He is most powerful who is in his own power.
The strength of our nation must be the strength of the whole people.
When, in 1791, Edmund Burke broke with his parliamentary colleagues in the Whig party over their diverging interpretations of the French Revolution, Burke did not rationalise his decision as an abandonment of Whig principle in favour of Tory reactionism. ‘Their liberty is not liberal,’ he remarked in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), accusing the supporters of the French Revolution of foregoing the cause of temperate liberty in favour of a ‘passionate enthusiasm’ that would entice them into tyranny under the guise of liberté. ‘Always acting as if in the presence of canonised forefathers,’ Burke wrote, ‘the spirit of freedom, tending in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity.’ His wayward colleagues had lost touch with an inheritance that acted as a restraint on their sense of political possibility, in concretely defining the otherwise amorphous ‘spirit of liberty’ and providing a prudential guide to political judgment. In dissenting from them, Burke sought to demonstrate in his anti-revolutionary writings the salubrious nature of the Whig tradition they had forsaken. He was trying to revitalise a prior standpoint which had been discredited; an alternative position to the new orthodoxy laying monopolistic claim to the cause of liberty. In this, he was not pursuing a reactionary agenda simply for the sake of hindering an outwardly progressive cause, as some of his modern exponents would suggest; he sought to highlight the contradictions of this position, to disabuse its advocates of a smug self-righteousness, and foreground the ultimate folly of subscribing to a political standpoint unmoored in the stable association of national history and unmediated by the reliable measures of human sentiment and custom.
There was a better position available. Burke was attesting to its credentials through an imaginative reappropriation of an old mode of thought in service to a new historical conjuncture, all while laying claim to a shared intellectual heritage as the ultimate source of national communality. Seamus Heaney was attempting something similar in his invocation of Irish republican ideals and authorities in his public opposition to the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution in August 1983. This amendment concerned the right of Irish women to seek abortion in certain circumstances. In drastically narrowing the range of those possible circumstances, by elevating the right to life of the unborn child to rest on par with that of the mother, purportedly in order to secure the safety of both child and mother, the eighth amendment ‘masquerades as a protection of rights but in fact constitutes an invasion of rights’. Thus argued Heaney in an open letter to The Irish Times a month before the referendum vote. Were the amendment to pass and become law, he thought, ‘a significant number of people from this state will be even more embarrassed to be called Irish’. As a recrudescence of Éamon de Valera’s constitution of 1937, which for Heaney had ‘infringed the … intellectual, emotional and moral being’ of the Irish people, owing to its tacit misogyny no less than its retrogressive parochialism, the eighth amendment constituted an afront to their ‘inner freedom’. Originally founded as a democratic republic in 1916, the Irish state had deviated from its founding principles and subsided beneath the shadow of Catholic majoritarianism, as evidenced in the amendment. ‘What would Wolfe Tone or James Connolly have thought of the whole business?’ Heaney asked.
But this was only a draft letter; his rhetorical question did not make the final cut. The version Heaney did publish in the Times on September 3rd carried its criticism lightly, preferring to dilute the republican tone to a level on par with secularist liberalism, rather than state it unequivocally, probably from fear of his intentions being misconstrued and the content of his argument being overshadowed, a reaction that was nearly assured given the context of his composition. For Heaney did not want his position, had he affirmed it, to be associated with the ideological imperatives of the IRA in their war against the ‘British state’ in Northern Ireland. This form of republicanism, generally defined, was anti-democratic, majoritarian, irredentist, and avowedly nationalistic; it was Catholic, Gaelic, and deferential to the self-prescribed historical mission of the ‘oppressed’ Irish nation to throw off the dual impositions of British ‘imperialism’ and global capital and vanquish the lingering ‘colonial outpost’ in northeast Ulster by forcibly incorporating Northern Ireland into the republic. The strain of republicanism advocated by the IRA wasn’t liberal; nor did it bear much resemblance to the European tradition of democratic constitutional republicanism arising in the eighteenth century and achieving form in the conflagrations of revolution. This was recognised by Heaney to some extent, but held in sharper focus by several of his associates in Irish intellectual and cultural life, among them Richard Kearney and Seamus Deane. The IRA, nevertheless, retained a monopoly on republican discourse in the North and South, aided in part by media attention but precipitated ultimately by the imaginative stasis bequeathed to Irish artists, politicians, and political thinkers by the Troubles and what they represented. The room for pursuing alternative positions was constrained, but nevertheless remained open. The circumstances were not auspicious, but the spirit was manifest.
Straining to address the collective state of aphasia into which Europe had fallen after 1945, Theodor Adorno famously pondered in the wake of the Third Reich whether it was now possible to write poetry after the revelations of Auschwitz and the effective sundering of the Enlightenment project. ‘The idea that after this war life will continue “normally” or even that culture might be re-built,’ Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (1951), ‘is idiotic.’ This was new terrain for which alternative aesthetic and discursive paradigms were required to render it intelligible. In an Irish context, inspired by Adorno and his postwar contemporaries, Seamus Deane pondered a similar question in the final chapters of his influential collection of critical essays addressing themes in modern Irish literature over the period 1880 to 1980, Celtic Revivals (1985). In the poetry of Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Derek Mahon, Deane wrote, ‘we are witnessing a revision of our heritage which is changing our conception of what writing can be because it is facing up to what writing, to remain authentic, must always face – the confrontation with the ineffable, the unspeakable thing for which “violence” is our helplessly inadequate word’. The disconcerting volatility of Irish reality at this time could inspire a languid apathy. Set against the protracted national calamity embodied in the Northern crisis, one faced a sublime spectacle that one could either disregard by turning inwards or confront by fashioning a new conceptual language to articulate the previously ineffable. This was a ‘Northern crisis’ in that its focal point was located in Ulster, but here we should beware of those who would confine the conflict to the northeast counties, thereby absolving public and state actors in the republic of responsibility for the crisis and its course and also mitigating its actual consequences for Ireland as a whole; for the Troubles not only posed an existential threat to the Northern Irish polity: they also delivered a profound shock to the republic’s self-image, while simultaneously redirecting critical attention to the seemingly perennial, if not irresolvable matter of ‘Irishness’.
Progressive Irish literature in the 1970s and 1980s, to quote Nicholas Allen, was ‘an art of persistence and of innovation, a disconcerting murmur on the margins that spoke all the time to the centrality of the imagination’. A Yeatsian ‘stir of thought’ was manifest in the cultural productions of this period, as registered by Deane, but in terms powerfully enunciated by Joyce in his set of lectures from 1907, ‘Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages’, a retreat into the ossified mentalities of colonial nationalism would not occasion a rejuvenation. Nor would employing literature as a medium for exacting historical recrimination be of much consequence: ‘I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome [and the Irish Catholic Church] still holds the dwelling place of the [Irish] soul.’ Romantic artists preoccupied with delving into the country’s past in search of a golden halcyon of political stability and cultural homogeneity, uncorrupted by English/British interference, or with idolising (and exoticising) the last few Gaelic-speaking communities on the Western seaboard as preserving an authentic Gaelic mentalité, unaffected by what Yeats called the ‘filthy modern tide’, found themselves lost to the nightmare of Irish history without realising it. It was one thing to ruminate on the violence of Irish history, and to issue invective after invective against the English/British in facilitating this trauma, but it was something else to appropriate and think beyond the constraints imposed by the Irish historical inheritance. Stephen Dedalus remarks in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) that ‘History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ One cannot properly extricate ourselves from the structures bequeathed to us by history, but in being aware of them as structures, as constituting the ground on which we stand, we are at least able bring a critical eye to bear on them to the end of rejuvenating a collective Irish imaginary and inaugurating a new sense of political as well as cultural possibility. As the literary critic Jacqueline Rose has recently written: ‘Only if you confront the “mess” of things, delve beneath the surface, and let in the silenced voices of history clamouring at the gate is there the slightest prospect of understanding, let alone transforming, the nightmares of our contemporary world.’ This was Joyce’s task, and his great achievement.
