Republicanism and Nationalism; What Have They Ever Done for the Workers?


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Tony Flynn and Joe Hanley in THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS by Sean O’Casey on the Abbey stage. Pic by Ros Kavanagh

Tony Flynn and Joe Hanley in THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS by Sean O’Casey on the Abbey stage. Pic by Ros Kavanagh

The Covey:  What does Karl Marx say about th’ Relation of Value to th’ Cost o Production?

Fluther (angrily): What th’ hell do I care what he says? I’m Irishman enough not to lose me head be follyin’ foreigners!

Sean O’Casey ‘The Plough and the Stars

In the Monty Python film the ‘Life of Brian’ one of the discontented lefty proletarians asks a very pertinent question – What have the Romans ever done for us?  The answer was apparently quite a lot.  Much of the humour in the scene derives from the questioner being reduced to a dumbstruck silence. Nevertheless it was a question well worth asking.  In the run up to the centenaries of the rising, the war of independence and the civil war the question, what have they ever done for the workers, needs to be asked again.

Republicanism in History

Republicanism has a long history stretching back to the ancient roman republic.

It was far from a harmonious state but riven by class conflict between patricians and plebeians.  Attempts at land reform and wealth redistribution ended with the respective murder and suicide of its two advocates (Boatwright et al, 2004).  Beyond that point the republic was dominated by an oligarchic gang of large land owners until its demise under the emperors.

Republicanism was to raise its head again in Britain between 1649 and 1660.  Cromwell had come to power through an alliance with middling disaffected landowners, merchants and artisans.  Yet he was aghast when the republican revolution and the associated political ferment spawned groups, such as Levellers, Diggers and 5th Monarchy Men, some preaching and attempting to practice a primitive form of millenarian communism.  Levellers demanded complete religious toleration, democratic control of the army and bi-annual parliamentary elections while the Diggers claimed that the land belonged to the whole people of England.  The republican Cromwell was having none of it and told his bourgeois supporters ‘you must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces’ (Morton, 1938)

After 1789 some of the French revolutionaries looked back to the roman republic as an exemplar. They abolished feudalism and the divine right of monarchy, proclaimed the rights of man and citizens and that great slogan Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.  Almost immediately a difficulty arose as to how these slogans could be given a concrete realisation and were they to apply to those outside the ranks of the middling classes.  The answer was not long in coming.  In 1791 the convention passed a law (Loi Le Chapelier) outlawing combination of workers or trade unions (Hepple, 2010).  The ongoing conflict between bourgeois and proletarians was temporarily halted by Napoleon.  Dictatorship preserved the social and economic conquests of the revolution for its main beneficiaries – the middle classes (Goodwin, 1963).  Nonetheless the class conflict stirred up by the revolution was to figure prominently in the politics of the French Republic for a century and a half (Hampson, 1989).

Republicanism and Nationalism in Ireland

GlitteringGatesRepublicanism in Ireland is inextricably linked with nationalism.  Irish nationalists and republicans were primarily concerned with abstractions rather than material questions.  Their central aim was to rid Ireland of the king, Westminster and the Dublin Castle system rather than improve the lot of the poor or curb the power of the rich (Laffan, 1985).  Socio-economic questions or the claims of labour, if they were considered at all, was regarded as divisive distractions from the main aim of national independence.  Fundamental change sought by Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. were cultural and linguistic rather than social and economic (Farrel, 1973).  Citizens of the new integrated Gaelic Ireland would speak Irish, not English.  Beyond protectionism social and economic questions were irrelevant.  Once the British were gone all would be well (Laffan, 1985).  Connolly, in his Marxian socialist phase, was critical of this shortcoming in the nationalist project.  Prophetically he identified the futility of changing the flags over Dublin Castle without corresponding socio-economic change (Connolly, 1897).  From a labour perspective, so it proved to be.

Some contemporary historians and commentators loosely characterise the period between 1916 and 1922 as revolutionary or a revolution.  The Democratic Programme of the First Dail is sometimes cited in support.  Yet the fate of that Programme points to the conservative nature of the nascent state, more concerned to maintain the status quo than promote revolution.  Drawn up by Tom Johnson of the Labour Party the programme was social democratic in inspiration but did not represent the social and economic ideals of the Dail.  Most members had not even read the document.  The few who did were reluctant to accept it and only a last minute re drafting and dilution of its content secured agreement (Farrell, 1973).  Its passage through the Dail owed nothing to an upsurge in social democratic sentiment. It was merely a tactical device to garner international support for the new Irish legislative body.  Once attained little more was heard of the programme as a practical proposition. Indeed there seems to have been a cynical contempt for the aspirations of labour.  Initially Collins threatened to suppress the programme while O’Higgins dismissed it as ‘largely poetry’ (Mitchell, 1974. Lyons, 1973)).  Commitment of the new government to the pre-existing social order was demonstrated by its use of the IRA to suppress attempts at land redistribution in the west (Farrell, 1973).  If it was a revolution at all it was a palace revolution.

