Once again we have gathered in this place to commemorate the lives and the vision of those people who, over many generations, have fought and, in many cases, died to achieve an
Irish Republic. The ideal of the republic is not something mystical or religious, and our adherence to the concept of the Republic is not something ritualistic. It is only through a republic that we can achieve our vision of a socialist, secular, unitary state on this island.
The Irish Times, that long established bastion of the establishment, has over the last number of weeks been running a series of articles under the generic headline “Renewing the Republic”. It is a very fine headline but it begs the question. Did we ever have a republic to begin with?
If we understand republic in its most narrow construction as a state without a monarch, then the 26 county state was a republic. But this narrow understanding is to demean the concept of Republic. As succinctly stated by Des O’Hagan in his major lecture “The Concept of Republicanism”: “Republican ideology was more than a critique of the ancien regime. At the same time it located the citizen at the centre of political discourse. Political institutions were no longer to be the playthings of a privileged aristocracy.”
When we look at the Irish state over the last 90 years, but most especially over the last two decades, we see that it has failed this most basic test of republicanism. The citizen was not the centre of political discourse. The citizen was roughly pushed to one side while a new aristocracy, a new autocracy, took charge of the levers of power and shared amongst themselves the spoils of plunder. Capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies were rampant and, as is inevitable with capitalism, the bigger the boom the bigger the bust.
When we see the sheer gangsterism, naked greed, and blatant carpet-bagging that went on in our banking, building and land speculation sectors it beggars public belief. Yet we, the Workers’ Party, have been attempting to highlight this reality for over thirty years. For more years than we care to remember we have pointed to the vast fortunes that were being made by a select few through land rezoning and site hoarding. We pointed out that land, with a base agricultural value of maybe €25,000 per acre was suddenly worth several million Euro if it was rezoned as residential. The system bred corruption and, as well as a coterie of speculators and bankers, significant figures in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were part of the golden circle. However even we were astounded at the scale of the corruption and the scale of the black hole which this corruption has burned in our national finances.
The bank bailout in the South alone is now pencilled in as costing €30 billion minimum. Can anyone imagine this amount of money? Can we visualise what thirty thousand million Euro actually means or may look like? It is the same amount as the total income tax and VAT that the Irish state will collect this year. Can we imagine that the actions of a mere few hundred people have been pivotal to this economic melt-down which in interest alone will cost the tax-payer at least a billion Euro each year for two generations. Could we really say we had a Republic when so much economic life was dominated by this elite, these merchant princes, these banking princes. This elite amassed, and still controls, vast riches. And, as Henry Joy McCracken stated so correctly two centuries ago “The rich will always betray the poor”.
The poor have been betrayed. Neither the Celtic Tiger, nor the British Economic Miracle delivered for the working class or indeed for the vast majority of people described by the media as middle class. Basic infrastructure throughout this island is falling apart. North and South, schools, hospitals, childcare services, care centres for the elderly are inadequate, antiquated, or missing altogether. Budgets are being slashed and the numbers of nurses, doctors, teachers, care workers are being slashed. The lives of pensioners and the unemployed are being made unbearable. All of this is happening so that capitalism can be rescued and the obscene profits and lifestyles of a tiny elite safeguarded. When we stand here, and think of the people and the idealism we commemorate here, then the full obscenity of what is happening comes home to us.
In this little island we have had to contend with more than just the merchant princes. We have had to contend with the power and control of the hierarchy – the Princes of the Church. We do not here have to repeat the horrors revealed in the Murphy Report, the Ryan Report, the Ferns Report. These reports, and others, merely reveal the horrors of a blatant abuse of power. What we, as republicans have to ask is how this elite had managed to usurp this power from the citizen. Why were 95% of our schools and our correctional institutes for young people handed over to an elite whose first and overwhelming loyalty was to an organization and leader completely outside this state? Why is it that the vast majority of our so called public hospitals – although fully funded by the state – are controlled by the same elite?
We know that the political establishment will not challenge the power of this elite. Yes, every time another damning report is published they will huff and puff and wring their hands in dismay. But not one member of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will challenge the power of the church. And neither, for that matter, will any of the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. It is an example of the perversion of ideology that some people who call themselves republican, and who waged a war on the people of this island for thirty years to achieve their objectives, fought a vicious campaign to ensure that the hierarchy maintained and strengthened their control of education within the nationalist population in Northern Ireland. People who claim to walk in the footsteps of Wolfe Tone fought a vicious physical and ideological campaign to maintain segregated education, to maintain and strengthen faith schools, to segregate teacher training colleges. In short they fought to Balkanise education and ensure that future generations of children in Northern Ireland grow up and attend schools in parallel but separate systems. This campaign ensured that virtually every child from a Roman Catholic background would, for ten years of the most vulnerable years of their lives, be in an environment dominated by the hierarchy. What credibility do these people now have when they rattle their chains of office and call on this or that bishop to resign because of a child abuse scandal?
