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29 May 2003 Edition

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The Liberation of Ireland

In the second part of a series of articles exploring the republican vision, PAUL O'CONNOR reflects on the meaning of freedom and the need to oust the colonialism of the mind

Somewhere in the bowels of the Irish Times or Sunday Independent, there is a man whose job it is to make anti-republican columnists.

First, he cuts a human figure out of a large sheet of cardboard. Next, he paints its face with a permanent snarl and inserts a tube hooked up to a large can of orange bile into the back of its mouth. Finally, by some process known only to the proprietors of Irish newspapers, he endows it with enough life to crouch growling over a laptop and drum out dreary rants against republicans.

Your identikit anti-republican believes Britain is in Ireland only because the unruly natives are unfit to govern themselves, and David Trimble is the North's One Great Statesman. The cause of conflict on this island is not the British presence, or the legacy of colonialism, but republicanism - a criminal conspiracy launched by Patrick Pearse in 1916, and most likely responsible for the rise of Hitler, Stalin's gulags, and England's getting no votes in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The true anti-republican has limitless faith in the free market and a bottomless contempt for woolly-minded lefties, weak-kneed liberals, and crusties on anti-globalisation protests. They think the police can do no wrong, and if they do cut the occasional corner and stitch up someone completely innocent, sure aren't they our police and it could never happen to one of us, could it? They have one problem with Margaret Thatcher - she wasn't pro-business enough.

As republicans, our aim is the liberation of Ireland. Political liberation is central to this; but to be of real value, it must be accompanied by social and economic liberation, and liberation from the mind-forged manacles of colonial and consumerist ideology. Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris do not reflect the opinions of the majority of Irish people. But their views are shared by a well-heeled and influential minority. The very fact they have such high-profile platforms in the 26-county media is an indication that political independence alone does not equate with freedom. And without a people liberated and empowered, even political independence will never be more than precarious. The truth of this is demonstrated by the 26-county state, which has managed the extraordinary feat of selling itself to Europe and America at the same time, while continuing to act as though Britain held the title deeds to the island.

To be of real value, political liberation must be accompanied by social and economic liberation, and liberation from the mind-forged manacles of colonial and consumerist ideology
The meaning of freedom for Irish republicans is laid out clearly by Patrick Pearse. Irish freedom, he wrote, means "not a limited freedom, a freedom conditioned by the interests of another nation, but absolute freedom, the sovereign control of Irish destinies; not the freedom of a class, but the freedom of a people; not the freedom of a geographical fragment of Ireland, but the freedom of all Ireland, of every sod of Ireland."

Plainly, Ireland is not free while a million and a half of her people can be deprived of the right to vote by the arbitrary fiat of a British minister. Plainly, Ireland is not free while her hills bristle with British watchtowers and six of her counties are a training ground for British troops. The nature of the British presence in Ireland has not changed, as the cancellation of the Assembly elections has shown. Britain may claim to have no selfish interest in Ireland, but her occupation of this island is founded upon, and inseparable from, the denial of basic democracy to the Irish people.

Plainly also, Ireland is not free while we have no currency of our own; while the most basic economic decisions, such as the setting of interest rates, are taken by a clutch of unelected bankers in Frankfurt. A mesh of European directives now covers every aspect of social and economic policy, and the pressure is building to give Brussels the power to set Irish rates of taxation.

But liberation from British rule, from Europe's economic diktat, must go hand in hand with the construction of a new democracy within Ireland, with the empowerment of Irish people. Not only should the winning of external independence pave the way to justice and equality at home; unless we empower our people, we can neither win nor keep political independence in the first place. The failures of the 26-county state arise from its being founded on - to paraphrase Pearse - not the freedom of a people, but the freedom of a class. The Irish revolution was strangled in its infancy when the bourgeoisie split from the independence movement, signed the Treaty with England, and using weapons supplied by Churchill and Lloyd George, waded to power through the blood of their erstwhile comrades. As a consequence, partition was set in stone, social injustice buttressed, and Ireland hard-wired into a world economic system built upon inequality and exploitation.

As republicans and democrats we believe that sovereignty resides in the people. And by "the people", we mean all the people, not some privileged class or group. The liberation of Ireland requires the empowerment of Irish people, as individuals and communities, to take control over their lives and have a real input into the decisions that affect them. It means politics should cease to be a game of musical chairs in Leinster House and be brought back to the people to be debated in community halls and meeting places about the country. It requires the revitalisation of local democracy, with radical reforms giving real power to local authorities and making council officials genuinely answerable to the elected representatives. It requires democratic control of the media, perhaps through state support for community-based radio and television stations.

Nor can we have true democracy in Ireland while economic power remains concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, or in the overseas headquarters of multinational corporations. The liberation of Ireland requires the economic as well as political empowerment of our people. That is why social radicalism has always been a core value of republicans. In the 19th century, the struggle for national independence was bound up with the struggle to regain ownership of the land; and the revolutionaries of 1916 and 1919 made the social agenda of the Proclamation and Democratic Programme a key part of their republican objectives. For today's republicans, the challenge is to develop economic alternatives built around the empowerment of workers and consumers - alternatives that will reduce our dependence on a global economy based on the perpetuation of inequality, and dominated by the anti-democratic power of multinational conglomerates.

Last, but not least, the liberation of Ireland means the overthrow of the colonialism of the mind; it requires that we drive out the garrison from our thoughts.

In a free Ireland, our media will no longer present the grotesque spectacle of Irish journalists dipping their pens in the blood of Iraqi and Afghan children to defend colonial wars of conquest. In a free Ireland, historians will not dedicate their careers to robbing their people of the history of resistance, which should be our greatest pride.

It is high time to stop our slavish aping of the latest fashions in economics, politics and culture, and have the courage to follow our own path without fearing a rap on the knuckles from Europe or a backlash from the multinationals. The road to freedom stretches out on the far side of the boundaries that others would set to our thoughts.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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