In this light we might read the famous closing lines of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916): ‘I go now to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ The subtle irony of the pronouncement is often occluded by its sheer grandiosity. By the time of his self-imposed ‘exile’, Stephen has only authored one mediocre villanelle; and having returned to Dublin for the start of Ulysses, he has done nothing to approximate his ambition, but that ambition nevertheless resounds: an eagerness to break the romantic mould that would entice him to turn inwards, to ruminate on Ireland’s condition within the modes of thought and artistic expression imparted to him by a moribund culture resigned to its sordid prostration beneath the embrace of a domineering imperial power. It is in this sense that Stephen famously invokes in the opening episode of Ulysses the ‘cracked looking glass of a servant’ as the symbol of Irish romanticism. ‘It is high time Ireland finished once and for all with failures,’ Joyce wrote in 1907; the servant ought to stand up, throw away the mirror, and ‘embrace the reality of experience’, like Stephen at the end of A Portrait. In a period of intense political ferment in Ireland, when all participants recognised the prescience of Yeats’s judgment that the ‘defeat of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893 had left Ireland like soft wax’, awaiting cultural redefinition, Joyce’s modernist project can be read as an attempt to transcend aesthetic precedent and re-establish Irish cultural life on an augmented basis, thereby positioning its people to embrace a beckoning futurity beneath the shadow of history.
For Joyce was not concerned with vanquishing his Irish inheritance, but with building on it. Like GWF Hegel, as Richard Bourke notes in his lucid account of this powerful philosopher, Hegel’s World Revolutions (2023), Joyce also recognised that we had to ‘think in the present … yet the material that formed the basis of our ideas was derived from the past’. For this reason Joyce maintained the English language, the language of the coloniser, instead of discarding it in favour of an ancient language which had been overtaken by history. It was through the English language that he would present Ireland to the modern world in Ulysses, as a nation leaning towards the future but weighted down by its past; and so that English was heavily accented, and at times almost unintelligible, for this was the language of a people which had been conquered but neither adequately reconciled nor assimilated. The point was to build using what one had at their disposal, in the light of prevailing Irish realties as the products of long-term historical processes, and with an eye attuned to the future rather than fixed on the past. ‘When he was with us,’ Joyce’s school friend William Fallon once remarked, ‘he sometimes appeared to be peering into the future.’ We would be well to follow his gaze.
My purpose in this essay is to suggest that in our time of discord and imaginative stasis, where we have come to recognise our existing political and societal configurations as generally unsuited to our new historical conjuncture but also find ourselves straining to imagine viable alternatives, we should have recourse to our rich intellectual traditions in search of ideas we may appropriate, modify and utilise as ideals by which to direct constructive political action in the world at large and contemporary Ireland in particular. When the present age, to quote William Hazlitt in 1825, comprises one ‘of talkers and not doers’, and when politics consists largely in vindictive moral recrimination pursued on the basis of ‘identity’ affiliation and accorded claims of historical injustice, the tendency is to look inwards instead of outwards and to derogate the ideologies and institutions of liberal modernity as constituting, together in their disparate strands, an architecture of confinement from which we must seek emancipation. The animas of this over-principled form of politics are readily discernible. ‘Hyperpolitics’, as recently defined by Anton Jäger, arises from a dense medium of legitimate grievances, and points to actual disparities that require effective redress. Given practical articulation, however, hyperpolitics tends towards a form of inchoate, ahistorical, and individualistic emotivism concerned with the radical disavowal of established institutions and prevailing modes of approach and association. This is against a preferable form of a politics preoccupied with grounding abstract ideals of political equality and social justice in the real political and economic configurations of a given society at a particular moment, recognising these as the products of long-term historical processes and as offering the only basis for constructive reform. Without considering these processes, the prospective political actor will have little sense of how to anatomise the power structures bequeathed to a society by history, let alone how or where to start changing them. They will therefore sacrifice practical orientation, and practical orientation in the political sphere is prerequisite for the effective application of political ideals. Hyperpolitics is animated by ideals but ineffective at reconciling these with prevailing political realties and historical circumstances. Real politics offers a viable alternative, but only so far as the ideals espoused in any given case are amenable to the society in question at the moment of application and rooted in a practically orientated political philosophy of some variation.
My specific claim here is that the Irish republican tradition, stretching back to its original proponents in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, can be regarded as harbouring attractive political ideals for us to appropriate, modify and re-employ as guiding ideals for constructive political action in Ireland today. This, of course, is contentious territory – as illustrated above by Heaney’s reticence. But it shouldn’t be; and if we want to develop a new agenda for Irish politics rooted in our own political traditions, we ought to break the stigma and move towards the alternative form of Irish republicanism that Irish thinkers such as Richard Kearney (notably with Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, Culture, Philosophy (1997)) and Seamus Deane tried to develop against the last act of the Northern Irish troublers. They encountered, and not without reason, a public sphere unreceptive to their ideas. The moment wasn’t right. It might be now, or it might at least be time to conduct a fresh genealogy of the Irish republican tradition, to excavate its intellectual roots and demonstrate the lasting appeal of some of its principles.
For our purposes, these intellectual roots lie in the writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone. Commonly regarded as the father of republicanism in Ireland, Tone was a dexterous political critic rather than a political theorist. He was not responsible for first introducing republican ideas into Ireland – for this we should look to John Toland and a number of Belfast Presbyterians inspired by the lectures of Francis Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow – but Tone does provide their most powerful and influential expression, in synthesising a variety of intellectual perspectives in his formulation of a distinctively republican theory of Irish politics and history to explain prevailing political configurations in eighteenth century Ireland. Underlying his critique was a republican ideal of freedom or civil liberty as consisting of freedom from fear and arbitrary domination. He was an anti-majoritarian democrat who regarded civil liberty as rising or falling with the health of popular democracy. In eighteenth century Ireland, where three-quarters of the population were excluded from the political nation comprising members of the Protestant Church of Ireland, there was no democracy and thus no civil liberty.
In contemporary Ireland, we are far from the ideal of democracy espoused by Tone and the form of egalitarian civil liberty he envisioned for all Irish citizens, regardless of their prior communal, religious or ideological affiliations. Such an ideal still resounds, but Tone’s ideal of democratic freedom is only applicable today is we appropriate it, alter it and ground it in real Irish political circumstances under the auspices of a practically orientated political philosophy: namely, in this case, the neo-republicanism developed by the Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit. Pettit is arguably the foremost contemporary political thinker operating within a republican framework, but his work has had surprisingly little resonance in Ireland. The Irish intellectual climate may be more receptive now to the type of reappraisal and agenda-setting enterprise I present in the following two sections – the first concerned with expounding Tone’s democratic ideal in the context that inspired it, and the second with synthesising this ideal with Pettit’s brand of neo-republican theory – but one cannot tell. What follows, in any case, only amounts to a tentative survey of the topic at hand; a first step in a broader project of re-inventing the Irish republican tradition for contemporary Ireland in line with the strictures of normative political philosophy, in anticipation not only of the extensive constitutional reconfiguration which may await the republic in decades to come (if a union really is on the cards) but also towards the end of maximising civic inclusivity, social justice and democratic accountability in Ireland today.
