Time to redefine citizenship

The recent RTE series “Crimes and Confessions” raises a number of important issues. The programmes dealt with three miscarriages of justice, suggesting that the wider context for these events lay in the fall-out from the Northern conflict then taking place.

This self-serving explanation may please some but is actually dangerously misleading. What happened with these cases was not an aberration or an isolated departure from an otherwise faultless system of policing: if anything, they were a microcosm of how Ireland has been governed for centuries, a process underpinned by coercion rather than anything approaching consent.

Notwithstanding a dubious and deceptive constitutional arrangement, Ireland was for long a British colony, and treated as such, with a military presence maintained here to subdue and occupy rather than protect or defend and a heavily armed paramilitary police force primarily tasked with preventing insurrection instead of upholding civic order, both overseen by a judicial system blind to anything bar the interests of the Crown.

That much is history. A question we must ask ourselves is whether the underlying principles of governance have changed since the British army vacated Beggarsbush in 1922. The answer is revealing, if only to allow us ascertain whether Ireland is governed through a sovereign people or by less accountable agencies. Are we empowered as free citizens or still treated as subjects by those with ultimate power?

Little research is needed to discover that coercive legislation, with all its support agencies of policing and judicial structures, has been in place in both jurisdictions over the past hundred years. The Special Powers Act, subsequently replaced by the equally draconian Emergency Provisions Act, has been operational in the Six Counties since partition.

South of the border the measures were, if anything, even more draconian. The Free State was virtually established by a military dictatorship, and so-called emergency legislation has been a feature of the 26 Counties in every decade since.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this phenomenon is the absence of the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers. Amazingly, a right identified during the thirteenth century in the Magna Carta and long since deemed a keystone of democracy has never had universal application in Ireland. The fact is that non-jury trials are designed to secure convictions sought by the state and not, as is usually claimed, to protect jurors.

There are many ways to safeguard jurors but only one way to ensure that they don’t return the “wrong” verdict: the answer is simply not to have a jury and to leave conviction in the hands of a compliant judiciary.

The reality is stark. The ruling class do not trust the people and therefore maintain a system that allows them to overrule and override the popular will whenever it is felt to be in their interests to do so.

Apologists for this system of governance tend to repeat the same chorus. Draconian legislation and its support mechanisms, they say, are used only to deal with exceptional circumstances and do not affect the vast majority of the population. Not only is this a disingenuous argument but it is also quite simply wrong.

In the first place, there has to be something fundamentally flawed with the two regimes that have needed undemocratic “emergency” legislation for the entire century of their existence. In the second instance, the heavy-handed application of the law is not confined to containing militant republicans. The Dublin government’s Industrial Relations Act (1990) and the extensive bank of Thatcherite anti-union legislation applicable in the North are designed to repress and contain the working class, in effect a majority of the population. In the words of the master James Connolly, “governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.”

As stated above, the practice of defying the will of a majority, by either the use or the threat of coercion, has a long history in Ireland. The creation of two states bears witness to that fact. Nor has this practice ended in the modern era, though it has sometimes been applied more subtly than in the past.

Take the crucial national question. The Southern Irish bourgeoisie are as determined to retain partition as any Northern unionist. So, faced with the reality that a rapidly changing electorate in the North will put the border issue firmly on the agenda, they are endeavouring to generate fear. They are constructing a frightening scenario in which altering the constitutional status quo will lead to endless violence throughout the country. This is done in order to dissuade people from taking the necessary and logical steps that could ensure that change happens as peacefully as possible.

Under such circumstances, and in the light of our history, it is almost inevitable that some or even many will see the answer to this problem as one of meeting force with force. With so many volatile components throughout the country, including housing and inadequate health services as well as partition, that is an ever-present risk.

However, rather than allowing ourselves to become fatalistic about the future, it is necessary to consider an alternative strategy. It is time to launch a campaign to redefine citizenship, away from a people passively accepting their lot to one where working people are in charge of the management of their republic.

To make this more than a fine but almost unattainable aspiration it is important to have a programme that is accessible and easy to understand yet sufficiently comprehensive to bring about its goal. The Communist Party of Ireland has recently published just such a programme in its leaflet “It’s time for a new, democratic Ireland!”* This document includes a list of twelve specific demands as part of a transformative strategy. The twelve points range across vital issues from housing for all, a universal health system and workers’ rights to the national question.

If these demands were to be embedded as inalienable rights in a new constitution we would indeed be close to Connolly’s vision, where the Irish Republic would become “a word to conjure with—a rallying point for the disaffected, a haven for the oppressed, a point of departure for the socialist, enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.”

Such a state would be genuinely attractive to all sections of Ireland’s working class, north and south, a state in which we could finally put an end to coercion and leave all the Heavy Gangs and their superiors where they belong: in the dustbin of history.

*“It’s time for a new, democratic Ireland” (https://bit.ly/3Iy9agQ). See also Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, “A Democratic Programme for a New Century” (https://bit.ly/3KHMbSr).