Liberté, égalité, and a Secular Ireland…

In France they have a law which has its written roots in 1905 but the principles steam back to the 1790 revolution which saw ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ emblazoned into the national character and constitution of this large European nation. The law is called laïcité and it is at serious odds with Anglo-Saxon inherited concepts of what it is to be tolerant within a community.

So much of our own understanding of modern Europe and modern Ireland stem from the thinking of this era, above all the concept of the nation state being the first point of contact on global affairs. But in Ireland and Britain this is mainly manifested through the idea of popular sovereignty which saw a comeback in the Brexit debates with the country dividing down the middle on its interpretation with little thought to the minority who argued that sovereign rights of the state is more often at odds with the sovereign rights of an individual. So too there is a debate when it comes to the expression of spirituality in the public square.

To explain laïcité I will borrow from Foreign Policy magazine:

Laïcité “assures the liberty of conscience” of all French citizens, the new [1905] law read. This law was given further elaboration in the constitution of the Fifth (and current) Republic: Laïcité “assures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction to their origin, race, or religion. It respects all religious beliefs.”

So far it reads like a carbon copy of the American first amendment which bars the way for their congress to establish any religion or bind the conscience of their citizenry. But there is a marked difference from the American ‘negative’ form of religious liberty (See Berlin Two concepts of Liberty).

In France nobody is permitted to involve religious symbolism in public life. To give full context it must be said that the constitution of France does obviously guarantee a negative right to religious liberty and this is of course unimpeded as in every nation adhering to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The marked difference, harshly claimed as a ‘Fundamentalist Secularism’ by detractors, is that in public life religious symbolism is subordinate to the national identity of being French. This thinking is rooted in the revolutionary patriotism that was rife in France throughout the 19th century where like Ireland since the Williamite wars the suffered through a cycle of revolution and counter revolution.

This has, it must be noted, been used as a great stick by the far right to argue against the assimilation of Islam into French society. They argue that Islam is incompatible with ‘French values’ like secularism, however I feel that this is wrong and many point to this as being nothing more than a ‘weaponization’ by the far right as they do with all minority groups and with all symbols of national prestige in every country (for instance ‘Britain First’ attempt to do this with Reformed Christianity in England and here). The far right’s obsession here with halal meat is akin to the obsession with the head scarf in France. The principle of laïcité units the centre left and right in France, it is an issue of little dispute among the mainstream.

The links between Ireland and France throughout 18th and 19th century period is deep, Napoleon Bonaparte was (according to Zamyski, Napoleon 2018) unimpressed with the united Irishman leader Thoebald Wolfe Tone. However, this is for another article and another debate. The united men agonised over Irish intolerance and longed for the same model of secularism as adopted by the French.

Unfortunately for posterity by 1905 such ideals had receded greatly in Ireland, Protestants of course continued to engage within nationalism but by the time of Yeat’s publication of “Responsibilities” in 1914 there already appeared to be significant fault lines as explained by Gerald Dawe:

                [the poems] …question the dreamy Celticism of his previous work and turn, often with bitterness, upon nationalist leaders of a cause Yeats had long espoused (independence from Britain and the fostering of a national literature) but which he saw turning into narrow dogma. Responsibilities records his disillusionment.

(2020 Sound of the Shuttle)

By the time he was decrying the onset of Catholic ascendency in the Southern State it was already too late, the dream of a secular united state was dead and with it any hope of unification (see Yeats’ 1925 Seanad Speech). Irishness, sadly, became infused with the allegiance to the Southern State and with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Protestants retreated into a new Britishness that was post imperial, defensive and dealing with the realities of managed decline.

But what about today? Could a more French understanding of secularism be a true catalyst to healing national fracture? This is broader than the mere jurisprudence of French human rights law, but consider this; France is one of Europe’s largest Catholic majority nations which is a theology long associated as by incompatible with secularism (especially in the northern protestant mind with many Christian dominations all shielded behind what they view as an Anglo-Saxon legal order and a way of life) but for a century and more the French have been united by an inclusive secular national identity that you are first French, everything else is secondary.

If it works in France then perhaps it is time to examine it working in Ireland, the disillusionment with the Catholic establishment is the catalyst, in any unity arrangement the seal of approval would be a constitution with these strong secular safeguards and a liberty of conscience that would create a unifying sense of Irishness to the envy of all of Europe.

“Liberte – Egalite – Fraternite” = Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood)” by Tilemahos Efthimiadis is licensed under CC BY


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