Exiled to the United States in 1795 for his part in organising the United Irishmen, a dissident group of Irish radicals based in Dublin and Belfast, Wolfe Tone wrote in to the Irish MP Arthur O’Connor. Seeing in O’Connor a kindred spirit, Tone sought to avail himself of the opportunity to elucidate the principles which had guided his political agenda over the period leading to his banishment. He related to O’Connor his ‘theory of Irish politics’. This comprised two points: Tone traced all of Ireland’s lingering miseries to the ‘blasted influence of England’ and suggested that the outward manifestation of this malign influence lay in the perpetration of a ‘spirit of internal dissension grounded on religious distinctions’. How, then, was a solution to this iniquitous state of affairs to be prepared, he asked. ‘By a cordial union of all the people.’
Tone adhered to this position consistently throughout his career; from his early days as a reformist, Whig-aligned pamphleteer, political agitator and disgruntled lawyer in Dublin in the early 1790s, to his final year as a commissioned officer in the army of the French Republic endeavouring to persuade the governing Directory of the potential dividends associated with a successful French invasion of Ireland. France and Britain had been locked in imperial conflict since 1793, as a consequence of the French Revolution starting in 1789; Ireland lay geographically between them, presenting a tactical liability to Britain that France could exploit. In advocating this course, Tone had two points in mind: first, in the present war, ‘in Ireland only is Britain vulnerable’; and second, in a point vindicated by the role of Ireland in the Nine Years War (1688-97) a century before, France had much to gain from incorporating Ireland within its new imperial fold. For this was a France no longer driven to expansion and conquest, as in the days of Louis XIV, by the capricious will of an absolutist Catholic monarch regarding his personal interest as commensurate with that of the French nation. This was a new France; a republic of laws and men based on the three guiding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. It had thrown off the shackles of the ancien régime in order to establish in its place a new system of government and civil liberty founded not on historical precedent but according to the preference of a majority of active citizens engaged in a direct political process.
This was republican democracy guided by the light of liberté. To the distress of Burke but to the delight of radical democrats across the continent, this light was manifesting itself across Europe. Tone wrote in his first memorandum to the French Directory advancing the case for an invasion of Ireland that the United Irishmen had been established in 1791 in order to ‘subvert the tyranny of England, to establish the independence of Ireland, and to frame a free republic on the broad basis of liberty and equality’. Here he echoes a remark of Cicero’s from De republica: ‘Liberty has its home in no other form of government except where the power of the people is supreme; and where that is so, certainly nothing can be sweeter; and where there is no equality, there can indeed be no liberty.’
As a remedy for Ireland’s condition, Tone wanted an ‘independent republic in strict alliance with France’. As the harbingers of a new dawn of democratic liberty, the French must come as ‘friends, not conquerors’. In the event of a successful invasion, the free exercise of religion would be guaranteed; ‘a perfect security of property to all who should demean themselves as good citizens of their country, with strong denunciations against those who would support the cause of British tyranny in Ireland’ would be inaugurated; and to all Irish people would be issued an invitation to ‘organize themselves and form a national convention for the purpose of forming laws and administering the affairs of Ireland’. Writing ahead of the ill-fated French expedition to Ireland in December 1796, in his ‘Proclamation to the Irish People’, Tone wrote that ‘we come not to reduce you to a state of dependence on France, but to break the chains which have so long bound you to England’.
In the formulation of this and other passages Tone evinces his subscription to a particular idea of civil liberty identified by Quentin Skinner as the neo-Roman theory of free persons. Though largely associated with early modern republican writers such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini in renaissance Italy, and James Harrington, John Milton and Algernon Sidney in sixteenth century England, the purview of this unique political perspective was in reality much more accommodating than this narrow association would imply. Discernible in the writings of a diverse array of early modern political thinkers who would not have described their own positions as republican and were often critical of its contemporary advocates, such as Michel de Montaigne, William Molyneux, John Locke, Jonathan Swift, David Hume, Montesquieu and Edmund Burke, the neo-Roman theory of liberty rests on a distinction advanced in the ancient Roman legal Digest of the emperor Justinian: Summa iraque de iure personarum divisio hæc est, quod omnes homines aut liberi sunt aut servi – the chief and most vexatious division concerning the rights of persons is this: that all men are either free or slaves. A slave, as distinct from a free person, in being bound to someone else as their legal property and subject to their arbitrary will, resides at all times in a state of ‘potestate domini’ – within the power of their masters.
The bodies of the enslaved, to quote Seneca, are obnoxia: at the mercy of those to whom they are ascribed. They can neither act in their own right nor in their own power, and must depend on the constant good will of their master to spare them from harm; but by the nature of such a relationship the threat of violence or the possibility of death is ever present, so long as one remains within the control of some capricious power beyond themselves. To be a slave is to be constrained in one’s bodily autonomy. They cannot go where they wish or pursue whichever course they deem preferable to themselves; they are prevented from doing either, and thus from living the lives they wish to live, thereby depositing them in a languid condition wherein the sphere of action is dramatically circumscribed. Returning to this theme and responding to his critics in the ‘conclusion’ to Rethinking Liberty before Liberalism (2022), Skinner asks us to remember that the distinctive claim of neo-Roman liberty is that freedom is not essentially a predicate of action; ‘it is basically the name of a status, that of persons capable of living as they please in virtue of not being subject to the will of anyone else’. One might be interfered with, such as in temporarily being brought under arrest, but one still retains one’s status as a free person, even if one’s range of free choices is restrained for a time; as against those individuals who are not capable of acting freely at all, given that their actions are constrained by the arbitrary will of the person to whom they are subject.
The ancient Romans, operating in a society based on an economic model for which a slave class was integral to its operation, offered this analysis of slavery as a way to illustrate what it meant for an individual or civil association of persons to lose their former freedom. In a position of servitude, an individual is deprived of their civil liberty. A state or nation will similarly be deprived of its liberty if it is reduced or already subject to having its actions constrained by the will of some external agent other than the representatives of the body politic. It may be so, as Skinner cautions in Liberty before Liberalism (1998), that a community is not in actuality governed tyrannically; its rulers may adhere to the dictates of established law and operate within the strictures of customary practice, while acknowledging the rights of their subjects in line with existing constitutional arrangements in a given polity. Such particularities do not matter, Skinner insists, but merely serve to distract our attention from a basic consideration of the power relations that structure any given society (“The central question is not ‘what options are available to me?’ but rather ‘who is in control?’”): ‘such a state will nevertheless be counted as living in slavery if its capacity for action is in any way dependent on the will of anyone other than the body of its own citizens.’ Likewise, to exist under a state, but not to participate in the state itself, deposits one in the same position of supine dependency. In a striking articulation of the political doctrine Skinner traces, Edmund Burke writes in 1792 that: ‘Servorum non est republica, is a very old and a very true maxim. This servitude, which makes men subject to a state without being citizens, may be more or less tolerable from many circumstances: but these circumstances, more or less favourable, do not alter the nature of the thing. The mildness by which absolute masters exercise their dominion, leaves them masters still.’
