BUILDING A NEW REPUBLIC – LET’S BEGIN NOW
Gerry Adams TD, President of Sinn Féin, Dáil deputy for Louth
Three years away from the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it is indeed appropriate to examine ‘How stands the Republic’. Indeed the proposition begs the question – what Republic? This state is not the Republic envisaged by those who wrote the Proclamation. They had a vision for a real republic – a republic of justice, equality and fairness – a republic for all the people of this island. This is clear when you read the Proclamation. It addresses Irish men and Irish women. At a time when women didn’t have the vote, this simple address was in itself a progressive statement. Irishmen and Irishwomen is what it says. It doesn’t say unless you are gay or unless you are a traveller or unless you are poor or unionist or unless you are disabled. No, the Proclamation speaks of pursuing the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts; guarantees civil and religious liberty, and equal rights and equal opportunities; and commits the republic to cherishing all the children of the nation equally. These concepts are mirrored in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. In words that resonate, just months away from another budget that will strip billions out of public services, the Democratic Programme set as the ‘first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training…’ These are words that speak to us in a society where children and adults go hungry; where half a million citizens are out of work, and where emigration is thriving. The forced emigration of generations of Irish citizens is a telling and shameful indictment of this state. It is a salutary illustration – decade by decade – of failure.
The impact of partition
Almost 100 years ago partition created two conservative states ruled in their narrow self-interests by two conservative elites. The northern state was a one party state which reinforced the institutionalised use of discrimination, sectarianism and segregation. Despite the significant progress arising from the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, the legacy of that structured discrimination and inequality still needs to be tackled in a focussed and systematic way. Partition also affects this part of the island.
This state is the product of the counter-revolution that followed the Rising and of a dreadful civil war which tore out the heart at that time of what remained of the generosity of our national spirit. As the idealism of the aborted revolution waned, a native conservative elite replaced the old English elite with little real change in the organisation of Irish society and no real movement towards a rights-based dispensation. Instead conservatism ruled.
Religion was hijacked by mean men who used the gospel not to empower but to control, and narrow moral codes were enforced to subvert the instinctive generosity of our people. Women were discriminated against; gay and lesbian citizens were denied equality under the law and, all the while, scandals like the abuse in the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, BethanyHome and the barbaric practice of symphysiotomy were tolerated and encouraged. Those who suffered were mostly poor. The arts were censored, our language undermined, our culture corroded. Millions fled to England, the USA and Australia. A lesser people would not have survived.
The system of economic and political apartheid in the North and the scandals of backhanders and brown envelopes, and of the banking and financial institutions and developers in this part of the island, exemplify how the elites held sway. Moreover, the institutions of this state, be they media, academia or the political elites are very partitionist. They have their backs to the border. While they are generally benign, policy makers knew little about the North and cared even less. Their concern is to protect the interests of the establishment as they understand it. I am minded here of the words of a US President, Rutherford Hayes in 1876. He was writing about the USA at that time and echoing concerns expressed earlier by Abraham Lincoln about the power of corporations. President Hayes wrote:
“This is a government of the people by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations by corporations and for corporations.”
He could have been writing about Ireland today. Liam Mellows warned of this in the Treaty debates when he noted that when men get into power they will want to hold on to that power. Of course, there are exceptions both at a collective and an individual level but the prevailing sense among the policy makers is to perpetuate the status quo.
This will only be changed when a genuine national spirit is recreated to replace the nonsense, popular in some circles, that this state is the nation and that Ireland stops at Dundalk or Lifford. That is the easy lazy option which conceived the politics of Section 31 and the gradual erasure, which accompanied it, of patriotic music and songs from our so called national airwaves.
Post Good Friday Agreement
We are living in a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland. This is most obvious in the North. But nowhere are the equality safeguards or parity of esteem measures of the Good Friday Agreement reflected in this state, in its governance or the protections for citizens. On the contrary, the Irish government, as part of a cost cutting exercise, merged the Irish Human Rights Commission with the Equality Authority. The government has failed to introduce equality proofing legislation. The Good Friday Agreement also envisaged that there would be a Bill of Rights for the North and a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland.
There is no Bill of Rights or Charter of Rights and no Civic Forum. The Good Friday Agreement also removed the Government of Ireland Act, under which the British government claimed sovereignty over the North, and provided for a poll on Irish unity. Such a poll will provide a unique opportunity for a real, inclusive and constructive debate on the future of Ireland. Yet the government in Dublin shies away from such a debate. It has no strategy to win unionists to embrace a united Ireland and, until recent events forced the issue, the government had no consistent or strategic engagement with the British government over matters arising from the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. This not to say that I believe this government is averse to dealing with these issues. Not at all. It is simply doing what governments here do, including the last Fianna Fáil government, and that is as little as possible. Unionism knows this as well as the rest of us. If unionists saw a real commitment to equality by the Dublin government this would have a real and positive effect on those unionists who want to live in harmony with their neighbours. Orange is one of our national colours. Most of us don’t appreciate that. Unionists know this as well.
