University of León, Spain
London: Faber & Faber. 2012
227 pages. Paperback. £8.99
In the wake of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger the question of political renewal has, of late, been much in the air in Ireland. Perhaps most visible has been the programme of the Fine Gael-Labour government, elected in 2011, to bring about a ‘democratic revolution’ which was most clearly signified in the proposition to abolish the Seanad. The eventual referendum was narrowly defeated in October 2013 and while the more sanguine interpretations of the result have suggested that it was due to a public reaction against what was perceived as both crass populism and the machinations of a political elite to reduce the forum of democratic debate, the truth is that the participation in the referendum was worryingly low. In fact, as polls have indicated, far from suggesting a renewal of political interest, the rescue of the Seanad appears, if anything, to be the rearguard reaction of older voters cognizant of the role the upper house of the legislature has historically played in ensuring a diversity of voices and discourses in Irish politics. In “Citizens or Subjects? Civil Society and the Republic”, Fred Powell’s contribution to Up the Republic!: Towards a New Ireland, he quotes the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins as follows:
Public participation is now falling in every institution of civil society. The norms of a shared life have little opportunity of being articulated. That is the inescapable other side of the coin of globalization, which is the unaccountable economy on a world scale. That is why it is necessary for the Left to outline the case for a new and vibrant citizenship that can vindicate such values as solidarity, community, democracy, justice, freedom and equality. These values can be achieved by giving them a practical expression in a new theory of citizenship (O’Toole 2012: 161).
Powell, Professor of Social Policy and Head of the School of Applied Social Studies at University College Cork, invokes Higgins’s ideas, published in the 2011 collection of essays Renewing the Republic, both to draw attention to the extent to which under the influence of the all-pervasive values of the Celtic Tiger Irish people became self-absorbed consumer subjects rather than active citizens engaged in society, and to stave off the apocalypse of “post-politics” by proposing new paradigms of political engagement. Powell summarizes: “The challenge that President Higgins has presented is essentially about the need for a new political fiction to take the narrative of the Irish Republic forward. It is very clearly framed within the language of civil society: community, inclusive citizenship and sustainability” (O’Toole 2012: 161).
Powell himself goes on to outline Ten Principles for Critical Citizenship as an intellectual and practical blueprint for the creation or imagining of a new Republic for Ireland. His proposal is exemplary in that it is founded on the exercise of in-depth scholarly enquiry and practically applicable ideas. In short, his are the values of the public intellectual concerned not just with personal professional advancement within the academy but rather with encouraging a vibrant intellectual community and an active civil society which interrogates its inheritance of republicanism. While Powell’s essay perhaps most schematically articulates the relationship between scholarship and politics, all the contributions to Up the Republic! are based on broadly similar values which encourage active critical reading, an urgent reexamination of what the Irish Republic means and should mean and, as part of this process, a nuanced dialogue with the history of ideas and with the founding values of republicanism.
Following an inspiring epigraph from Tom Paine which eloquently speaks to the dilemmas of the current age, the tone of the volume is explicitly set by the opening essay from editor Fintan O’Toole. “‘Do you know what a republic is?’: The Adventure and Misadventure of an Idea” appears designed to awaken the reader from any complacency about the nature of the Irish state. Starkly outlining the consequences of the economic bailout by revealing how, in effect, “the Irish constitution had been quietly suspended” while the German parliament imposed its will on the Irish executive, O’Toole proceeded, in his characteristically polemical style, to largely claim that the Irish Republic was a sham (O’Toole 2012: 2). The official declaration of the Irish Republic in 1949 was, he pointed out, the third of its kind, preceded as it was by those in 1916 and 1867, with the truth being that none of these had been followed by political realities in which authentically republican values achieved any genuine traction.
