Theo Dorgan, poet, novelist and broadcaster, author of ‘Greek’, Sailing for Home’ and ‘Making Way’


That most useful book, the Oxford English Dictionary, offers a range of meanings for the term ‘ambiguity,’ the noun that, in logic, precedes the adjective ambiguous. ‘Ambiguity’, we are told, can mean: hesitation, doubt, uncertainty as to one’s course, ability to be understood in more than one way, an expression having more than one meaning.

‘Ambiguous’ is a term that offers even more food for thought, in that it encompasses: indistinct, obscure, not clearly defined, admitting more than one interpretation or explanation, uncertain as to course or conduct, hesitating.

In our time, the word ‘Republic’ has acquired a comet’s tail of meanings, clarifications, propositions and counter-propositions, some founded in philosophical enquiry, others deriving from the praxis of what we might call ‘actually existing republics’, so much so that it would be a brave poet, historian or lexicographer who ventured an encompassing definition at the present moment.

I am in the process of finalising the edits on a forthcoming book of essays that contains a number of striking and carefully-thought-through definitions of what a republic is, or might be, or indeed should be. In the light of these admirable essays, my own understanding of the term is in active revision; I am still trying to come to grips with what a full definition of ‘republic’ might entail.

Perhaps this is as it should be because, after all, the roots of the word ‘republic’ are in the Latin words ‘res publica’, the public thing – itself an amorphous, shape-changing concept and one grounded in common understanding at a given moment in history rather than, as with a legal term, being strictly and severely defined.

It is not so long ago that in our public life women were considered second-class citizens, even by some as second-class human beings.  It is not so long ago that the term ‘Irish Republic’ was understood in the public mind to mean ‘Irish Catholic Republic’. My point here is that at a particular moment, the public consensus accepted, as an immutable given, propositions that a short time later had come to seem impossible and absurd.

As understood in common sense, then, the term ‘republic’ is best considered as fluid, reflective and aspirational, susceptible to mutation and growth, an elastic concept that at any given moment is open to challenge and re-definition.  One might say the term is not just unstable, but actively ambiguous in all the meanings of that term.

All of which said, when we use the term ‘republic’ we intend a generally understood approximation, something that more or less contains the ideas of equity and equality, solidarity, justice, the common good – and equally we mean something that refuses autocracy, tyranny, hereditary rule or indeed plutocracy. Not to put too fine a point on it, we expect a republic to be a state or political entity where all are considered, at least in theory, equally provided for in their persons, rights and obligations.

In the popular mind, the Irish Republic was declared in the Easter Week proclamation, and the key provision was the promise that the new regime would cherish all the children of the nation equally. Like most independent post-colonial peoples, we have been slow to abandon folkloric belief in our foundational moments, and I think it is beyond argument that most Irish people still consider that the fundamental compact between government and citizens rests on this promise.

Belief and trust in this promise, a promise common to many if not all states that declare themselves republics, led many to consider that because our beginnings were in the declaration of a republic, it follows that we have been since then, de facto, a republic.

Never mind that from 1922 to 1949 the 26-county state did not formally declare itself a republic.  Never mind the equally discomfiting fact that the 1937 Constitution did not define the state in terms of a republic, did not declare us formally a republic and still does not describe the state, in terms of its philosophical underpinnings, as a republic. And never mind the fact that the term ‘republican’ has been deployed to mean ‘enemy of the actually-existing state’ by every government from 1922 to, one might argue, 1998. In the face of all this, the majority of the Irish people, by which I mean here the people of the 26 counties, have always taken it for granted that we live in a republic. A flawed republic, to be sure, uncertain and fitful in its provisons for the children of the nation, certainly not a secular republic as the French might have it, and not underscored by a bill of rights as the American republic is, but to most people a republic nonetheless.

In the dictionary senses of “indistinct, obscure, not clearly defined” it has certainly been, and continues to be, an ambiguous republic.  I want to make the argument here that the Irish people hold  to the unexamined notion that our republic is actively committed to cherishing the children of the nation,  that a republic, if it means anything at all, has to be so committed, and that our governing class has never subscribed to this fond delusion.

