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Why Do We Commemorate 1916?


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Why Do We Commemorate 1916?, by Liam O Ruairc

At Easter, Republicans commemorate the 1916 Rising. What did the 1916 insurgents stand for ? They were out to break the connection with the British Empire and for an all-Ireland democratic and secular Republic. They were not seeking to bring it into existence, but proclaimed it in arms:

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.”

This is the expression of the desire for freedom and a challenge to an oppressive foreign government’s right to dominate the people. It is important to note the centrality of the separatist element, they were for national self-determination, and nothing less; they were not there for “equality”, “parity of esteem” or “all party talks”. There is absolute incommensurability between the Easter Monday revolutionaries and today’s Good Friday soldiers. It is the democratic alternative to the Unionist veto (disguised as consent) and the institutionalisation of sectarianism. The Republic proclaimed in 1916 was later incarnated in the First and Second Dail, and overthrown by a counter revolution in 1921-1922. It cannot be voted out of existence, even if the majority of the people vote in favour of Stormont and Leinster House, as in 1922 and 1998 for example.

Is a Republican the person who gives his/her allegiance to this Republic. “The Irish Republic is entitled to and hereby claims the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland, and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government hereby constituted will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.” What is significant about this is that the insurgents proclaimed themselves to be the legitimate government of Ireland when no one recognised them as such. They did not have an electoral mandate, the majority of the Irish people supported the Home Rule party. Neither had they international recognition.

Ireland then was a normal, democratic, state, and by the standards of liberal theory or international law the rising was not legitimate. The 1916 insurgents were what some call today a “microgroup” ! It is on that basis that the various Army Councils claiming “continuity” with 1916 can say that they administer the military affairs of the Republic “in trust for the people”. This is what is probably politically most explosive about the Proclamation of the Republic: it authorises “microgroups” with no electoral mandate to take up arms against British rule. This is why celebrating 1916 causes so much unease amongst the establishment and has been attacked by revisionist historians. The rising only received retrospective legitimation. It reshaped Irish history and had more impact than decades of constitutional politics. What are the values upheld by the Republic ? “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” Those are the elements of secularism (separation of Church and State), non-sectarianism (to substitute the common name of Irishman and Irishwoman in place of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter), social justice.

It is not so much the Proclamation and its content which are radical, but the act of Proclaiming the Republic, and not least through the force of arms. And it is this radical act which Republicans are celebrating. But we are not just Republicans, we are Republican Socialists. Some Socialists would object to the relevancy of the term “Republican Socialist”. They would point that the people in the South already have a Republic, that history shows that Republicanism always sells out. So why are we Republican Socialists and not just Socialists ? Why do we think Republicanism is still relevant ?

The first reason is that Irish Republicanism is not yet a “dead dog” that can be ignored or passed over. It played a significant historical role, and is still a major element in Irish political life today, a lot to do with the unresolved national question. It is impossible to build a left current that either ignores or remains outside Republicanism. To ignore it would be ignoring the experience of history and a major political force today. The second reason is there is a democratic content with Republicanism that has not yet exhausted itself. The fact that there exists within Irish Republicanism a conservative was well as a radical element, and that there is a militarist and elitist tendency as well as a democratic and popular one should of course not be passed over. What is essential is that there is within Republicanism a potential for radical development. The task ahead is to develop that radical potential. The point is not to break, or to abstractly negate Irish Republicanism because of its defects, but to redirect, to improve Irish Republicanism.

We could characterise Irish Republicanism in the same way Jurgen Habermas characterised modernity : “an incomplete project”. Irish Republicanism shouldn’t be abandoned, it can still be a vehicle for the revolutionary transformation of society today. Given the continued structural and social exclusion and alienation of the nationalist working class and rural poor in the north, Kevin Bean has argued that Republicanism will continue to function as a lightening conductor of both social and national-democratic discontent. Likewise, the growing economic inequalities and social exclusion of sections of both the urban and rural populations in the south will be expressed by growing popular challenges to the precarious success and inherently unstable hegemony of the Celtic Tiger. The point is to preserve and develop what is best in Republicanism, to radicalise — not abandon — the project. The objection that Republicans have “sold out” throughout history can be refuted by pointing out that Glasnevin and Milltown are full of those who stayed faithful to the Republic.

It is not necessary to move towards something called “Post-Republicanism” because Irish Republicanism has not exhausted its progressive potential. On what ground is it reasonable to think that Irish Republicanism can be re-adjusted ? Irish Republicanism has changed and adapted over the years to the prevailing conditions. Irish Republicanism is not static, but develops. The fact that Republicanism changes added to the fact has a democratic and progressive potential, that indicates that Republicanism can be changed and redirected.

...And May Day?

However, despite the historical role of Republicanism and the fact that the tasks of the Irish workers include the realisation of the programme of the revolution that failed in 1916, Republicanism is not equivalent with socialism. Liberation is meaningless unless it also means the liberation of the “men of no property”. Republican Socialism is a Republicanism representing the interests of the people of no property.

That is why it is as important for Republican Socialists to commemorate May Day — May 1, 1890 — when the workers in western Europe staged an internationally coordinated day of street demonstrations to demand the legislative restriction of work-time to no more than eight hours a day. By celebrating May Day, we emphasise the fact that we are part of the international working class movement and its struggle for socialism and the class nature of the Republic we want. Thus, at Easter we commemorate our Republican roots, on May Day our Socialist roots. But how do we articulate the two? How do we go from the demand "For a Republic" to that of "For International Socialism"? Demanding socialism immediately, like the various ultraleft sects do is irrelevant. A more correct formulation of the class alliances and dynamics of the revolutionary process in a country like Ireland where national democratic tasks are still to be carried through would be "For a Republic, under the democratic control of the workers and the small farmers". In such a strategy, the national democratic revolution is to be carried out under the hegemony of the working class, and growing over into a socialist revolution. The 1916 Proclamation is not socialist in nature, but its realisation under the leadership of the working class generates a process leading into socialism. Easter and May Day are not contingently unrelated, realising the programme of 1916 is a central task of the Irish working class.  
Original source
The Starry Plough