Many republican theorists, such as Algernon Sidney in his Discourses Concerning Government (1698), drew a distinction between ‘free states’ and ‘those which have lived in slavery’. Among the latter are those which subsist under laws and political arrangements which their citizens had no hand in instituting, either from having a corrupt oligarchical or aristocratic government at their head or from being subject to a domineering power from without. As Jonathan Swift writes with characteristic vehemence in the fourth of his Drapier’s Letters (1724-5), critiquing the inequity of Ireland’s constitutional arrangements: ‘ … all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery’. Among the former, by contrast, are those states wherein the laws and political structures that govern their citizens were instituted only after gaining approval from a majority of the political nation. The citizens of the Roman Republic were free, in this respect, because no law could be imposed on them without first having gained approval from a majority in the people’s assemblies – hence the trepidation felt by many Roman senators when faced with the incipient tyranny represented by Julius Caesar’s dictatorship: for Rome was an empire of laws, not men; a community in which all propertied male citizens (rather than women, children, foreigners, or slaves) were ‘keepers of their own liberties’ in that they all bore the same civil rights in an arrangement where no one individual could gain a prerogative over others unless he was so granted by the citizenry. It was with this venerable model in mind that Jean-Jacques Rousseau ventured to say in his political treatise from 1762, The Social Contract, that ‘I call … every state ruled by laws a republic, regardless of the form its administration may take. For only then does the public interest govern, and only then is the “public interest” [res publica] something real. Every legitimate government is republican.’
As with Rousseau, with whose writings he demonstrates a familiarity, Wolfe Tone’s admiration for the patrician culture and political structures of ancient Rome is well-known. Traces of this Roman inheritance are discernible in his penchant for displays of military camaraderie and public virtue, in which he was well-nourished during his time in Paris between early 1796 and his final voyage to Ireland in late 1798. It is similarly evident in the senatoral nature of Tone’s eventual suicide. While not executed in the graceful manner of Marat or Seneca, the source of Tone’s inspiration is clear. The greatest trace, however, rests in his analysis of the servile condition of Ireland in the eighteenth century and the solution he advocated.
In his autobiography, from 1796, Tone supplies what are among the most quoted lines in Irish history:
To subvert the tyranny of execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political ills, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objectives. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.
Tone’s ambition was to sever the bonds of Irish dependency on Britain, a goal he considered unreasonable (given Ireland’s apparent weakness and passivity) without the assistance of a benevolent and enlightened power such as France. This would inaugurate, he hoped, a new era of civil liberty and equality that would accommodate all the citizens of the island within a republican political structure of laws which they would enjoy a direct hand in constituting through their representatives.
Such an ideal could not be further from the prevailing dispensation in Ireland in the 1790s. Like Burke, Tone traced the profound discords of Irish life under the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ back to the failure of parliaments in London and Dublin to ensure that the civil liberties enshrined in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and subsequent Bill of Rights (1689) were implemented in Ireland as they were in England, as a constitutive kingdom of the British crown’s dominion. Writing in 1796, to the end of delivering his countrymen over to the cause of revolution before the projected French invasion that same year, Tone wrote:
To compensate you for the loss of your independent existence as a nation, for the destruction of your trade and manufacturers, the plunder of your property, the interdiction of education to three-fourths of your population, and their absolute exclusion from a state of political existence, you have been gravely told that you participate in what is called, in the cant of your enemies, the inestimable blessings of the British constitution.
He was hardly the first Anglo-Irish writer to address his critique of Ireland’s constitutional arrangements to the Irish nation. Jonathan Swift and William Molyneux were his major forebears from the preceding century. But whereas they had addressed themselves univocally to Ireland’s political community, to which they belonged as members of the Protestant Church of Ireland, Tone departed from their precedent in addressing himself to the whole people of Ireland.
The fact of this being an aberration for a man of Tone’s background was precisely the point. Despite forming a large majority of the Irish population, Catholics and Protestant Dissenters were excluded from participating in the Irish political nation. They were prevented from doing so by a series of ad hoc (rather than ‘systematic’) penal laws steadily introduced by the Irish Parliament in the aftermath of the Treaty of Limerick (1691) in order to solidify their power, ostensibly on behalf of the British monarch, over a teaming mass of rebellious Catholic Jacobites and deceitful Presbyterians.
Regardless of how effective the penal laws actually were, they nevertheless signified the arbitrary imposition of an iniquitous set of laws onto a people by a domineering power un-concerned with accommodating their interests or seeking their consent. The Irish Catholic and Dissenter populations then, for Tone, were unfree in being bound by laws that were not theirs and which prevented from advancing their interests as civic agents in a political nation. Without their participation, there was no political nation in Ireland, a state of affairs that was equally detrimental to the Anglo-Irish minority. ‘He who believes himself the master of others does not escape being more of a slave than they,’ as Rousseau cautioned in his Social Contract.
This was similarly Burke’s view of the situation. Writing in an open letter in 1792 to his friend and fellow advocate for Catholic enfranchisemenp Sir Hercules Langrishe, Burke regretted that the penal laws introduced by the Irish Parliament had ‘divided the nation into two distinct bodies, without common interest, sympathy, or connection. One of those bodies was to possess all the franchises, all the property, all the education: the other was to be composed of drawers of water and cutters of turf for them.’ In Ireland after 1688, the English constitutional revolution was ‘not a revolution, but a conquest’; instead of establishing the civil rights of the majority against a factious minority, as was the case in England, it preserved the freedoms of a minority at the expense of the liberties and properties of the much greater part. This preference arose, Burke argued, not from the Protestant ascendancy’s fear of the Catholic mob. Rather, ‘All the penal laws of that unparalleled code of oppression … were manifestly the effects of national hatred and scorn towards a conquered people [by a party] looking upon themselves as composing a colonial garrison’. Members of the ascendancy regarded the native Irish as a race of ‘bigoted savages who were a disgrace to human nature itself’. The Catholics and Protestant Dissenters comprised a second Irish nation with which the ascendancy would rather not engage and preferred to discount where possible, giving impetus to the veritable system of apartheid that reigned in Ireland. ‘I am sure,’ Burke wrote,
that there are thousands in Ireland who have never conversed with a Roman Catholic in their whole lives, unless they happened to talk to their gardener’s workmen, or to ask their way, when they had lost it, in their sports; or at best who had known them only as footmen, or other domestics of the second and third order: and so averse were they, some time ago, to have them near their persons, that they would not employ even those who could never find their way beyond the stable. I well remember a great, and in many respects a good, man, who advertised for a blacksmith; but at the same time ordered that he must be Protestant.
This arrangement would have been somewhat more tolerable to Burke had the ascendancy constituted a true aristocracy. In reality it comprised a ‘plebeian’ oligarchy of only recent vintage. Too large a people to garner public admiration, ‘that first source of obedience’, and lacking the ancestry, the historical-rootedness, and grandiosity to inspire love and respect among the people in the manner of a true aristocracy, the ascendancy was forced by necessity to maintain an ‘insulting and vexatious superiority’ over the people they held in a state of ‘humiliating vassalage’.