The nationalist elite split over the treaty.  Again there were no economic, class, or labour questions at issue.   Anti-Treatyites focussed on the oath to the crown as a betrayal of the republic.  Though accepted by a majority in the Dail and in a subsequent election, republicans remained adamant.  No mere democratic decision by parliament or people could override the abstract mystical conception of the republic (Lyons, 1973). The resultant civil war was fought out by fractions of the nationalist elite and their immediate followers.  Labour called down a curse on both their houses but to no effect (Mitchell, 1974).  Among the general population the war was deeply unpopular.  Defeat possibly exacerbated latent tendencies in republicanism to militarism, authoritarianism and ambiguity regarding democracy.  This may explain later republican willingness for an alliance with Nazism (Garvin, 1996).  The state that developed after 1922 became a virtual paradise for priests, large farmers, the professions, business and the urban middle class.  For landless labourers, the poorly paid or the unemployed it was to hell or to Britain, the US, Australia or indeed anywhere but here (see Mc Cabe, 2013)

Labour and Nationalism

In the new state many of the union leaders and rank and file were gradually subsumed under hegemonic nationalism.  Though praised for their supportive role in the struggle for independence unions received nothing concrete in return.  Rather, labour would have to wait for the final solution to the national question (Laffan, 1985).  In the meantime nationalism was to exercise a malign and debilitating influence on the labour movement.  During the 1930s the Transport Union, aided and abetted by Fianna Fail, began an ultimately futile campaign to eradicate British unions in Ireland (McCarthy, 1977).  The solidarity and generous financial support provided by the British trade union movement during the 1913 strike was forgotten, obscured by a green miasma.  Indeed outside Dublin, the only support for the 1913 strikers came from Britain (Yeats, 2000).  The splits in the Irish labour movement of the 1940s driven by personal vendettas and catholic nationalism may have further alienated northern trade unionists and confirmed their prejudices.  In the south the simplistic but powerful appeal of nationalism may have diverted some of the labour movement’s radical elements into its perennial cul-de-sac.  Today a century after 1913 labour is still waiting.  A central issue in that strike was union recognition.  Statutory recognition remains an aspiration.

Beyond Republicanism and Nationalism

The historical record suggests a progressive role for republicanism.   In its French manifestation it struck a fatal blow at the doctrine of divine right and prepared the ground for democracy.  Yet in the contemporary context its continuing relevance or usefulness is questionable.  Republicanism has become a stalking horse for some reactionary groupings.  For instance; the Republican Party in the US, in Ireland Fianna Fail the Republican Party, Continuity Republicans or Dessie O Malley founder member of the Progressive Democrats famed for his declaration that he was ‘standing by the Republic’.  Their credentials as friends to working men and women are, at best, bogus.

The case of the Nordic countries points up the anachronistic irrelevance of republicanism for the generality of workers.  Sweden, Norway and Denmark have strong social democratic parties closely allied to their respective trade union movements.  This combination has resulted in a highly developed welfare state, low levels of unemployment, union density averaging 80% and the highest standard of living in the world (D’Art, 1992).  Rightly the Irish trade union leadership aspires to imitate the Nordic Model.  Yet all three countries are constitutional monarchies.  Does it matter, to any sensible working man or woman, not a whit.  Anyway as these so called crowned heads are subject to the democratic will they can be easily got rid of if the people wish.

What is to be done?

As to the question what has republicanism and nationalism ever done for workers the charitable answer would be very little.  This has been particularly so in Ireland.  Within the European Union nationalism appears contradictory as membership necessarily involves a dilution of national sovereignty.  The extent of that dilution seems likely to increase.  Consequently the key question for the labour movements of Europe is the direction of that development.  Is Europe to become the ‘people’s home’ or a playground for capital and the unrestricted free play of market forces?   The stark choice presented by Rosa Luxembourg ‘socialism or barbarism’ still resonates (Harmer, 2008).  As always the watchword of labour must be socialism, trade unionism and democracy.


Boatwright, M. Gargola, D.  Richard, J. and Talbert, A. (2004) The Romans; From Village to Empire. Oxford University Press.

D’Art, D. (1992) Economic Democracy and Financial Participation; a comparative study.  Routledge; London

Connolly, J. (1897) Socialism and Nationalism  Shan Van Voct  January; Dublin

Farrell, B. (1973) ‘The First Dail and After’ essay in The Irish Parliamentary Tradition. Ed. Farell, B. Gill and Macmilan; Dublin.

Garvin, T. (1996) ‘1922 The Birth of Irish Democracy. Gill and Macmillan; Dublin.

Goodwin, A. (1963) The French Revolution. Arrow Books; London.

Hampson, N. (1988) The French Revolution and its Historians’ essay in The Permanent Revolution; The French Revolution and its Legacy 1789-1989.Ed. Best,G. Fontana Press; London.

Harmer, H.(2008) Rosa Luxemburg. Haus Prublishing; London.

Hepple, B. Ed.(1986) The Making of Labour Law in Europe. Mansell Publishing; London.

Laffan, M. (1985) ‘Labour must wait’: Ireland’s conservative revolution essay in Radicals, Rebels and Establishments’ Ed. Corish,P.J. Appletree Press; Belfast.

Lyons, F.S.L. (1973) ‘The Great Debate’ essay in The Irish Parliamentary Tradition. Ed. Farell, B. Gill and Macmilan; Dublin

McCarthy, C. (1977) Trade Unions in Ireland 1894-1960. Institute of Public Administration; Dublin.

Mitchell, A. (1974) Labour in Irish Politics 1890-1930 Irish University Press; Dublin.

Mc Cabe, C. (2013) Sins of the Fathers; The decisions that shaped the Irish Economy’

History Press; Dublin 2013.

Morton, A. L. (1938) A Peoples History of England  Gollancz; London

Yeats, P. (2000) Lockout Dublin 1913 Gill and Macmillan; Dublin.

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2 Responses

  1. Richard

    June 16, 2014 12:11 pm

    There is a place called Latin America. Your claim that republicanism and nationalism are irrelevant and anachronism would be strengthened if you had shown how these things have been irrelevant to countering neoliberal policies in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

  2. ALexis

    June 22, 2014 11:38 pm

    While I agree with your historical analysis,particularly of Ireland, I take issue with the conclusions you came to. Generally speaking Republicanism is a progressive force in politics and one has only to look at the protests that have swept Spain in recent weeks demanding an end to the monarchy to see that the achievement of a parliamentary democracy is as important an issue for many working people as ever.