Reconciliation the undone business of 1916

Michael McDowell argues that the conflation of history and politics especially at a ninety year remove is futile. He goes on to argue that Republicanism’s greatest challenge is to address its own failure to provide the means for reconciliation of the two main traditions on the island.

At this remove, railing against the respective positions in 1916 of Redmond, or of Pearse and Connolly, or of MacNeill is futile and, I think, faintly ridiculous. Each had his courage, his beliefs and his own integrity and fidelity to Ireland. To acknowledge that in respect of each of them is not to diminish any of them. To rubbish their patriotism or sacrifices is self-indulgent. Their times were complex. The sequence and out-turn of events was neither inevitable nor pre-ordained.

Revolutionary acts throughout history, whether successful or not, always hang by their own boot-straps to await the judgment of history. Which is not to say that politics, as distinct from history, is amoral. I merely point out that history is a rich storehouse as much for error as it is for inspiration. In a liberal democratic society such as ours, there are no mandates from history. Republican mandates come from the ballot box – not the Armalite or ideology.

He beleives that in looking back the proper place to begin is the birth of Republicanism in Ireland:

As a 21st century Irish republican, I believe that recent events more than ever set us the challenge of reconciling green and orange – a challenge which has never been taken up successfully by Irish republicans since the 1790s. That aspiration of the 1916 Proclamation remains unfinished business. And the 90th anniversary celebration of Easter 1916 should not blind us – even momentarily – to our challenging republican vocation of reconciliation.

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  • Let me begin with the trite and petty: what is the difference between inevitable and pre-ordained? Also, why include MacNeill in the list, unless one has a subjective disposition towards the restoration of family honour…history is a storehouse for error – is this a back-reference to MacNeill? Complex times indeed.

    And so to the substantive. If McDowell was a true republican, then his judgement would not be clouded by political opportunism, and pushing back on 21st century republicanism so hard as to nullify the positive momentum it has generated.

    On the 1790’s, surely a reference to 1798 cannot ignore the prevalence (rather than mere participation) of the Protestant leadership of that particular insurrection?

    In these equally complex times, it is important not to allow our leadership to drift to either extreme, yet McDowell is more hardline than almost anyone on this island. The politicians of the Republic of Ireland and Britain should be soft and nuanced in their approach to ‘managing’ development in the North, rather than providing sustenance to those who would argue one way or the other. Mandates may well come from the ballt box, but the legitimacy of each position needs to be grown, fostered and supported, and legitimacy comes from places other than the ballot box. Legitimising the moderating forces of Northern Ireland politics is an imperative of our time, and consistently and unapologetically undermining one side in favour (apparently) of the other is politically naieve and potentially dangerous.

    McDowell should have no place in the government of this State. Perhaps when he loses his seat at the next election he could set up an independent think tank (the Public Inquiry Centre, perhaps) where a platform could be more appropriately established for his vitriol.

  • DaithiÓ

    Well said Anthony.

    Not sure how McDowell can attempt to speak for republicanism, this is nothing but revisionist claptrap.

    Furthermore criticising republicans for alienating unionists when he himself makes it his political lifes work to alienate republicans is a tad rich in my opinion.

    Oh, and liberal democracy haha, I’m splitting my sides now !

    Those who signed the proclamation cherished ALL the children. They didn’t preclude protestants OR Nigerians ! McNeill wasn’t a signatory.

  • carlosblancos

    ‘Not sure how McDowell can attempt to speak for republicanism’….not sure Daithi? I’ll explain.

    He is entitled to ‘speak for Republicanism’ by virture of the fact that he is a citizen of the Republic of Ireland (like anyone on the island is entitled to be). Sorry if he doesn’t wear aran jumpers, smoke pipes, drink poitin and speak bad Irish. Thankfully, we republicans also drink lattes, and are members of political parties other than Sinn Fein.

    He may not be a perfect minister for Justice, but thankfully someone is asking questions that Sinn Fein and Republicans from other backgrounds do not. How can we reconcile circa 1 million unionists into the Republican ideal?

    And the reason why Sinn Fein refuse to answer this question? Simple. They are least best placed to carrry out such reconciliation. They cling to our flag, without any programme to implement what it stands for. What unionist in their right mind would ever offer support to a pseudo socialist/republican party nursing its post traumatic stress disorder with no idea how to govern? ‘Those years in jail had to be for something lads.’ Yeah, thanks boys.

  • Daithi I don’t know where to start. He’s Irish and believes in the republic as a method of governenace ergo he is an Irish republican. He may not believe in bombing the shit out of his neighbours to force them into that republic and the supremacy of the Irish master-race like certain others on this island, but as far as I know that doesn’t change the fact that he is both Irish and a republican.

    “Those who signed the proclamation cherished ALL the children. They didn’t preclude protestants OR Nigerians ! “

    Given that the motives of the rebellion were nationalistic and that the proclamation specifically said “children of the nation” I’m not convinced they would have necessarily shared your view on children of other nations.