Burke acknowledged, all the while, that those parties which backed this system of oppression ‘looked to the irresistible force of Great Britain for their support in their acts of power’. The remedy, Burke recognised, for this ‘execrable’ state of affairs lay not merely with reforming the existing Irish administration but with bringing the Anglo-Irish relationship itself into proper alignment with the principles of the British constitution. Otherwise the state of affairs in Ireland would eventually lead to rebellion and the violent dissolution of that constitution. This was Burke’s fear, and Tone’s hope.
In his quest to break the connection with England in order to unite the divided sects of Ireland in view of their one mutual goal, Tone wanted Ireland to become a ‘nation, not a province’; and its people to become ‘citizens, not slaves’. In vanquishing what he saw to be the malign influence exercised by England in Irish affairs, Tone supposed that the Irish would be able to transcend the two great manifestations of British domination: a corrupt Irish parliament occupied by men ‘depending entirely for their existence on the connection with England, whose power alone secures them in possession of their usurpations’; and an ‘un-natural union between church and state [in the form of the established Church of Ireland] which has degraded religion into an engine of policy’ and intra-national discord.
All of this would be dissolved in Tone’s republic. It would inaugurate a new reign of law and justice that would brook no established authority that was not authorised by a majority of the Irish people acting as equal participants in the political nation. Liberated from the arbitrary interreference of England, and set within the newly established system of mixed government (comprising an independent executive, legislature and judiciary), the people of Ireland could relate to one another on equal terms, as bearers of the same basic civil liberties and entitled to the same opportunities. Ireland’s divisions, Tone wrote, ‘constitute the radical weakness of the country’; only by encouraging a sense of common purpose could these be transcended and something new established.
Whether this would have been achieved by the proper implementation of Tone’s plan it is impossible to say. It is highly doubtful; and Tone himself expressed little compunction at the prospect of ‘forcing’ his opponents (that is the propertied ascendency) to be free, as a last resort. Notwithstanding this, the picture of Tone presented here bears little resemblance to the Tone of popular association. He was not an insular-minded nationalist concerned with advancing the interest of the Irish Catholic ‘nation’, taken as a homogenous, ethnic community with a self-prescribed historical destiny. This agenda was a product of romantic Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century, for which Tone’s writings proved inspiration but for which they were not intended. Tone spoke to the people of Ireland rather than to any majority interest, Catholic or Protestant: in finding ourselves constrained by this central division, caught in a disjuncture between one or the other, Tone would implore that we read his writings more carefully. He wanted to break the power of Catholicism in Ireland as much as he sought to dismantle the established Protestant church, as two perpetuators of division, so that popular enthusiasm could be redirected towards the cause of the republic and to the Irish nation as a whole. As such, Tone was not a majoritarian, placing his faith in the force of majority opinion against an opposing minority. Rather, he was a democrat who acknowledged the right of a popular majority, but only so long as the will of said majority did not infringe the civil liberties of the minority. Tone’s republic was one that guaranteed equal civil freedoms to all Irish citizens as citizens; to permit any other arrangement would be to facilitate the inverse of the political arrangement which had driven him to republicanism in the first place: introducing the Catholic and Protestant Dissenter populations into the Irish political nation while at the same time ejecting the Church of Ireland Protestants would be a mockery of republican democracy.
Tone, then, would not have supported the IRA’s irridentist campaign during the Troubles to eradicate the ‘British colony’ from Northern Ireland; nor would he have supported the drive to a political union between the North and South unless the civil liberties of the new unionist minority were protected and guaranteed in advance, whatever the outcome of a future referendum on this matter. In any event, it is clearly senseless to ponder such questions: our problems in contemporary Ireland were not Tone’s. But some of these do bear a distant familiarity. Still, however, as Hegel warns us in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1806): ‘the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood’. The state of Irish democracy today may bear some resemblance to that which vexed Tone and Burke alike, but at the same time the latter conjuncture is utterly foreign to us. We may have affinities with it, but these will never be enough for us to know it.
This provides one instantiation of a basic question faced by intellectual historians and political thinkers alike: how should we employ the ideas of past thinkers in the service of our own projects? Historical authorities in the canons of nationalism, say, or liberal political thought, will always be evoked either to vindicate or inform political judgment in the present. This in itself is no bad thing. However, in appealing to authorities like Burke, Rousseau, Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Rawls, or Tone, to see what light they may be able to shed on our predicament or ponder ‘what they would have done’ in our situation, we tend to forget that their writings and prescriptions were all context-dependent; they are the products of particular historical conjunctures that are now lost to us bar a few remnants. What ‘advice’ Burke, say, has to offer about the current state of liberal democracy depends primarily on what we want from him – he enjoyed no access to a perennial body of wisdom; nor do we. Having first of all resituated these intellectual figures within their original intellectual contexts, thereby refining the remit of engagement and legitimate extraction, the preferable course of action would be to consult these figures in search of ideas we might appropriate and combine with other ideas, always in the light of prevailing political as well as historical circumstances in the society under consideration, in order to address whatever issues we have before us.
Republicanism offers one such tradition of thought. The republican tradition in Ireland has been poorly utilised in this way, blackened as it is by its association with the anti-democratic tradition of the IRA. This does not need to be the case. When held in his original context, Tone offers a republicanism at variance with that advanced by the IRA. He provides a basis of sorts for constructing an alternative form of Irish republicanism. Make no mistake, Tone’s ideas arose from the ferment of late eighteenth century European politics, and there the substance of his writings should stay. He had nothing whatsoever to say about the statuses of women, children, or foreign nationals in Ireland, or how they would fare in a new republic, which he failed to outline in any practicable, systematic manner. Had it come to pass, the attempted implementation of Tone’s plan would have led to anarchy at the expense of the landed Protestant minority. He therefore, presents an imperfect political model. My contention is that the ideal underlying his thought still has potential to inspire and may provide a potential source of guidance once we appropriate that ideal and synthesise it with the practically orientated political philosophy of Philip Pettit so as to render it permissible and practically feasible.
‘A revolution in the political morality of the nation is of the most extreme importance.’ When Tone wrote this to the French Directory in February 1796, he could do little to bring about the change in popular Irish opinion and sentiment he deemed prerequisite for realising the political revolution he envisioned. For this to have any chance of succeeding, those comprising the ‘Irish nation’, in Tone’s rendition, would have to come to recognise themselves as constituting a latent political nation and, by extension, a collective agent that could effect real change when given the appropriate preconditions. All that was stopping them, for Tone, was the arbitrary interference of Britain in Irish affairs. Remove that ballast and the Irish nation would float free. This was from a man who had no direct contact with Ireland during his time in France. Tone could not accurately gauge popular sentiment, which precluded him from formulating a feasible political strategy suited to the situation as it was rather than what he supposed it to be: he was guided by the light of principle instead of grounding himself in concrete realities. The former course was expedient given his predicament, but it was not auspicious. Hoping to inaugurate a new reign of justice in Ireland, it is more likely that Tone’s projected revolution would have ushered in a new reign of tyranny. ‘[A] public can only achieve enlightenment slowly,’ Immanuel Kant wrote in his famous An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784). ‘A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in the ways of thinking.’
This, again, is not to censure Tone’s thought, only to highlight its limited utility; to delineate the narrow parameters within which we must operate when treating or, indeed, appropriating his ideas; and to advocate caution to those who would employ normative political theory in order to address real political circumstances. For the basic antimony lying at the heart of Tone’s project is one of near-perennial contention experienced by political philosophers. The question of how prescriptive normative theory can offer a prudential guide to real political change in the spheres of government and social policy, say, is a divisive one that attests to a heterogeneous spectrum of views as to how speculation ought to inform action.
