Whatever happened to the Irish Democracy?


Tomorrow it will be exactly one hundred years since the foundation of the Irish Citizen Army. Personally, all these centenary commemorations leave me cold, though I appreciate the efforts of people who try to  wrench the memory of these events away from the official ritual of State history.

There’s a short article by Padraig Yeates on the centenary in today’s Irish Times. I don’t have a paper copy, but the article’s URL locates it under the category of ‘culture’ and then ‘heritage’. That is a minor detail, but one that is suggestive of how the Irish Citizen Army is seen in the official scheme of things these days.

Padraig Yeates’s article quotes the ICA constitution in full, and I’m going to do the same thing here. As the article reminds us, it was written by Sean O’Casey.

“1. That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.

2. That the Irish Citizen Army shall stand for the absolute unity of Irish nationhood, and shall support the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations. 3.That one of its objects shall be to sink all differences of birth, property and creed under the common name of Irish people. 4.That the Irish Citizen Army shall be open to all who accept the principle of equal rights and opportunities for the Irish people. 5. Before being enrolled, every applicant must, if eligible, be a member of his trade union, such union to be recognised by the Irish Trade Union Congress. “

Yeates rightly stresses how it was the last point, added at the insistence of Jim Larkin, that ‘anchored O’Casey’s soaring vision to the material base that could make it a reality’. He also says that ‘none of the other features were remarkable in themselves’.

From the point of view of a historian concerned with how particular things fit in with wider developments, I’m sure this is true. But not everyone confronts these texts on such terms. Some things can strike us as remarkable when it’s our first encounter with them, and also when we read them again in a new light.

What is more, any act of interpretation unfolds in the context of wider social and political realities, and it involves bridging a gap of understanding between what the words written meant then, both to those who wrote them and read them, and what they mean to us now.

What is remarkable to me now, from this text, is the phrase ‘the rights and liberties of the democracies of all nations’. In particular, it’s the appearance of ‘democracy’ with a definite article: the democracies.

Nowadays it’s rare to hear talk about ‘the democracies’. If you do, it’s usually when someone is contrasting capitalist states that have formally democratic institutions with some designated oppressor regime, some official enemy of those states. You do, however, find mention of ‘the democracies’ in accounts of antiquity, such as in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

But what Thucydides and others are speaking about are definite political regimes. What O’Casey and others are talking about in this text is not democracy as a form of state, but democracy as a potency, as the flesh and blood liberation struggle of the multitude for social equality. ‘The democracy‘, in this context, then, is another name for the collective subject of working class emancipation: the revolutionary proletariat.

At the remove of a hundred years, the ICA constitution is a text with a different political grammar than the one we are accustomed to. Nowadays, ‘democracy’ is generally understood as an established state of affairs: representation in parliament, the right to vote every few years, the right to say what you like as long as it doesn’t get in the way of business. It is not generally understood as a multitude collectively engaged in social and political struggle, even violent struggle, for the conquest of rights and freedoms based on social equality.

In his article Padraig Yeates says that ‘in a less tangible but more potent way the first clause of the ICA constitution was woven into the 1916 Proclamation and the democratic programme of the first Dáil.’

But whatever happened to the figure of ‘the democracy’ mentioned in the second clause? Where did it go to?

The present Irish constitution declares that Ireland is a democratic State. Does this mean  ‘the democracy’ referred to by O’Casey wrested control over the State? You would need to be a quare idiot to think such a thing. In fact, the concrete figure of ‘the democracy’, as a potent social constituency that stands in opposition to the ruling class, has been erased from Irish political life and public discourse altogether.

Nowadays democracy is the application of an abstract term. It is no longer the logic of a thing, but a thing of logic. The prevailing idea of democracy, at least if you were to listen to political speeches or read the newspapers, is little more than representation: you get to vote for the candidate of your choice, then the government gets in, and it does what it likes.

As I’ve written elsewhere, accepting this idea of democracy means accepting that ‘regardless of how destructive they are of public welfare, regardless of how much wealth they transfer into private hands, regardless of how the reality of their decisions is obscured from public view’, government decisions are legitimate and unimpeachable.

This, more or less, is the idea of democracy entertained by Ireland’s Labour Party andtrade union leadership. The latter counsels support for right-wing governments in its dealings with financial dictatorships. It backs schemes targeting the unemployed that amount to the effective abolition of paid labour. When it comes to a choice between ordinary people resisting the imposition of indirect taxation to pay off banker debt on the one hand, and the right-wing government on the other, it backs the right-wing government. And then it claims it is battling at the gates of hell.

Some of these people say they are social democrats. That means they seek the election of people to introduce reforms that benefit working class people. They are not concerned with the dismantling of the bourgeois State form or any of that nonsense, though some of them will tell you that capitalism is bad, after a few drinks. But none of them talk about ‘the Social Democracy’ as an active revolutionary subject that seeks the ‘end of all tyranny – national, political and social’. That is James Connolly’s language.

I haven’t mapped its history, but to me it looks like ‘the democracy’, and ‘the Social Democracy’, as political names for collective agents of revolutionary change, were shot dead in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Then, in political terms, they got effectively stuffed and mounted. ‘The democracy’ as a potency ceased to exist. Then, in its place: ‘Ireland is a democratic state’. Ha ha.

The surprising thing, though, is that people have not altogether discarded the idea that democracy means something more substantial than just voting once every now and again.


For instance, look at this graph here. It is from the European Social Survey, though the legend is in Spanish (via). What it shows, and this might come as a surprise, is that 54.2% of people surveyed in Ireland recognised that democracy also means that people’s material needs must be met. That is, over half of people in Ireland think democracy entails fighting against poverty, inequality, or both. We might add a caveat. Over half of people in Ireland might think such a thing, but many of the same people could also oppose it because they’re wannabe capitalist pigs. But at the same time, many others might think that socio-economic equality has nothing to do with democracy, but that socio-economic equality is still a good thing.

Anyway, the point is, despite the fact that the idea of democracy as inexorably bound to socio-economic equality is almost completely absent from public political discourse, it is an idea that the majority of people may find attractive, if someone were to take democracy seriously.

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One response to “Whatever happened to the Irish Democracy?

  1. Pingback: Irish Left Review | Basic Income Summer Forum

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