  • DaithiO

    Ok we got the debate going and I take your points on board.

    Yes for sure Sinn Féin have a tough task in convincing unionists that a United Ireland is not something to be feared.

    Of course you can be a republican without seeking a United Ireland, that’s the type of republicanism the PD’s stand for, a partitionist type of republicanism that stops at the border they love so.

    Perhaps as a republican McDowell could do more for his nation by encouraging all parties in democratic engagement instead of always seeking to criminalise the largest pro agreement party.

  • carlos/beano, both of you have made the comment that McDowell’s entitlement to speak on behalf of republicanism stems from his citizenship. Republicanism in this context is not an abstract political philosophy, but a specific, Irish, all-island politics that McDowell claims to represent. He does not.

    Fianna Fáil may have some laboured claim to a Republican (note the capital ‘R’) heritage, but McDowell and his party abandoned any potential claim upon the party’s inception. They fundamentally denied Republicanism as a ligitimate national objective, and instead focused on the existing State with something of a doffed cap to the other part of the island as representing an external issue. The PD’s are right wing, pro-free-market, pro-liberal democracy, pro-small-government, and pro-status-quo (constitutionally). Not all of those things may be bad, but the party is what it is, and it is certainly not Republican.

    McDowell, in critising Sinn Fein/The Republican Movement for its failure to address the unionist question is both wrong and stupid.

    It is wrong because The Republican Movement in its political guise has been involved in the politics of compromise and moderation for at least ten years, and probably more, and in so doing has done more for inclusivity on this island and the irradication of extremism than McDowell can even begin to contemplate. McDowell on the other hand has played the race card (citizenship referendum) stirring up any latent racism that was in the country; he has undermined the state by abusing the powers of his office in the Frank Connolly affair; he has at every opportunity castigated Republicanism because it is a political threat and representative of a politics with which he disagrees.

    It is stupid because it compromises the chance of success in the North, whatever that might mean. It is stupid because in making the point he actually further entrenches both nationalist and unionist opinion, therefore making resolution less achievable. It is stupid therefore because it is counter-productive.

    Carlos – he may not be a perfect Minister for Justice? I’d go further than that. He is an embarrassment to Ireland, a stain on our government, a blight on decency and human rights and compomises the liberal democracy that he claims to promote. He is two faced in his dealings (e.g. criticising subversion while engaging in subversive actions such as the Frank Connolly thing) and makes a mockery of the Cabinet. He is insensitive, arrogant and about as politically correct as your average turnip.

    On the point that SF are ‘without any programme to implement what [the flag] stands for’, they have a programme for government that you may or may not agree with. They represent a people in the North that were beyond representation for many years, beyond protection from the British state. And they recognise that the interests of their constituency can only be served in an inclusive, equal jurisdiction. The equality agenda is probably not something McDowell is familiar with either, notwithstanding the presence of the word in his title.

    Look, there’s a long way to go in this thing. McDowell simply doesn’t help. He doesn’t speak for Republicanism, he never could and never will, so he should shut up about it, because he’d making things worse. Furthermore, blaming the Republican movement for not taking up the challenge of reconciling orange and green is rich coming from a man whose commitment to isolating Republicans made, and continue to make, any such reconciliation more difficult.

  • Crataegus

    On this issue I am compelled to agree with Michael McDowell. My observation is that Republicans really don’t understand Unionists, their perspective and their aspirations, and the same is true in reverse. It is like two parallel communities who talk within their own community and there is no common dialogue, purpose or understanding. Because of this we are all prisoners of our upbringing. What we all say is perfectly reasonable when viewed within our own community but can be deeply offensive to the other.

    Take 11th November as an example, to one trappings of imperialism to the other simply respecting friends and family who died. To one red poppies represent the bloodshed and loss to the other there has to be white poppies, black poppies, green poppies and anything but red.

    What McDowell says is therefore self evidently correct for 90 years on and after bomb, bullet, heinous murder, anguish and suffering what positive progress has been made? A lot more time spent on developing links and creating understanding would be beneficial to us all.

    We might not like the messenger but the message is valid.

  • Lorenzo

    Republicanism, as described by AnthonyB, is the aspiration to have a united 32 county Ireland. Fair enough. How is this in contradiction of what McDowell wants? There is obviously a difference of approach between MMcD and the Republican Movement, but ultimately not in the desired end result.

    The question is which approach is more likely to succeed? I would posit that it is MMcD’s policies of “right wing, pro-free-market, pro-liberal democracy, pro-small-government” – which have led to the economic bouyancy we now enjoy – that would attract Unionists (or at least sufficient quantities of them) to an all-Ireland entity.

    Or to put it in sporting terms: one million Unionists are not going to start supporting their county Gaelic Football team (although some do)- they are however perfectly willing to support the Irish Rugby team – particularly when they are being successful.

    So tell me again, who is the better Republican?

  • I promise I will not assault MMD in this post. Really.