Just last month came the announcement in Northern Ireland that Ian Paisley is to finally retire from public life. Ian Paisley has been central to the misfortune and misery with which the people of Northern Ireland have had to endure for the whole of his political career. For it was he who was responsible for fanning the flames of sectarianism, for exploiting for his own political and religious ends the fears, real and unfounded of many Protestant people. It was Paisley who brought onto the streets Unionist extremists who violently opposed the legitimate and democratic demands of the Civil Rights movement. Such demands were in the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of religon. They were demands that were designed to create a modern, democratic and anti sectarian state.
How many people have died needlessly because of his dangerous and destructive rhetoric?
How many young people, not least from the Protestant paramilitary organisations themselves, found themselves in prison for the most heinous crimes, prompted by the words and stirrings of this man?
How much sooner could a political settlement been achieved were it not for his destructive acts?
Unfortunately there were many on both sides of the sectarian divide who were, wittingly or unwittingly, dancing to his sectarian tune. The end result has been 40 or more wasted years and a continuing legacy of sectarian division, mistrust and bitterness.
This is also the 50th anniversary of the staging of “Over the Bridge”, a stage drama depicting sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Regrettably 50 years later, and as it plays once again to Belfast audiences, we have to say that in terms of sectarianism nothing much has changed. In housing and education in particular, segregation remains the order of the day. And just as the play caused a stir among the respectable classes then, sectarianism remains at the very centre of respectability in Northern Ireland today – the government itself. It is long past time that those features of the Good Friday Agreement, which many of us identified at the time as instruments for the perpetuation of sectarianism in Northern Ireland society are removed. Whatever arguments were advanced then about these measures being necessary to safeguard against discrimination and the abuse of power no longer carry any credibility. Those who, after receiving a democratic mandate at the ballot box, can put together a democratic majority in any future Stormont Assembly, must be allowed to do so. The present artificial Executive system is a recipe for continuing sectarian division and political paralysis.
The future choice is clear.
Either we continue with the tribal politics of unionism and nationalism or we embrace the democratic politics of citizenship espoused by the Civil Rights Movement. It is a choice between the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition at Stormont and all that that represents, or the humane and democratic values espoused by Sam Thompson and those like him who were behind the formation of the movement for reform and renewal in Northern Ireland, NICRA.
For us in the Workers Party we have no hesitation in stating where we stand. We stand in the tradition of Tone and Connolly, for the re-conquest of Ireland and the unity of its people. Our anti-sectarian demand for the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter remains central to our programme.
Like the United Irishmen we seek to put citizenship at the centre of political discourse, above religious and tribal division. And at a time of financial and economic crisis, we say it is the hard pressed people, the working class, who should be bailed out, not the bankers and the business class.
Comrades our struggle is not over, in many important ways it is only just beginning. Years of sectarian state and paramilitary violence have certainly set back our cause greatly. Many of our members, friends and supporters died and others suffered greatly because they refused to bend the knee to reaction and outright fascism in those dark days. But the struggle ahead will be no less difficult. As in the past we require the determination and strength of character shown by our members to see us through. Tone’s ideal of the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter has still not been achieved. As Connolly warned the working class remain under the yoke of economic oppression, regardless of the colour of the flag or symbols of nationalism which their political masters choose to flaunt.
Before we leave here we must return to the present crisis of capitalism, which is often deliberately misnamed an economic crisis or a national crisis. This crisis shows very clearly the limits of the “profits at all costs” mentality which has dominated the EU and US for the past generation. It destroys the myth of the efficient private sector and totally destroys the nonsense of the infallibility of the market.
The laws of capitalism are supposed to be simple. You make an investment and if it is successful you can bask in the glory and live the high life but if it is a failure you suffer the loss and that is that. Well we now find that the laws of capitalism have been changed. The winner still takes all but the loser loses nothing. Profits are still private but losses are socialized – in other words you and I and every other worker and every social welfare recipient picks up the tab. Right across the western capitalist world the same formula is being put in place by the ruling class, and social democracy – as it has always done – is standing side by side with the bosses.
Workers, and in particular public sector workers, are being blamed for the crisis and are being landed with the bill to fix capitalism. Wages are being slashed; conditions being worsened; rights and privileges won over many generations are being withdrawn. Let us be frank – we want a modern efficient public service. But modernity and efficiency is not the same as understaffed, badly paid, and semi-privatised. In order to “lead us on the path of recovery” the very people who have practically destroyed the economies of Ireland, Britain and the US are now going to be given huge chunks of the public service and public utilities as their latest plaything.
We must do now what those people we honour here did in the past – provide hope, provide leadership, provide the alternative to capitalism which this country and the working class needs and deserves. When we do that we can stand in this place and hold our heads high.
Comradaithe, Slán agus go raibh mile maith agaibh.