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What Values Drive Irish Republicanism Today?

Paul A. Fitzsimmons

As an Irish-American Republican - watching with interest how Mr. Trimble’s supposed “last chance” for the current peace effort fares tomorrow, the 226th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence - I wonder whether, in the next decades, Irish Republicanism will make a positive contribution to “the Irish question,” especially should the Good Friday Agreement scheme fail.

Several things I wonder about specifically in this regard. Democratic values are a sine qua non to republicanism, but what do those values actually mean to Irish Republicanism in the North? Intellectual honesty and vigor are valuable elements of republicanism in any region, but how pervasive are they within Irish Republicanism? Christian principles - admittedly an optional element in the workings of republics - might be especially helpful in Irish political thinking, but do they exist broadly, or adequately, in Irish Republicanism?

Concerning those questions, Mr. Ciarán Irvine’s recent article “Remembering the Future” may offer something of a window on contemporary Irish Republican thought, in three ways particularly.

First, “Remembering the Future” shows that untestable speculation and conjecture can readily form the basis of Republican argument and strategy:

Radical changes in the political sphere have a way of sneaking up on us. Who in 1929 could have envisaged that within a mere decade the globe would be engulfed in the fire, atrocity and horror of the Second World War? And if anyone had been foolhardy to suggest, in 1980, that within 10 years the Berlin Wall would come down, Eastern Europe would throw off the Stalinist yoke, and the Soviet Union would be on the verge of peacefully dissolving itself, they would have been laughed out of court.
Likewise who, during the triumphal 1903 Irish tour of Edward VII, would have predicted that a mere 18 years later a Treaty would be signed granting 26 counties freedom from the British Crown?
I have a suspicion that those who suggest that any change in the constitutional status of Ireland is decades off, if ever; and that any such change will be driven in the end by the (in my view morally and intellectually bankrupt, not to mention sectarian) “demographic argument” may well find themselves standing stunned as the tide of history sweeps by unheralded and unlooked for.

In essence: “This whole thing about ‘the tide of history’ is pretty tough to understand, particularly as events we haven’t predicted sometimes happen! Maybe our cherished goal of reunion will be reached because something ‘unheralded and unlooked for’ will sneak up on us!” Maybe, though, it won’t.

Second, “Remembering the Future” demonstrates again that trivializing the lives of the living can appropriately be central to arguments on the Irish Republican cause:

It has always been my view that, when viewed against the vast sweep of Irish history - 8,000 years of it - the centuries of the Occupation are but a blip, a passing phase, a temporary (if unpleasant) phenomenon. And it is my firm conviction that this is precisely how future generations of Irish men and women will view the whole sorry episode. Even if the nay-sayers and pessimists are correct[ in their “morally and intellectually bankrupt” demographic analyses], the Occupation is unlikely to reach the grand tally of 900 years - in 2070 or thereabouts. And barring some catastrophic natural disaster, I think even the most pessimistic of us would concede that Ireland, and the Irish, have a good deal more than 68 years remaining to them!
“[The over eight] centuries of the Occupation” do seem like “a blip” when described in the context of all of time since 6000 B.C., a mere three thousand years before Egyptians started building pyramids. (The solidarity that Irish Republicans apparently have with their native forebears five hundred generations back is quite remarkable.) How comforting that 8000-year comparison will be to some in Northern Ireland today is, however, perhaps another matter. Certainly Mr. Irvine chose well in declining to argue instead: “The only ‘blip’ of history in which there has been an ‘Occupation’ of Ireland is made up of those paltry few years since the end of Europe’s Dark Ages.” In the spirit of “[r]emembering the [f]uture,” I would accept that, by about 9000 A.D., this British “Occupation” will indeed look like a “blip” of history; furthermore, I surely will sleep a lot better at night having reached that weighty conclusion regarding this “whole sorry episode,” this “temporary (if unpleasant) phenomenon.”

However, the most important point in this part of Mr. Irvine’s argument is that the upcoming “68 years” or so are all but an irrelevance in this grand scheme of things. Lives seriously or grievously scarred, or too early lost entirely, in what may be a run-up to the achievement of the “one, true, holy, [c]atholic, and apostolic” 32-county Republic just don’t matter much in the “vast sweep of Irish history.” Those scars suffered and lives lost mean very little because most of the rest of us will be able to live out our own years in the sure and certain belief that - at some point, either before our deaths or after - there will be a free all-Ireland state, and our “side” will have won! The long and laudable social quest for liberty, equality, and fraternity is, thus, something Irish Republicans can blithely consign to the science of demographics and the sands of time, which together will doubtless prevail, sooner or later, in that appointed task. Between now and then, as Doris Day might say, “Que sera, sera.”

Third, “Remembering the Future” shows that - especially with recommendations based on Irish tribal models from a millennium or two ago - seeking to advise people who will live six-or-so decades hence on the form of their government is a fully legitimate undertaking:

[S]o, what initially appears to be a bizarre political structure - the entire island divided into anywhere between 80 and 150 tuatha with a weak and largely symbolic position of Ard Rí - is in reality no more [sic] than a highly sensible solution to the problem of a hugely diverse population, especially where differing populations tend to be geographically concentrated. ….
…. We need a system of Government, post-Occupation, that can easily cater for the differing identities of the rich tapestry of the Irish peoples.

Looking, in all honesty, at the strength and quality of these several “Remembering the Future” thoughts, my general concerns about Irish Republicanism, today and tomorrow, have not been completely allayed.




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To accomplish great things,
we must not only act,
but also dream;
not only plan,
but also believe.
- Anatole France

Index: Current Articles

4 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Is Class Politics a Possibility?

Billy Mitchell


What Values Drive Irish Republicanism Today?
Paul Fitzsimmons

Ministers of Silly Words

Anthony McIntyre

Has the Peace Process Delivered?
Davy Carlin


30 June 2002


Remembering the Future

Ciarán Irvine


Behind the Scenes at the World Cup
Billy Mitchell

Conformity - A Disease

Anthony McIntyre

Aldergrove Solidarity
Davy Carlin




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