A republic without republicans

[This dates back to a time, in the late 1990s, when I wrote a monthly column for the Newfoundland Telegram about connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, where I had been brought up for a while and visited a number of times since.]

Fianna Fail, The Republican Party is the largest political party in the Republic of Ireland, ‘the South’. Their candidate in the recent presidential election race, Mary McAleese, who is from Northern Ireland, ‘the North’, won the election and has since been instated with widespread support and blessings as the 8th President of the Republic of Ireland. But it was not all plane sailing.

What has since been the cause of some confusion to outsiders: that a country would choose as its president someone from outside its political jurisdiction, is where all of the trouble with McAleese’s campaign stemmed from. The fact is that anyone from the six counties of the North is entitled to claim citizenship in the Republic and therefore eligible to run for election there. But taking up this opportunity has proven to be more problematic than many might have hoped and foreseen.

During the campaign Professor McAleese was subjected to harsh criticism from a number of directions about her attitudes towards ‘republicanism’ of the Northern variety, i.e. that associated with armed struggle. She was asked on a number of occasions to clarify her position in relation to Sinn Fein, the republican party of the North, and what dealings she had had with them in the past, as if it was going to transpire that her politics were suspect (read ‘republican’) and she was therefore unworthy of becoming president of the Republic. Obviously sensing a delicate situation, McAleese was very hesitant about answering such questions and Fianna Fail was forced to organise a vigorous counter-attack in which their candidate’s interactions with the republican movement in the North were justified and the campaign against her ridiculed.

There was in some respects a public backlash against the anti-McAleese, anti-republican campaign and it is said that a lot of people voted for her in the end out of a sense of outrage that they could no longer be republicans in this republic. It is such a dirty word in Irish politics that it is fair to say that the concept of republicanism has been swept under the carpet and that of Nationalism has taken its place. For example, Fianna Fail’s subtitle of ‘The Republican Party’ is printed in such small type on their publicity material that it is practically illegible. But even nationalism had tough innings during the debates of the campaign.

I was recently discussing all this with a young man who grew up surrounded by ‘the Troubles’ in Belfast. He is now living and working and has most of his friends in the South, but visits his family in the North regularly and takes a keen interest in what is happening ‘at home’. Although he is not a republican of the northern variety, he was certainly hurt by the apparent reluctance of the South to take McAleese at face value and is likewise very happy that in the end she has won. But he could not say that he was surprised by the anti-republican sentiments which the campaign brought out.

Since moving south he has become very conscious of a distinction which is made between his Irishness and that of Southerners. His bile is especially raised when he hears people from the South arguing against a united Ireland on the basis that the South could not ‘afford’ the North. Not only does he not accept this but he puts it to me, with the ease of someone who has been declaring it like a political manifesto for years, that a united Ireland could be a hugely powerful and influential economic force - an idea (rather naive, perhaps) that one never encounters in the South: we’re doing quite well on our own, thank you very much, being more like it.

I mentioned to my friend that the previous president, Mary Robinson, in one of her last public duties as president, raised the question of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. In his reply he tried to be balanced, thinking possibly that he was being tested, McAleese style! But through all the diplomacy and delicate phrases it was not hard to detect a complete disdain for the idea. He stated clearly that such a move would be seen among Northern Catholics as the ultimate betrayal by the South.

Robinson was asking this loaded question at the level of intellectual debate rather than political reality, trying, it seems, to point the Irish in the direction of secure national pride and cultural confidence, rather than a realistic consideration of rejoining that organisation. The debate she was hoping for has not happened and it seems from the evidence of the presidential campaign and my friend’s response that there are still far too many complexities in the various political relationships between the South, the North and Britain to be worked out before such testing issues can be addressed.

We live in hope, though ... not for a day when Ireland rejoins the Commonwealth, but for the day when the Irish can discuss such an idea free from all the bitterness and hatred and misunderstanding which continue to plague peace processes and political debate of all kinds here.

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