This article is part of a series commissioned by the 1916 Societies and is published here on Republic Day.
By Jim Slaven
The great hero is still
sitting on the chair,
fighting the battle in the Post Office
and cleaning streets in Edinburgh.
The 1916 Proclamation is a revolutionary text. Not only because it was read out at the start of the revolution on April 24th 1916 but also because of its content. The Proclamation is a foundational text. Not only for Irish republicanism but for anti-colonialism throughout the world. It not only declares the Irish Republic (and at the same time declares war on the British state) it sets out the principles upon which the Republic has been established and the basis on which it will deliver a material improvement in the conditions of the people of Ireland. The people are at the centre of the Proclamation.
The Proclamations revolutionary tone is set with its first words: PHOBLACHT NA H EIREANN. A Republic has been declared. Not Dominion status, no monarchy, no campaign for more powers, no negotiations. The Proclamation is addressed ‘to the People of Ireland’. Its appeal is to the people of Ireland alone. Sovereignty rests with the people. The people of Ireland have the right to ‘unfettered control of Irish destinies’ and that right is ‘sovereign and indefeasible’.
This is a clear rejection of the British state and its ideology. The people of Ireland have risen and will from that point on set their own terms. The Proclamation doesn’t just dismiss the Redmondites and lickspittles asking the British state for permission for Home Rule. The Proclamation rejects constitutional nationalism in favour of revolutionary republicanism.
The Proclamation is both of its time and ahead of its time. It speaks to the specific historical context of Ireland in 1916. With reference (albeit implicit) to the ongoing war in Europe and also with its (explicit) appeal to unionism on the island. Given the timing of the Rising it was clear these divisions ‘carefully fostered by an alien Government’ would be exacerbated in the short term. However the Proclamation sets out the path to reconciliation by guaranteeing ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ within the Irish Republic.
The Proclamation is visionary. In the very first words of the very first paragraph equality between men and women is established. At a time when suffragettes were struggling (and dying) for the right to vote in Britain and when universal suffrage barely existed anywhere in the world the Proclamation is crystal clear. The Republic is built on the principle of equality.
This theme, a merging of classical republicanism with Connolly’s socialism, is the thread running through the whole text. The declaration of ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ addresses the point in a social and economic context while the famous promise to cherish ‘all the children of the nation equally’ could not be any clearer. 100 years later these words (and the politics which infuse them) could not be more relevant.
While the British Empire is gone, defeated by anti-colonial movements inspired at least in part by the 1916 Rising, the British (state) Ideology remains. Just last year Scotland held an independence referendum in which the constitutional nationalists were demanding an independent Scotland keep the British monarchy, the British military and the British pound! We have seen constitutional nationalists in Ireland bowing down in front of Betty Battenburg. Can we imagine Connolly or Pearse demeaning themselves in this way? Just asking the question renders it ridiculous.
As we approach the centenary of 1916 Republicans must return to the Proclamation and its principles. Not in an abstract way but as the principles which guide our strategising. On the steps of the GPO that April morning the Proclamation was a call to arms. But it was more than that. What the signatories laid out in the Proclamation was also a call to action for all the people of Ireland and the Diaspora. Recognising the balance of forces the Proclamation laid the foundations for a multi-generational counterhegemonic movement for Irish independence.
The revolution of 1916 is unfinished business. The counter revolution which followed, the partition of the country and decades of state repression have not extinguished the right of the Irish people to independence, ‘nor can it ever be extinguished’ as the Proclamation points out. The politics of the Proclamation continue to come under attack from the two failed states and their allies. That is because they recognise that within this revolutionary text lies the seeds of their destruction.
Our task is to build sufficient political strength to make the vision set out in the Proclamation a reality. To succeed the nature of our struggle must change and adapt. Clausewitz said the ‘first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive’ is ‘to establish the kind of war’ on which you are embarking ‘neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature’. In other words we need to think deeply about the concrete conditions as they actually exist on the ground, not as we wish them to be. The people of Ireland are crying out for change. One of the most important roles for republicanism at this time is to correctly assess the current conjuncture and develop a strategic response.
We have previously set out the strategic developments necessary for republicanism to reinvent itself based on the Proclamations principles. Central to this is our analysis of the state(s) and state power. The Proclamation is about shifting power away from the state and into the hands of the people. If republicanism is to fulfill our historic potential republicanism must be relevant to the people, particularly those people in struggle. By developing an inclusive political strategy, built on the principles of the Proclamation and developing horizontal organisational structures, republicanism can finish the business of 1916. Only then will ‘the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State’ be exalted among the nations of the earth as envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation.
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The 2015 James Connolly Commemoration