    Lorenzo, MMD’s republican aspirations extend to a defence of the political entity that is the Republic of Ireland. I do not believe that his aspirations extend beyond that, and therefore the difference is not merely one of approach but of ambition.

    However, let me deal with the far more important question at the heart of this, obscured by the messenger (got me on that Crataegus).

    The increasing attractiveness of the ROI has undoubtedbly helped the PP generally, in making the place a little more palatable as a successful state rather than an almost failed one, a charge that could not unreasonably have been levelled in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. It’s what Joe Nye calls Soft Power, and a very interesting concept in these globalised times.

    You’re absolutely right, not only has the rugby team been united, it has been successful. This also gives us something to be universally cheery about.

    But here’s the point. Making the 26 county state successful (I call myself a moderate, but MMD makes me use phrases like that!) is an important and (in terms of NI) tactically useful thing, and constitutionally it is the job of our Government in the south to make this happen.

    It is not, however, a question of who is the better r(R)epublican. The government of Ireland has a republican duty to further the success, prosperity, general well being of the people within its jurisdiction. Good republicans here in the south will applaud this. The Republican objective is reunification, which is an entirely different thing. MMD may arguably be good republican (though I don’t agree, he may well be acting from good intentions), but not any kind of Republican.

  • George

    McDowell a racist? I am no fan of the man on many things but I think that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
    Not so long ago, he was the man standing up to Labour’s Pat Rabitte who was scaremongering the nation with talk of 40 million Polish plumbers by stating the open borders for Eastern Europeans would remain.

    As for the referendum, I thought it an absolute shame Ireland removed the automatic right to citizenship but if the subsequent legislation is racist, then every country in the European Union, which already all have it, are racist. Maybe they are but then don’t single out McDowell. Also, a huge majority of the Irish electorate voted for it. He, as an elected representative, reacted to huge public pressure.

    Are those who castigate McDowell on this advocating open borders for all with no limitations? If so, fine. If not, I find the stance hypocritical.

    On whether he is a 21st republican, why isn’t he? I’m sure he believes Ireland should be a united, independent Republic.

    It’s just he seems to have a different understanding of what “united” means than others.

  • d4man

    Surely the key objective for Republicans remains the establishment of a 32 County Republic. The Shinners, rather than planning to take power and revenge (by wrecking the economy) on the 26 Counties (for only being lukewarm about the armed struggle), should be figuring out how to win over the necessary majority in the North. Fanciful? Here’s a way to achieve bloodless reunification: Sinn Fein promises to abolish itself and all its current members never to stand for elected office if the North votes for a Republic. There are enough Unionists who hate the Shinners enough to go for this. Once the object of hate disappears, all that’s left is the fastest growing economy in Europe and one of the richest in the world. Self-interest might just sway a few votes: not that many are needed after all.
    Can’t trust Sinn Fein? Make it unconstitutional for them to stand for office. Why would Sinn Fein go for it? The Republic? Such a deal would ask of Adams what he wants more: a nation once again or power? Think about it.

  • Simon

    I agree with Beano and carlosblancos and indeed Cretaegus – why should you have to be violent to be an Irish republican?

    I don’t think anything will improve as long as Nationalists persist with the pretence that they can somehow ‘convert’ unionists to rejecting their British identity. I mean, does anyone really believe that? As Cretaegus says, it’s all a distraction from the real task of trying to actually get on with each other in peace. Let’s not try to change each other’s identities, we only wind ourselves up and it gets nowhere. Nationality isn’t in reality a political choice for most of us; in fact it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. And it is patronising and insulting, frankly, to suggest another ethnic group has less right to define its nationality than your own does. The leaders of Irish Nationalism formally acknoweledged this in the GFA in 1998, but it never really adequately filtered down to the people, it seems – as indeed the understandings arrived at by the leading Unionists were never really sold to the rest of the people either. This isn’t a flaw in the GFA but how it was carried through.

    But perhaps we can find new connections that are nothing to do with nationality and leave the British / Irish thing to one side for a while. There is more to life! I remember a time when it was about whether you were a Mod or not, now that was more interesting (I wasn’t).

  • jaffa

    Michael McKevitt said something interesting last week when he accused Sinn Fein of placing the equality agenda above the cause of reunification. What he missed is that violence could only ever advance the equality agenda and not (considering the balance of forces) unity. It’s one thing to tell me that until I stop hurting you and treat you fairly you’ll keep hurting me (in which case I will give in because I have little to lose).

    It’s quite another to say that you’re going to keep hurting me until I agree to move in with you.

    If unity is the agenda that MMD is the more effective (whether or not he’s the more authentic) republican. At least he’s trying a bit of flirtation.

  • So, jaffa, what you’re suggesting is that with a common mistrust/loathing of the Shinners, the unionists and the PD’s will come closer and closer together until, before you know it, the most ironic of ironic twists unites north and south against the Nationalists?

  • jaffa

    Exactly Anthony. I’m not sure about uniting against “Nationalists”, but militant republicans certainly.