My argument in this essay has been that republicanism may offer such a prudential guide to political change in the here and now, in Ireland today, and that in an Irish context specifically the republican political heritage has been poorly mined in search of ideas that might provide a source of inspiration as we endeavour to reorientate ourselves and the polity we share onto a path of greater social justice, economic equality and political cohesiveness. Contemporary Ireland is far from approximating any of these three ideals. This should be apparent – feelings of social dislocation are pervasive; wealth disparities, though not uniformly conspicuous, are obvious and affecting social outcomes and precluding civic engagement; and the question of political equality could not be more pressing, given the experiences of asylum seekers in Ireland, but also migrant workers, homeless people and members of similarly disadvantaged minority groups – but we will predictably disagree on how we might approximate these ideals or whether, as mere ideals, they are worth striving towards at all. They are, but they nevertheless remain ideals; the question rests with how we might implement measures in their direction without losing touch with the ground beneath our feet – the final arbiter of political possibility.
Tone offers the attractive ideal of a republic in which all members are citizens who bear the same fundamental rights and liberties and enjoy at their disposal the same opportunities towards self-advancement and obligations towards their community, as constitutive members of the one Irish polity. This is all fine and well; but in a globalised, free-market economy where Foucault’s homo economicus has superseded Aristotle’s zoon politikon, the form of republican virtue envisioned by Tone in reference to a small, rural, effectively pre-modern nation bears little direct relevance for us today – befitting more the renaissance-era Italian city states of Florence and Venice, as presented in JGA Pocock’s magisterial account of early-modern republican political thought, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), rather than deracinated Ireland in this prevailing neoliberal conjuncture. An insufficiently regulated free market serves to divide and alienate, in perpetuating a meritocratic conception of society, in the first instance, whilst commodifying those previously amenable facets of what was the public or common good. The general effect is to redirect our gaze inwards, towards the private sphere, away from the public domain of the political. ‘No human life,’ as Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition (1958), ‘not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world that directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.’ This retreat into the private does not, as such, signify a retreat; more like an acquiescence, as what was formerly the public sphere is captured by invasive private corporations, assuming their influence to cease at the boundary of public and private. It does not; that boundary is not impermeable. For what now remains of the ‘private’ (assuming, spuriously, that any of our thoughts or actions can be conceived as arising from strictly private circumstances) when our days are suffused with email notifications, text messages, Twitter notifications, Amazon recommendations determined by an algorithm concerned with tracking our every move online, and when the devices ever proximate to our persons provide an inexhaustible source of distraction at the slightest hint of frustration, loneliness, or anxiety, thereby sparing us the prospect of solitary reflection or the difficulty of thinking for ourselves. The majority of us today are unmistakably public beings operating in a public sphere, more than eager to share our thoughts with our cultivated communities on whichever form of social media we employ. In fact one could argue that we have never been so publicly-minded given our ability to engage with an infinitely wide array of people and different collective groups from our devices. But it would be perverse to characterise this public sphere as a real public sphere, orchestrated as it is by a series of rapacious private corporations with a concerted interest not only in drawing us in and keeping us hooked on their services but with depositing us within our own little spheres into which ‘inconvenient’ opinions need not intrude. In perpetuating consensus and stifling dissent, all while assuming a benign countenance, social media offers a poor sense of what political deliberation ought to resemble. In this it also imperils our sense of democracy, primarily through incubating us from the concerns of our political ‘opponents’, rather than fellow citizens, and encouraging us to relegate their legitimate concerns to the lowly level of simple prejudice or inchoate rage.
All this is indicative of a much broader malaise I lack the space to address. My purpose is to briefly illustrate just how impoverished our conceptions of political community and political possibility have become. Part of this can be traced to the pervasive influence of social media and to the reification of formerly practical human sentiments into the technological. Ultimately, however, this inquiry returns us to the same problem afflicting normative political theorists in political philosophy – namely, how we forgo traction when we recede into abstraction; how we divide ourselves from the material circumstances of the historical conjuncture in which we find ourselves and by which our actions are necessarily constrained. If we are to effect political change, we can do so only from a position as attentive to an appreciation of governing political relations and power structures as we are to the long-term historical process that give rise to them: only then will be able to orientate ourselves into the future. But how might we do so on the republican ideal offered by Tone? If we are to do so, and do so effectively, we ought to appropriate his sense of freedom as consisting in democratic freedom from arbitrary domination and resituate it within a realisable political model directly informed by prevailing Irish circumstances and cognisant of the historical processes of which they are the products.
When the leaders of the French Revolution invoked the trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity to justify their grand project on a republican basis, they had already marked their departure from the classical republicanism from which they drew inspiration. The republicanism of ancient Rome defended by Cicero, as we saw, stood for an aristocratic constitutional arrangement to which only propertied male citizens were allowed admittance. The republicanism of the Revolution, by contrast, was aspirationally democratic in dissolving the ancien régime’s three-Estate social hierarchy (the nobility, the clergy, and ‘those who worked’) and constituting a single body in its place. This transformation was first registered in a pamphlet from 1789 authored by the Abbé Sieyès, What is the Third Estate? There, Sieyès argued that the modern nation consisted of a unity between individuals comprising the body politic and, second, those comprising the working population from whom France derived its real wealth. On this basis Sieyès established his argument for popular representative government as a preferable, modernised model to the ancient aristocratic precedent of Rome. This arrangement was designed to facilitate and defend an ancient ideal of liberty that was accessible only to a privileged minority endowed with the resources and time to devote themselves to politics and public affairs. In their plan to extend the benefits of citizenship and democratic freedom beyond the elite to the majority, taking inspiration from Rousseau, the American founding fathers, and other radical democratic thinkers of the Enlightenment, the Revolution had appropriated and modified the core features of ancient republicanism to render it amenable to their reigning historical conjuncture and suitable to their purposes, guided all the while by an ideal of freedom as freedom from fear and arbitrary domination.
Tone also subscribed to this position, in advancing an ancient conception of freedom he sought to foreground in modern circumstances, however poorly executed. What concerns us is that same ideal: the belief that without first committing ourselves to achieving substantial levels of political and social rather than strictly economic equality in the sphere of public life and, correspondingly, a palpable sense of communal solidarity, the modern cause of liberty is morally bankrupt and practically vacuous. ‘Human nature cannot by any means subsist, without the association of individuals,’ David Hume wrote in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), ‘and that association never could have place, were no regard paid to the laws of equity and justice.’
In our contemporary liberal democracies, moreover, the condition of freedom depends on the health of democracy. Without real democracy, the freedom at our disposal will bear only an etiolated resemblance to the freedom we might have and ought to have. ‘To want republican liberty, you have to want republican equality; to realise republican liberty, you have to realise republican community.’ This is Philip Pettit writing in his 1997 formulation of a normative political philosophy based on the republican ideal I have been sketching, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. There, Pettit is concerned with extracting from the republican or neo-Roman political tradition an ideal of liberty as consisting in freedom from non-domination and re-positing this as a ‘primary good’ in the same manner in which John Rawls advanced the general desirability of his theory of ‘justice as fairness’: as something that will appeal to all rational persons in promising results that will be desirable to them regardless of their prior belief systems or affiliations.
