(Read Part I here.)
When Ruairi Quinn read From The Republic of Conscience in the Dáil, he prefaced his reading by remarking that perhaps Seamus Heaney “had we in this place in mind” when he wrote the poem.
However, the republic of conscience in the poem is not a modern State with discernible political institutions. In Stepping Stones, Heaney says it concerns a state of mind. The poem is, among other things, an ironic reflection on how we are shaped by the State, on the gap between republican ideal and statist fact.
The institutions of the State process your identity, determine your acceptability, order your behaviour and demand your loyalty. If you don’t fit their criteria of acceptability, if you have the wrong parents, for instance, you can be arrested and deported.
In the republic of conscience, however, you are prompted with an image of where you have come from (“a photograph of my grandfather”) and it is left to you to decide how you should proceed.
Whereas a State exists upon a historic claim to a fixed territory, the res publica, the thing in the poem common to all, is conscience: shared conscience of oneself and others.
Perhaps crucially, there is no private property in the republic of conscience (“my allowance was myself”): it isn’t through concerns with property rights that we become citizens, but through mutual recognition, through the encounter of someone else gazing into your face (“The old man rose and gazed into my face / and said that was official recognition / that I was now a dual citizen”).
There are no ‘public private partnerships’.
If the lines about public leaders ‘swearing to uphold unwritten law’ and ‘weeping to atone for presuming to hold office’ are a commentary on politicians, it bears stressing that these things are incommensurable with the modern State, which hinges on the rule of law, permanence, auras of (self-)importance, vested authority and representation.
What it so bad, then, about ‘presuming to hold office’? Note that the sail on the “stylized boat” is an ear. What propels the republic of conscience, then, is the act of listening.
But political representation depends on silence. For the representative to speak, the represented have to be silent.
And ruling politicians will use silence to justify their rule. For example, there is an ongoing education strike in the Balearic Islands. Last Sunday saw the biggest public demonstration in Mallorca’s history in support of it, with tens of thousands of teachers, students, parents, and children donning green t-shirts.
A tenth of the population – 110,000- turned out in support of the strike. The strike, supported by 91% of teachers and now in its third week, is in response to a decree, from the president of the regional government, that students in primary and secondary schools would learn Catalan, Spanish and English in equal measure.
The president, a Spanish nationalist from the Francoist Partido Popular, had promised during his election campaign to remove immersion in Catalan from public schools, and to give parents the choice between Catalan and Spanish. The effect, he reckoned, would be to do away with the noxious immersion in Catalan.
But when parents were surveyed following his election, it turned out the vast majority of them wanted their children immersed in Catalan. Only 10% wanted immersion in Spanish. So the decree was a manoeuvre to dynamite the immersion in Catalan by other means: under cover of a modernising veneer of learning English.
Never mind that such a measure was totally impracticable anyway: the need to impose national conformity in pursuit of a right-wing economic agenda, in line with the priorities shared by the Troika, overrode any consideration of practicality, let alone democratic consultation and dialogue.
The intention of the president and his party, as El País reported, was to engineer a confrontation between parents and the teachers on strike. They failed. Parent associations across the islands organised 200 buses to bring supporters to the demonstration. There is a widespread realisation that teachers are not taking part in the strike in order to achieve individualised benefits: they are losing around €100 a day in wages foregone, and a popular fighting fund has been set up as a means of compensation.
Over the past couple of years the Spanish State, in the new social climate brought into being after the 15th May 2011, there has been a wave of mobilisations, known as the Mareas (tides) in defence of what is public, and common to all. In Health, there a marea blanca (white tide). In education, a marea verde (green tide). An alliance has been forged between those who work in these sectors and those who depend on their services, against those -in government and business- who seek to dismantle and privatise what is common to all. Schools, hospitals, health centres: these things are seen as belonging to the people, not to ambitious government officials or private corporations to do with them as they wish.
In response, the president appealed to the authority of silence. Faced with the biggest demonstrations in the history of the islands, he refused the calls for dialogue, and denounced what he said was the “minority” that refused the legitimacy afforded to him by “the silent majority that expresses itself in the polls.”
We can’t know if Ruairi Quinn was concerned with the thorny matter of presuming to speak for others, the potential abuses of power associated with it, and the destruction of what is held in common, when he was reading From The Republic of Conscience. But it doesn’t look like it was on his mind when he spoke in the same chamber, half an hour later, about teachers in Ireland who decided to vote against Haddington Road.