Drawing on the work of Philip Pettit on classical republicanism, O’Toole underlines the important role of genuinely republican systems of government in ensuring citizens’ right to non-domination by others, a concept which he contrasts with non-interference, a value more appropriate to liberal and neo-liberal political regimes such as that of the Celtic Tiger period in Ireland. This renaissance tradition of republicanism is also valuable for O’Toole in view of the importance it affords both to mixed government –the division of power between the executive, judiciary and parliament– and crucially the role of citizens to “keep the republic on its toes”, to, in Pettit’s words: “track and contest public policies and initiatives” (O’Toole 2012: 19). By contrast, O’Toole identifies the Rousseau tradition of republicanism as in part responsible for the authoritarian strain which he associates with IRA violence and the tendency of the Fianna Fáil political party to arrogantly see itself as the expression of a very narrowly conceived national will. Given Ireland’s current bind, O’Toole diagnoses that the people have to “unlearn” this negative republican inheritance and fight for one in which citizens have to fulfill their duty to create a new reality marked by justice and equality:
It is, in these days, rather unfashionable to suggest that people have a duty to educate themselves. But there’s no way round this embarrassing truth. The basic precondition for a republic is that the people know what they’re doing. That they should ‘know what a republic means’. At the risk of obnoxious arrogance it has to be admitted that, in general, the Irish people do not know what a republic means (O’Toole 2012: 48).
Unquestionably, Up the Republic!: Towards a New Ireland is an invaluable contribution to Irish political and intellectual debate, perhaps even the most significant volume published since the beginning of the recent crisis. Besides the contributions of O’Toole and Powell, it includes essays by perhaps the foremost world authority on republicanism, the above-mentioned Philip Pettit, and from Iseult Honohan, author of a number of important books on this key political concept. The book thus goes quite a distance to filling that gap in public knowledge identified by O’Toole. Interesting legal perspectives are provided by Tom Hickey and Dearbhail McDonald, while the political scientist and Sunday Independent columnist Elaine Byrne contributes with an essay, “The Democracy of a Republic”, which deals with the highly interesting We the Citizens project for political renewal which she initiated with a number of fellow academics.
Besides the authority achieved through the participation of Pettit, the book’s significance can be gauged by the presence at its launch, in November 2012, of President Higgins himself. In his remarks at the opening, Higgins pointed out that it was not the “usual practice” for the President to launch books but that this was an exception (Higgins 2012). It very much chimed with the values of his own presidency which he had defined as being one of “ideas”. Indeed, although not explicitly stated by Higgins, the volume can be seen as a continuation of the debate to which he has added much, both in his collection of essays Renewing the Republic and in his speeches which have championed the importance of more complex public debate and the protagonism of public intellectuals. Crucially, the President also points out one of the collection’s strong points, emphasizing that it is
not just about cursing the darkness. Many of the contributors understand that a crisis of this severity also represents an opportunity to start again; to renew the Republic; to articulate shared values that allow all our citizens to fully participate in economy and society; to question the paradigms of theory that constrained our policy options; to imagine other possibilities that allow us as a people to move beyond anger, frustration or cynicism (Higgins 2012).
Higgins concludes in reference to the collection’s last essay, “Law, Poetry and the Republic” by proposing a template of renewal consistent with his own championing of what he calls a creative society, stating that “we need reminding that the language that will serve us best is as Theo Dorgan puts it ‘disciplined language in the register of human passions. Poetry is the living language raised to the power of imagination’” (Higgins 2012).
In such resonant and inspiring reflections and in the potential for reinvention apparent in the rigour, authority and force of its argumentation, Up the Republic!: Towards a New Ireland contains much that Ireland would do well to heed. And much that would help avoid another sequel to its current humiliation, so brilliantly evoked in the cover illustration of a contemporary Sisyphus pushing Ireland up what is a very steep slope indeed.
Higgins, Michael D.. 2012. “Remarks by President Higgins. Launch of Up the Republic: Towards a New Ireland”. 13 November. http://www.president.ie/speeches/ remarks-by-president-higgins-launch-of-up-the-republic-towards-a-new-ireland-tuesday-13th-november-2012/html [retrieved: 29/11/2013]