Freedom from non-domination is a good in itself, one that is easily recognisable and the great test for any purportedly just society. Whereas the ancient version of republicanism was exclusivist and only suited to small city states with pre-modern social and economic structures, Pettit’s advocacy of republicanism as a desired constitutional set-up is ‘motivated by an assumption that the ideal is capable of commanding the allegiance of the citizens of developed, multi-cultural societies, regardless of their more particular conceptions of the good’. In our modern, stratified societies, Pettit argues, where the communitarian ideal implicit in Burke’s avowal of the ‘little platoon’ has been rendered superfluous on the marketisation of Western societies and the turn towards multiculturalist globalisation, making ethnically diverse communities which were never really homogeneous and introducing competitive dynamism where there had never been true inertia, our conventional conception of liberty is inadequate.
The basic idea of liberty advanced by philosophers working within the liberal tradition, for example, rests on a conception of freedom as freedom from interference. Pettit traces this understanding of liberty to Anglophone thinkers of the early nineteenth century, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who were concerned with cultivating the grounds of individual liberty and with expounding the remit of sovereign choice on the basis of property ownership. Modern ‘liberty’, in the rendition advanced by Isaiah Berlin in his famous inaugural lecture at Oxford in 1958, was restricted to the private domain of individual conscience, as against the ancient conception of liberty which existed at the exalted level of community and was consummate with the ‘general will’. The latter facilitated temperate democratic procedure and upheld the sanctity of individual choice in the marketplace. Freedom, on this reading, consisted of the individual’s ability to choose and to not be un-necessarily constrained in their choices unless any given constraint was to the end of preserving their general liberties overall. This remains the basic understanding of liberty in Western liberal democracies today. One might say that it enjoys a kind of ideological hegemony, in suffusing our political and cultural imaginaries, particularly from the dawn of the neoliberal age in the late 1970s when this form of liberty was augmented: it now presented freedom to act as the cardinal facet of democratic liberty; the choice to make choices in a consumerist nexus wherein the active buyer enjoys pre-eminence. Never mind the myriad social constraints that conspire to inhibit various groups of nominally sovereign consumers from actualising their latent potential in the market sphere. Or the circumstances whereby certain individuals, given their pre-existing disadvantages arising from their legal status, ethnicity, sexual identity or gender, class, family position or employment situation, are brought within the prerogative of some capricious authority to which they must submit out of desperation and thereby forgo their rights to participate in political, social, and cultural life. Or, for that matter, how certain individuals living and working in our societies and contributing essential services for our collective sustenance, often in dismal conditions and for meagre returns at the price of long-term health risks, can be part of the nation, and contribute to the maintenance and support of that nation, but not be counted as citizens with an equal right to participate in the political nation as citizens – and this is without specifying, in Ireland, the plight of migrant workers or the intolerable treatment received by asylum seekers trapped in a contemporary archipelago. These individuals have a right to enjoy civil rights (to employ a formulation made famous by Hannah Arendt); and only under an authentically republican system of law and government, guided by an ideal of modern democratic freedom as consisting in non-domination – that is, freedom of action not merely to consume but to act in one’s own power as one constitutive member of a commonwealth of equals – will they be treated as citizens not just in name but in practice. But we should go further than this, on Skinner’s reading and criticism of Pettit: neo-Roman liberty is a condition, rather than a predicate; the status of a free person, in this sense, should be equated with the individual’s capacity to exercise untrammelled freedom of choice within a domain of basic liberties guaranteed by a constitution governed by laws rather than men.
Modern liberty depends on the health of democracy. Without real democracy, there is no real liberty. But in what does real democracy consist? For Montesquieu, writing in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), ‘Political liberty in a citizen is that tranquillity of spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his security, and in order for him to have this liberty the government must be such that one citizen cannot fear another citizen.’ Montesquieu situated liberty in an exception from fear, a state of equipoise in which one’s rights and liberties were secured in place by a binding architecture of laws that prevented them from being revoked at a moment’s notice and allowing one to see where one stood vis-à-vis the wider community and its political representatives. Political authority ought to be transparent and accountable; it must be regulated and bound by a system of laws arising from the political community as a whole, so that all citizens regardless of their specific affiliations or political orientations know their positions in society and know what they can do with legal impunity and legal protection.
Writing in The State (2023), Pettit argues that it is the role of the functional polity – the active, intervening state of the twenty-first century – to establish and entrench an architecture of laws so as to provide its citizens with a ‘reliable, determinate sense of legal security, however limited it may be, within which they can decide on how they want to live their lives’. The state will be better placed to achieve this end if it incorporates as a single functional agent, acting on behalf of the general democratic will from which it derives authority, in order to protect the regime and constitutional setup from dissension from within and interference from without. The function of the state is to inaugurate a system of civil rights on behalf of its citizens and to ensure their preservation from hostile foreign or domestic agents that would threaten them.
To approximate Pettit’s neo-republican theory of the state, a nominally republican polity must look upon freedom as non-domination as foundational in its endeavour to achieve a real level of political as well as social justice. The absence of domination, understood inter-personally, as in a person’s freedom from arbitrary domination by other individuals in society, and then corporately, as in a person’s freedom from poorly regulated corporate agents operating within or from outside a given polity, should translate to basic citizenship – with special provisions for children, atypical adults, refugees and temporary immigrants that detract neither from their basic status within the political nation nor from their right to participate in the regime of laws designed to meet the requirements of the community. In this configuration alone can real democracy be said to consist: a condition of equality that permeates the basic structure of civil institutions on which the modern polity rests.
To be confident of where one stands in public life, to see without difficulty the remit of one’s personal liberty, and to know that one’s liberties cannot be contravened by others participating in the same regime of laws is to recognise that all members of a given democratic society are participants in a secure structure that is the outward expression of the common good. The rights of individuals are, therefore, firmly entrenched against the potential threat of majority rule in a constitutional setup, or majority opinion in a constitutional referendum. Such as, for instance, a referendum in Ireland sometime in the not-too-distant future that may result in the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic. For a referendum of this kind to be just, on a republican basis, the civil liberties of the new Protestant-unionist minority would have to be guaranteed before any referendum was called. If the new minority were not incorporated into the new unified Irish state on equal constitutional terms to the nationalist majority, the effort would be wasted for the result would be a chronically unstable state with a disaffected minority unreconciled to the national community.
In a truly republican democracy, a citizen should feel as deep a sense of personal security in society as to look any one of her fellow citizens directly in the eye without reason for fear or deference. This outcome was precisely Tone’s hope for Ireland and its downtrodden population. When he evoked in his writings the sense of dependency to which he saw the Irish Catholic and Dissenter populations becoming inured, in subsisting beneath the weight of British domination, unknown to the Protestant ascendancy and unrecognised by their contemporaries in Europe, Tone’s objective was to reinvigorate the Irish out of their sullen state by severing the connection with Britain and by replacing the structures of religious sectarianism, inequality and political division instated and maintained by that connection with a new regime of civil laws that would have admitted the three sects of Ireland as citizens and facilitated their relations on an equal, democratic basis. Tone wanted a Catholic walking down a street in Dublin to be able to look a Protestant in the eye without reason for fear or deference, as equal bearers of the same liberties and both working towards the same common good as residents of the one unified polity. Beyond the sphere of national affairs, moreover, Tone wanted Ireland to be able to assert itself in the international arena as a state and nation in its own right instead of a mere province of Britain.
