Joseph Ruane on ‘Ireland’s Crises: North-South Intersections’: From the Taming of the Celtic Tiger to the Rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic

joeruaneProfessor 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.

 

  • tmitch57

    “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.”

    I would think that being the state that represents the Irish people should be all the legitimation that the Republic of Ireland needs particularly as it is almost a century old. The failure of the state to replace English with Irish does present a cultural challenge of some proportion, but considering that the Republic is overwhelmingly Catholic on the part of those living in it who profess a religion should serve to differentiate it from Britain.(and from Northern Ireland). The main challenge should be to bring back into Irish history those who were written out for political reasons in the 20th century–those for fought in British uniforms in the two world wars. But that seems to be proceeding as well.

  • chrisjones2

    I don’t agree with all that

    I would think that being the state that represents the Irish people should be all the legitimation that the Republic of Ireland needs particularly as it is almost a century old.

    I agree

    The failure of the state to replace English with Irish does present a cultural challenge of some proportion

    The Irish Language project was a non starter – especially for a race with such a wide diaspora where speaking English was a positive economic advantage

    but considering that the Republic is overwhelmingly Catholic on the part of those living in it who profess a religion should serve to differentiate it from Britain.(and from Northern Ireland).

    Is that really it? I think that is a poor definition of statehood

    The main challenge should be to bring back into Irish history those who were written out for political reasons in the 20th century–those for fought in British uniforms in the two world wars. But that seems to be proceeding as well.

    OK

  • terence patrick hewett

    A multiple interface periphery or peripherally interfacial multiplicity or an interfacial peripheral multitude?

  • weidm7

    Religion isn’t such an issue anymore, certainly states in modern Europe don’t draw their legitimacy from it anymore, thankfully. There are also more non-religious than in the 20s for example.

    Secondly, the Irish state since about the 70s has been trying to include Protestants (northern and southern), reducing the connection between Catholicism and the state.

    Thirdly, the same state is also trying to include as you say those who fought in a British uniform and feel British.

    Fourthly, Irish culture has been heavily influenced by Britain / England for centuries such that there is significant crossover on many things.

    All of these points could be seen to reduce the legitimacy of the Irish state. Especially when there’s a group of people (Irish / Northern Irish / Ulster protestants) who actively question it.

  • Robin Keogh

    I agree with Ruane regarding the water protests and he is certainly correct when he questions why the government of 2011 didnt grab the opportunity for political reform. Many have dismissed the water protesters out of hand but I think we could be seeing the birth of a noisy lashback at the state reaching far beyond the issue of water charges.

    Regarding legitimacy I am not quite sure what he means. Irish nationalism was for a long time built on the profession of hate for the English. I have argued here before that I believe the new relationship nurtured over the last 30 years has pretty much destroyed most of the mutual animosity that existed between the two countries. Irish and English culture is on many levels a shared experience stretching back hundreds of years. But Ireland does have cultural habits that set it apart and vice versa. The Orange Order, GAA, Irish Language, dance and music etc. These are in my view elements of ‘Irish’ that legitimises the state as an independent entity.

    The Violence of Nationalism, Unionism, Britain etc. over the decades and centuries are a regrettable part of the outworkings of nationhood, nation building, group ethnicity, resistance and self identity. They are legit to varying degrees to different people for different reasons. The Island of Ireland as a nation will some day have to fold those views into an agreed structure of government.

  • Brian Walker

    From Gladys report,
    it seems a fairly heavy analytical framework on which to hang familiar questions
    to which answers are not apparently attempted. Alternatively on the history, see a more vigorous treatment from the historian
    Diarmaid Ferriter in his recent articles in the
    Irish Times arguing that clear-sighted acceptance of the 1916 legacy is not incompatible with reconciliation with
    Britain and that airbrushing awkward facts is unnecessary. Agree with entirely or
    not, this is a mature approach for a maturing democracy, I suggest.

  • tmitch57

    “Is that really it? I think that is a poor definition of statehood.”

  • tmitch57

    Sorry, here is the reply to the above quote.
    Nations are based on four main things: shared territory, shared past, shared language, and shared religion. My point is that the religious differences between Ireland and Britain are enough to make up for the lack of linguistic differences. The fact that Ireland doesn’t share a land border with Britain also makes it easier, but makes the differentiation with NI more difficult. So in NI religion will continue to be an important cultural//national demarcation–even if it is more in terms of nominal membership to a particular church than to actual practice of that religion. Those who want to play up the lack of a national difference (republicans) will continue to look to the one decade when that was largely true–the 1790s.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Ireland is not particularly Catholic at the moment, not even the Republic: Mass attendance is fairly low; and Britain is not particularly non-Catholic: in terms of attendance Catholicism beats all other sects. However, being located on different land-masses, it makes sense to administer them as separate entities. Neither the Channel Islands nor the Isle of Man send MPs to Westminster.

  • barnshee

    “Secondly, the Irish state since about the 70s has been trying to include Protestants (northern and southern), reducing the connection between Catholicism and the state.”

    Well it has been piss poor at it –with the state nominally at least 95% Catholic

  • Kevin Breslin

    There is a ceiling on the Sinn Féin vote that won’t be lifted until the two Gerrys, Martin, the Maskeys and the rest are gone.