There is no design plan for reconciliation but we all share responsibility to give leadership in spite of opposition and adversity. Perhaps the Civic Forum could be a vehicle for this? So, the imperative at this time is for the government to be fully engaged, as it is entitled and obliged to be, in the North. Not in a threatening or interfering way but under the terms of the Good Friday and other agreements. And as sections of unionism, like others, adjust in a more pragmatic and positive way to the merits and advantages of cross border cooperation, particularly on economic issues, we will see more progress. No one can argue with the reality that an economy of 6.4 million citizens, consumers and taxpayers would be stronger!
The failure of Government reform
Two years ago Fine Gael and Labour promised a democratic revolution. Instead they opted for cuts to public services and greater centralisation of power. Instead of creating a more effective, transparent and accountable democracy, the government moved to abolish the Seanad, cut the number of elected representatives in the Dáil and in local government, got rid of the Údaras, and centralised even more power and authority into its own hands. Instead of initiating real reform Fine Gael is power grabbing and Labour is acquiescing. At the heart of the debate on the Seanad is the issue of equality of citizenship. Only 1% of citizens have a vote in Seanad elections while others have multiple votes. That is why Sinn Féin will not support a proposal to retain the present Seanad. We will campaign for its abolition. A genuinely progressive government would have given the future of the Seanad to the Constitutional Convention for discussion. It would have considered the option of making the Seanad democratic and accountable and able to act as a meaningful check on the dominance of the Dáil. It chose not to.
Even the government’s chief whip has acknowledged that its record on reform and accountability has been deplorable. The Dáil is a dysfunctional forum, its formal protocols inherited with little real change from the London model. It operates in a time warp and in a bubble, immune at times to the harsh and unfair regime visited by the government on the citizens who elected it.
The failure of Austerity
In a real republic citizens would have a wrap-around health service from the cradle to the grave. Billions of taxpayers’ money, that could and should have been invested in job creation, has been used to bail out banks. Recently, I visited St. Mary’s care centre in Drumcar in my constituency. The staff there looks after 600 of our most vulnerable and disabled citizens. Citizens who cannot move; who need to be washed and dressed and fed; citizens who have dementia and mental health issues, and severe epilepsy. They have lost €7 million in cuts since 2008 and this year their deficit will amount to €1.2 million. They have had to cut out meals to people attending their day services. That St. Mary’s cannot feed vulnerable citizens is a huge indictment of this government and of this state!
During the years of the Celtic Tiger Sinn Féin advocated equality and fairness and urged that the surplus wealth be used to build public services, especially in education and health, infrastructure and sustainable jobs. The political establishment, including those who crashed the economy, accused us of being economic illiterates. They refused to socialise the wealth but this same establishment has no problem with socialising the debt.
Building a new republic – Let’s begin now
I believe that the Ireland of the 21st century should be rooted in core democratic principles, shaped by the political, social and economic realities of today, a commitment to the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter and the rejection of sectarianism.
Politics must empower citizens. They must be inclusive, democratic, accountable, citizen centred and rooted in equality, human rights and communal solidarity. That is, for a real republic that is tolerant of the views, opinions or beliefs of others and inclusive of all its people, a republic that shares its wealth more equitably, looks after its aged and young, provides full rights for people with disabilities, liberates women and delivers the highest standards of public service, a republic that has a sense of itself, would defend and promote its language and culture and ensure that equality is the basis on which it plans, promotes and sustains the language.
And why can’t the constitution reach out to the children of the diaspora scattered around the globe; including allowing Irish passport holders, wherever they live, to have a vote in the Presidential election? A new Republic for the 21st century must mean equal rights for those in same sex relationships, ethnic minorities like the Travellers’ Community and those of all creeds and none.
The key to building a new republic – a 32 county republic – is to begin now. That means setting out clearly what we are for and then developing strategies to achieve it. I believe citizens will respond positively to a national conversation on these issues and to the big question about how the wealth is used for the benefit of citizens. The real test is the equality one. 20 years ago, when Sinn Féin first talked about a peace process, we were vilified and ridiculed. Reams of hard words were written about the Hume/Adams proposals. Today that same peace process has shown what’s possible if you have a vision and the determination to pursue it. So, too, with building a new Ireland.
The island of Ireland today is in transition. A lot of the old certainties are gone. Many of the old conservative influences have been weakened. Progress has been made. The most important political reform since partition has been the Good Friday Agreement. That has created a new context on this island, a new potential and a new dispensation for the whole island. But if there was a real commitment to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the logic and common sense of harmonising policies and services across this island and the principles and safeguards and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement, would be increasingly inculcated into all of the institutions on this island. And that would be good for all our people, including the unionists.
A chairde, the people of this island deserve better than the society we have inherited. We have the means to change this.
We have the opportunity to ensure that justice, equality and fairness are core principles of a new society.
We have the opportunity to win real freedom.