Tone never saw his ideals realised. The eventual course of Irish history would seem to contravene his agenda, if not demonstrate its spuriousness: preferably characterised as imaginary and delusional rather than real and applicable. The neo-republicanism advanced by Pettit has been similarly dismissed on this basis, as unworkable in our large, commercial states, where inequalities are entrenched and unfortunately necessary, as opposed to the small farming communities of Greek and Roman antiquity, where inequalities were also entrenched and deemed necessary (indeed, it was Aristotle’s conviction of the preferability of this arrangement that he deemed an underclass of slaves to be desirable as well as necessary). In our age of persisting neoliberal ascendancy, where the public sphere concedes ever further ground to the encroaching private; where poorly regulated corporations vie for our attention and allegiance, distracting if not extricating us from the real political world of endemic exploitation and proliferating inequalities with which we must engage; and where, for that matter, the political actor has given way to the sovereign consumer, sublimating the former’s sense of creative possibility into the latter’s sense of personal duty, reorientating our affections away from the communal into the individual – here, republican virtue will not flourish, and nor will republican political equality be realisable. In any event, notwithstanding our depoliticised present or the stratified nature of public sentiment that inhibits us from looking upon the disadvantaged in our societies as our basic equals, the imminent threat posed by climate breakdown, ‘rogue states’ or impending war between two nuclear-armed superpowers, does little to inspire fellow sympathy, illustrated by the plight so far of climate migrants.
Apathy of this sort in response to our decidedly grim circumstances is unhelpful. Indeed, it testifies to an impoverished conception of politics worn down by its own inhibitions. This is a common mindset we need to break if we are to act productively with the resources, traditions, and institutions we have and with the time at our disposal. We can only move forward. There is no standing still in this world. Burying oneself in the past and its certainties will not prepare us for proceeding into the future. Politics is the medium by which we find orientation in the social world. Either we embrace politics together in pursuit of designated objectives or we lose a sense of ourselves in a reality we can neither truly understand nor control. To orientate ourselves as collective political agents behind a plan of action we need political ideals; to direct our course, these ideals need to be practical and meet the actual political circumstances and historical conditions of the society in which we seek to implement them. All normative political theories should rise or fall on their ability to meet this requirement. For this reason the French Revolution led to tyranny; Tone’s revolution would have taken a similar course. Abstract political ideals cannot be graphed onto a society alone. Such principles should be applied, of course, as Hegel acknowledged, but at the same time they needed to meet the preconditions arising in a given society. A moral revolution ought, by necessity, to precede the political revolution; political change could be effected only after the preconditions for that change had been laid.
The neo-republican ideal, in Pettit’s rendition, as a primary good in itself that all reasonable people can and will attest to, speaks to a ‘deep and universal human desire for standing and dignity and a robust and hearty disposition to feel resentment at pretensions of superiority’. Pettit’s agenda is a practical one. Indeed, it is not only necessary but essential if we are to redevelop a sense of civic community in the national realm and greater equality in the international sphere. Pettit does not offer a final end view – a model that will, if implemented correctly, bring about the conditions he describes – but an ideal for a people to aspire to and for their leaders to strive towards. The nature of reforms required in each case will vary, as will the results, but what matters in the end is that they are directed towards the one goal of republican democracy in consideration of a given state’s power structures and historical conditions.
In Ireland today, as recently surveyed by Maurice Earls in a powerful essay, the primary question facing us is ‘what, if anything, can be done to roll back the process of social dissolution’? Ireland may enjoy the best performing economy in Western Europe as of August 2023, but what does this matter when somewhere between forty-five and sixty per-cent of Irish people enjoy no surplus revenue at the end of each month? When social and public infrastructure strains to meet popular demand after decades of cumulative disinvestment and privatisation? Or when a generation of young people has been excluded from the housing market as the result of a protracted crisis that does not seem to be going away, leaving them with two options: emigrate or face the prospect of growing old on a precarious rental contract which the landlord can alter at a moment’s notice. Last year witnessed a sharp increase in homelessness, which in itself only provides a basic indication of the pain and indignation that are rampant in Ireland today, beneath the brittle facade of opulence celebrated by political figures concerned not only with preserving what Earls has termed the ‘Hibernian Trading Platform’ as the only feasible form of economic life for Ireland, ‘but also as the key repository of Irish hopes and values’. There is no mainstream, anti-establishment populist party in Ireland to feed off these antagonisms, and the partly commonly accused of filling this role bears only faint comparison to the Brothers of Italy, Rassemblement National, Alternative für Deutschland, or the Republican Party in the US. But this is not to say that conditions are not right for such a party to rise to prominence in Ireland in the future if things do not change, especially as the spectre of climate catastrophe comes closer. We ought to avert this slide while we have time. Democratic republicanism offers one potentially advantageous mode of procedure, but only if we act on this with real purpose and foresight.
We have a rich republican tradition at our disposal, but we have under-appreciated its utility as a source of political guidance for the present. The writings of Wolfe Tone provide a starting point. Were we to appropriate the democratic ideal he channelled and integrate it with Pettit’s political philosophy, we would enjoy a source of historical inspiration linked to a source of real political guidance. We may, and should, subscribe to this configuration, but only after first having ruminated on a maxim found in Adam Smith’s first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1758): ‘The most sublime speculations of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty.’
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, translated by EFN Jephcott (London: Verso, 2020).
Nicholas Allen, ‘Becoming a Republic: Irish Writers in Transition’, Irish Literature in Transition, 1940-1980, edited by Eve Patten (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp 83-100.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, 2018).
Richard Bourke, Hegel’s World Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023).
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), edited by Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin Classics, 1970).
Edmund Burke, ‘Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe, Bart. M.P., on the subject of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, and the propriety of admitting them to the elective franchise, consistently with the principles of the Constitution, as established at the Revolution’ (1792), collected in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (London: George Bell & Sons, 1883), Vol 3, pp 298-345.
Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980 (London: Faber & Faber, 1985).
Maurice Earls, ‘The State of Us’, Dublin Review of Books (Feb 2023). Online at: https://drb.ie/articles/the-state-of-us-2/
GW Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), translated by AV Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), collected in Enquiries, edited by LA Selby-Brigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1902, 1975), pp 169-285.
Anton Jäger, ‘Everything is Hyperpolitical’, The Point Magazine (Feb. 2023). Online at: https://thepointmag.com/politics/everything-is-hyperpolitical/
James Joyce, ‘Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages’ (1907), collected in Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited by Kevin Barry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp 108-27.
Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”’, collected in Kant: Political Writings, edited by HS Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, 1989), pp 54-61.
Richard Kearney, Postnationalist Ireland: Politics, Culture, Philosophy (London & New York: Routledge, 1997).
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Jacqueline Rose, ‘The Analyst’, New York Review of Books, Vol 70, No 14 (Sept 2023), pp 49-51. Online at: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2023/09/21/the-analyst-stuart-hall-jacqueline-rose/
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762), collected in The Basic Political Writings, edited by Peter Gay and translated by Donald A Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), pp 141-227.
Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Quentin Skinner, ‘Conclusion: On Neo-Roman Liberty: A Response and Reassessment’, in Rethinking Liberty before Liberalism, edited by Hannah Dawson & Annelien de Dijn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), pp 233-67.
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Adam Coleman is a doctoral student in history at Trinity College, University of Cambridge.