Professor Joseph Ruane, Visiting Professor of Sociology at University College Dublin and Professor Emeritus University College Cork, presented the 25th John Whyte Memorial Lecture last week at Queen’s on ‘Ireland’s Crises: North-South Intersections.’
Ruane’s wide-ranging talk focused primarily on crises in the Republic of Ireland. Ruane described the Republic as a ‘multiple interface periphery’ because it is small ‘regional’ nation looking outwards to multiple ‘cores’, such as the US, UK and EU. Its position as a multiple interface periphery means the Republic interacts in two main arenas: the international system and the British state tradition. It is both enabled and constrained by those arenas.
Ruane focused his remarks around two current challenges:
The economic, social, political and cultural crises brought on by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Ruane recognised that the Celtic Tiger provided a type of symbolic, unifying ideology for the Irish state, creating a national narrative of triumph and pride. But this was a rather thin identity that has not survived the economic crash. He said he was surprised that the coalition parties that were elected in 2011 ‘did not seize the opportunity for change’ and merely reproduced the top-down control and political cronyism of the past. Ruane said the recent protests over water charges may mark the beginning of a more militant phase amongst the Irish electorate.
Whether and how the Irish state might legitimate the violence of 1916, 1919, 1921-23. Ruane noted that the thawing of relations with the British state and the development of a ‘shared history’ between Ireland and Britain makes the legitimacy of the violence in 1916 an issue. He cited the recent 1916 promotional video produced by the government, which originally failed to mention the Easter Proclamation and Easter Rising, but rather featured footage of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron. Ruane also said the development of a shared history threatens to undo the Irish/British polarity that the Irish once used to legitimate the state – which means new sources of legitimation may need to be found.
Many of the questions that followed Ruane’s presentation focused on Sinn Fein. Ruane had remarked on the party’s rise as an electoral force in the Republic, with comments including:
‘There are no signs that Sinn Fein’s [current] popularity [in opinion polls] is a nationalist vote of any kind. Among the lower and upper middle classes who are left with debt and no savings, and the those at the bottom who are dependent on public expenditure, many are angry and see Sinn Fein as bright, genuine, serious and possibly able to deliver reforms. They see the violence of the past as in the past, and point out that the Republic’s other political parties also came out of violent traditions.’
Having said that, Ruane raised the question of whether there was a ‘permanent ceiling’ of support in the Republic for Sinn Fein, meaning that there are just a certain number of voters who could never bring themselves to vote for a party they associate with what they see as the unjustified violence of the IRA during the Troubles.
He added that the Independent newspapers seem to be ‘on permanent war footing to dislodge Gerry Adams from leadership of the party.’ These media outlets constantly raise ‘legacy issues’ about the role of Sinn Fein and the IRA during the Troubles, and argue that Sinn Fein’s economic policies will ‘wreck the economy.’
He continued that the parties that emerged from the Irish civil war are anxious about Sinn Fein ‘gaining access to the same font of legitimacy’ that these parties accessed in their own transitions from violence to democracy. That leaves them with a dilemma about what to say about 1916, so as ‘to avoid giving retrospective legitimacy to Sinn Fein.’
Ruane added that historical research has demonstrated a great deal of similarity between the violence of the periods, ranging from the targeting of Protestant landowners and even the practice of ‘disappearing.’ Here he noted the irony that the arguments of the ‘revisionist’ approach to Irish history and those of Sinn Fein itself seem to converge (although most revisionists discuss violence not in order to justify it but to argue that it was unjustified).
Ruane closed by asking to what extent the Irish state currently depends on the polarities of Irishness/Britishness to define itself, and whether the period of 1916-1923 offers any resources for alternative visions of a democratic republic to be constructed. Examples of efforts to do this include John Bruton’s recent remarks about John Redmond, as well as journalist Fintan O’Toole conceptions of a ‘new republic’. But whether Sinn Fein is capable of contributing to debate beyond such historic polarities remains unclear.