Joan Burton’s Ireland: A Guide for The Perplexed

Writing in the Irish Times on Easter Monday, Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party reflects on the Easter Rising and its outworkings. She believes that James Connolly would be proud of the role of the party he founded, though notes that the leaders of the Rising might be 'perplexed' to hear that the Labour Party is presently engaged in a campaign for marriage equality.

Personally I'm tired of imagining how James Connolly or James Larkin or anyone else might look upon present developments. But I am going to linger on this point for a moment anyway.

On countless occasions in recent years I have heard the idea expressed that Connolly and Larkin must be spinning in their graves at the deeds of the present day Labour Party. I'm tired of this. For one, it appears to suppose that Connolly and Larkin would not have had the sufficient intelligence to understand that institutions can change radically over time, and that just because an institution bears the same name does not mean that it remains the same thing.

What is more, even if these men are spinning in their graves, this has zero effect on the world of the living. “Don't mourn – organize!” is an injunction associated in popular memory with Joe Hill, another member of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose funeral Larkin attended. We can be certain that both Connolly and Larkin would identify far more with this than with the act of invoking the spirits of the dead without bothering to work out what it is that the living need to do.

But assuming that James Connolly were incapable of distinguishing between the Labour Party as he hoped it would be and how it actually turned out, why would he or others be perplexed at the campaign for marriage equality? Such a perplexity, I suggest, would not be the substance of the campaign itself but more on account of the fact that it is being undertaken in a context where it is largely uncontroversial and requires minimal conflict with the forces of capital.

Indeed, marriage equality is by and large seen as beneficial to capitalism. One only has to look at the list of firms supporting marriage equality in the US to realise this. Moreover, whilst the Labour Party has been supporting marriage equality -and it is of course right to do so- it has taken part in a right-wing government, campaigned to constitutionalise neoliberal economic policies, introduced schemes to undermine the principle of paid labour, and, whilst demonising campaigners against the same water charges that they themselves said they would oppose, has abandoned any pretence of international solidarity with working class populations in other European countries, clinging firmly to the righteousness of EU political and economic elites. I could go on, but I'm tired of this right now too.

What Connolly might find more perplexing, at least as far as the leader of the Labour Party is concerned, is her claim that 'if we consider the violent tumult of the 20th century, Ireland has stood as a beacon of stability'.

A commonsensical reading of this statement would treat it as utter garbage. How could a country be a 20th Century beacon of stability whilst including in its history, among other events: the Belfast 1910 strike; the 1913 Dublin Lockout; the UVF; the Curragh Mutiny; the Irish Volunteers, the gun-running and Bachelors Walk; the Great War (thousands of Irish killed); the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Limerick Soviet, the Civil War, the Northern pogroms, the Magazine Fort raid, the Belfast Blitz (the greatest loss of life in a night's raid outside of London), the Northern 'Troubles' that left thousands dead, with perhaps the longest urban guerrilla war of the century in Europe, and the campaign conducted by loyalist death squads, including the Dublin-Monaghan bombings?

But we are dealing here with a very particular conception of 'Ireland'. What Joan Burton means by 'Ireland' is the southern State known as the Republic of Ireland. Clearly she takes no account of events north of the border post-partition as pertaining to 'Ireland'. It's worth noting, however, that she does not always use this conception of 'Ireland': in a recent televised debate with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Burton quoted James Connolly. Here is Connolly’s quote in full.

'Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.

In Burton's head-to-head with Adams, she used this quote to blame Adams for the fact that the Provisional IRA campaign in the North had killed people of Ireland. So a more expansive conception of 'Ireland' applies when expedient, such as when it comes to countering the political threat posed by Sinn Féin -witness the sudden concern for the education of children in the North these days, or the job prospects for residents of West Belfast- but not when writing about the Easter Rising for a southern readership.

However, in a certain sense, Burton is correct. Ireland -the State- is a beacon of stability for a certain type of person. For all its treatment as a sacred document on account of the democratic aspirations it expresses, the Proclamation is also the declaration of the foundation of a State. It treats 'the Republic' and 'the State' as one and the same. With its emphasis on sovereignty, it provides a template for the parliamentary absolutism that has shaped political life in the Irish State, whereby, as Juan Domingo Sánchez pointed out recently, the multitude delegates its political agency to a sovereign (which can be a people's assembly or a King) and is hence deprived of any political right. In this sense, the repressive apparatuses of the southern State have been immensely effective in securing stability, but for its ruling élites, those who say, in effect, l'État, c'est nous, and it has done so under the cover of democracy.

Burton claims that ‘we [who is this ‘we’, precisely?] retained democracy and rule by law since our foundation’.

As I've written elsewhere, such a view of Irish democracy omits certain inconvenient facts: an array of brutal carceral institutions -industrial schools, slave laundries and psychiatric hospitals; wide-ranging censorship; impunity for corruption and fraud by the rich; the longstanding privileges afforded to financiers and property speculators at the cost of the public welfare; the systematic evacuation of poorer sectors of society through the safety valve of emigration and their subsequent loss of the political franchise; the neglect and abuse of children; a constitution that guarantees the subjection of women and enforces drastic restrictions on their reproductive rights; meagre and judgmental welfare state and a public culture that prizes charity over solidarity; decisions made by unaccountable cliques.

But sure it was all done under ‘rule by law’, so that’s ok. Isn’t it?

Burton writes that the Rising commemorations should not 'serve the agenda of any sectional interest or political cause'. What this really means, of course, is that the commemorations should not serve any sectional interest other than those of Ireland's power elites and golden circles, or any political cause inimical to those interests.

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