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An Informative Book on Irish Republicanism

Irish republicanism was made possible by the same democratizing movement that expanded the franchise and redistributed farmlands in the latter 19th century. While it was ultimately successful, it got sidetracked by violence. To this day, Irish republicanism has not fully defined its identity and goals beyond knowing the things that it opposes.
Book Irish

October 07, 2023 01:47 EDT

I have just finished reading The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics by Tom Garvin. Tom is a distinguished Irish historian and political scientist.

The book was originally published in 1980 and covers the period from 1760 to 1960. It traces the organizational development of political groups agitating for change in Ireland during that long period.

On one side, there were parties agitating for control of agricultural land to pass from the legal owners (the landlords) to the tenant farmers (who did the actual work on the land). This struggle for control of the land was most intense from 1879 to 1903, ending with a victory for the tenant farmers.

Essentially, UK taxpayers bought out the landlords. It was good that this issue was settled before Irish independence came in 1921. The new democratic Irish Free State, created by the Treaty of 1921, had more than enough financial and other problems on its plate in the 1920s and 1930s without having had to deal with a huge land transfer program as well.

Those looking for land reform were in close alliance with those agitating for a greater degree of independence of Ireland from Britain and overlapped with them.

Demands here ranged from home rule (devolution) within the UK to a dual monarchy (whereby Ireland and Britain would be separate states but have the same king) to a third option, a completely independent Irish Republic.

In opposition to all moves towards independence, there were the Irish Unionists. Irish Unionists were divided on the land issue but strongly united in insisting that they would not be ruled by a Nationalist-majority parliament in Dublin, whether it be a home rule parliament or the parliament of an Irish Republic.

What methods of political agitation were to be used?

Another big controversy was about acceptable methods to be used to achieve political goals. Should the methods used be confined to peaceful and parliamentary agitation, or should physical force (involving the taking of human life) also be permissible?

There were strong practical arguments in favor of using exclusively peaceful methods. The land reforms were, after all, achieved by exclusively peaceful methods.

Home rule was also achieved by peaceful methods in 1914. This is forgotten nowadays because of the subsequent, and to my mind ill-advised, celebration of the violence from 1916 onwards.

Home rule within the UK was voted into law in September 1914. Implementation was deferred until the end of the World War, which had started a month before home rule became law.

To what geographic area should independence apply?

There was one big outstanding issue. Should home rule apply to all 32 counties of Ireland as one unit, or could the 6 predominantly Unionist counties in the northeast be excluded, temporarily or otherwise?

Behind this demand for exclusion was a threat of the use of military force by the Ulster Volunteer Force and even of a mutiny by pro-Unionist officers in the British Army.

In this, it could be said that it was unionism that introduced the threat of violence into Irish politics, although it was a faction of nationalism that actually fired the first shots on Easter 1916.

Garvin’s excellent book crams a range of fascinating material into 137 pages. He covers the sociology; the competing ideologies; the role of secret societies of mass political agitation and of organisational methods; and their cumulative impact on the course of Irish history.

Who had the vote?

Garvin also shows the impact of changes in the right to vote on who would be the members of parliament representing Irish constituencies in Westminster.

The franchise was very limited in 1860. Only significant property owners had a vote. If that had persisted, there would not have been a majority for either home rule or land reform. The successful British agitation (by groups like the Chartists) for a wider franchise across all parts of the UK was a huge help to Irish causes.

From 1867 on, the property qualification for the votes was eased. In 1872, the right to vote in secret was established, and this stopped landlords from attempting to control how their tenants voted. These changes had immediate effects.

In 1868, 69% of the 105 Irish members of parliament in Westminster were landlords, but by 1874, that percentage had fallen to 49%, and the proportion of those who came from the professional classes had risen from 10% to 23%.

Thanks to a further extension of the franchise introduced during World War I (abolishing property qualifications and giving the vote to women for the first time), the electorate in Ireland who had a vote in the 1918 election was three times the one that had a vote in the previous election of 1910.

Symbols versus reality

One of the ongoing problems of Irish republicanism was a preference for political symbols in the promotion of the ideal of an Irish Republic. The decision to use violence blotted out the time and space in which practical issues might have been explored before the shooting started. The use of violence required the oversimplification of the issues at stake.

Symbols got priority over explanations of how the Republic might be structured, how relations with Britain and other countries might be organized and how minority rights might be protected.

The neglect of a debate on these questions meant that sections of the electorate were disappointed by what was actually achieved. They were not ready for the necessary compromises.

Seán Ó Faoláin, who took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and was its director of publicity, admitted that, in 1922, “We had no concept of the State we wished to found.” So, Irish Republicanism tended to be defined more by what it was against, rather than by what it was for. This remains so to this day.

Developments since 1960

Since Garvin finished this book, Ireland has experienced huge economic, demographic and political change. The population had been declining up to 1960, but it has been growing since then. Over 7 million people now live on the island.

While the birth rate, which peaked in 1980, has fallen substantially, emigration has been replaced by immigration. This is how the population has risen.

Economic growth has been rapid. There were debt crises in 1980 and again in 2010, but these were overcome quickly because the underlying productive base of the Irish economy is modern and flexible.

In terms of party politics, Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest political party thanks to its ability to exploit the debt crisis of 2010. Its advance has been mainly, though not solely at the expense of Fianna Fáil.

The assumptions that justified IRA killings have not yet been disavowed

Sinn Féin continues to defend its support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign of bombing, murder and torture from 1968 to 1998.

Sinn Féin assures us that the IRA no longer exists.

But it is hard to give weight to that assurance while Sinn Féin justifies past IRA activities and the political assumptions that underlay them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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