roots and look outwards towards the best example that fellow humanity has to offer. They want them to be both hard-headed realists and unashamed dreamers so as to meaningfully engage the present and imaginatively construct the future. Republicanism has no place for the weary, the self-seeking, the negative, the despondent. It characterises the new Ireland.”


[1] Not counting the N I Women’s Coalition as a party and taking it as comprised of both unionist and nationalist-‘republican’.