On the 21st January 1919, the Democratic Programme was laid before the  1st Dáil, proposed by General Risteárd Ó Maolchatha and unanimously adopted.  Drawn up by Thomas Johnston and William O’Brien, with the active participation of Cathal O’Shannon, this programme was toned down at the last minute by Seán T. O’Kelly. Instrumentally, we must consider it as a sop to labour forces, as a quid pro quo for the Labour Party abstaining in the 1918 elections so as to give a clear field to Sinn Féin candidates. Whatever its provenance, it was unanimously adopted.  The Democratic Programme can be usefully considered as a fleshing-out of the Proclamation’s promise to “cherish the children of the nation equally.”  It proposed, inter alia, that “the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the nation, but to all its material possessions, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes” and went on to proclaim that “all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.” Equally radically, and in words that resonate with the after-echoes of liberté, égalité and fraternité,  the Declaration stated: “It shall be 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 as Citizens of  Free and Gaelic Ireland.” Stirring words, indeed, and remember please that the Declaration was adopted unanimously. But consider this: in proposing the Programme’s adoption, General Richard Mulcahy was speaking as the TD for Clontarf, but he was also Chief of Staff of the IRA at the time. The same man would, unforgivably, order the execution of 77 prisoners during the Civil War three years later; he went on to become leader of Fine Gael, ironically while a member of the Seanad that his lineal successor Enda Kenny now proposes we should abolish.  Speaking about the Democratic Programme on RTE television on the 21st January 1969, Mr. Ernest Blythe, said” I never found anybody who took the slightest interest…[it was] some sort of a hoist of a flag.” On the same programme, Seán Mac Entee said: “We couldn’t impose a quasi-socialist policy… the workers themselves wouldn’t have credited your sincerity” – having prefaced this remark by saying, in effect, that an electorate of farmers would not have stood for such a Programme.

Now in the realpolitik of the day, that is very likely true; what is remarkable, though, is that already the state class that was emerging was demonstrating an attachment to power and the exercise of power that was blithely prepared to pay lip-service to republican ideals without having the slightest intention of carrying them into effect.

There was a bitter joke in the former USSR that went: “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work; that way everyone is happy.”  In our stalled republic, the political class has continued in the habit of pretending they mean certain things while we, the electorate, happily pretend to believe them. This corrosive ambiguity, on both sides, from the very start laid the foundations for the emergence of a disdainful state-management class of professional politicians and senior civil servants, and at the same time for mass defection from political responsibility on the part of a citizenry reduced to a rubber stamp electorate. We became an ambiguous republic, then, in the further sense of “uncertain as to course or conduct”.

Our constant vacillation between two main parties whose distinction one from the other is arbitrary, even theological, rather than ideological, reflects and nurtures this ambiguity, allowing both governors and governed to permanently evade the all-important question: what kind of Republic do we want to be?  The sidelining of the labour interest in 1918 is what allowed the emergence of the Democratic Programme; it is a bitter paradox, then, that the Labour Party, whenever admitted to government as scapegoat and camouflage for policies they could at best hope to ameliorate in some minor way, should have so signally failed to revive the spirit if not the letter of the Democratic Programme.

On the 18th January 2009, at ceremonies held to mark the 90th anniversary of the first Dáil and the adoption of the Democratic Programme, Deputy, now Minister, Joan Burton said: “The Democratic Programme outlined a set of values for an independent Ireland that are as relevant today as they were in 1919; values that successive governments have often failed to meet.”

I do not mean to single out Minister Burton here, since I am a firm believer in the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility and I do not suggest she was being disingenuous four years ago but, as we stand here and survey the ruins of our dysfunctional, ambiguous Republic, I should like to commend to her and to her colleagues in Government the following statement from the Democratic Programme: “We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.”

There is nothing at all ambiguous about the warning encoded in that final clause: the right to govern depends always and only on the willing adhesion of the people. My profound sense at this moment in our history is that we are sliding inexorably towards the withdrawal of that consent to be governed in accordance with a mutually-understood compact. Neither the first Dáil nor any Dáil since has conceived the republic in terms of the Democratic Programme, no matter how much lip service has been paid to its ethos and values, no matter how much in our naivety we have always assumed that somewhere in government that ethos, those values, were somehow mysteriously at work.  Well, there is precious little mystery about what is happening at present: nobody now alive has seen a government so resolutely determined to save the apparatus of the State at the expense of the people and our actual interests. Aggregating the sum of our disaffections, and drawing from that mass of negatives a positive, it very much seems to me that the time has come for us, as a sovereign people, to demand the enactment of the Democratic Programme, or some modernised restatement of it.

Realistically, I do not expect the state class to accede to this demand, which leaves us with one question that allows of no ambiguity: what is to be done?

Book your Tickets