March 2017        

The unfulfilled promise of the Fenian Proclamation

Seán Byers

The centenary year of the 1916 Rising, for all its symbolic importance, can perhaps be best seen as a staging-post in the long struggle to build a social movement that is capable of transforming Irish society. The political establishment is wounded, but not fatally so, while the economic class that has positioned itself as an intermediary between foreign capital and Irish assets continues to thrive under the protection of the state.
     Just as neo-liberalism asserted itself over the course of a generation, elevating capitalism to a dominant set of values and a cultural logic, becoming the new common sense, so it appears that we must embrace the task of developing an alternative programme and progressive political consciousness over a period of ten, fifteen, even twenty years if necessary.
     The new year brings fresh challenges and a new round of commemorations, most notably the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Rising on 5 March and the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. For many on the socialist and republican left, the former will no doubt serve as a reminder of the unfulfilled promise of the 1867 Fenian Proclamation, a document that surpasses the 1916 Proclamation in its radical content yet has gone neglected by contemporary political movements that would lay claim to the Fenian tradition.
     The 1916 Proclamation, though a useful tool for working-class politicisation and populist mobilisation against the establishment, is too easily employed in the service of a “one-nation” form of republicanism that masks a number of important tensions and contradictions. The document issued by the first Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, by contrast, is unapologetic in pursuing revolutionary socialist and radical republican objectives, leaving no room for ambiguity. While the former provides the framework for a minimum programme, the latter encourages discussion on a set of policies or demands that would constitute a maximum or transformative programme.
     In the 1867 Proclamation the Fenians are explicitly secular, eschewing the 1916 Proclamation’s mystical overtones and appeals to religious solidarity, “in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.” This fundamental principle of republicanism would imply a number of provisions supported by the progressive left but that sections of the mainstream republican movement have proved unwilling or unable to endorse, for example an end to state funding for faith schools in favour of the establishment of non-denominational or secular schools, and the introduction of evidence-based legislation and policies that grant full bodily autonomy to women in both states.
     The Fenian movement organised on both sides of the Atlantic and drew inspiration and practical support from British and Continental European socialists. This cross-pollination of people and ideas meant a rejection of the notion, implicit in the 1916 Proclamation, that the republican struggle was one of Irish against English. Instead, recognising the philosophical universalism of republicanism, the Fenian Proclamation appeals to “Republicans of the entire world! Our cause is your cause. Our enemy is your enemy.” It declares war on the “aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields—against the aristocratic leeches who drain alike our fields and theirs,” and expresses common cause with the English working class: “As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms.”
     Arguably, then, it would be in line with the Fenians’ support for Chartism to recognise the National Health Service and the welfare state as major achievements of the British working class, claim them as our own, and use them as tools for engaging with the radical Protestant tradition of dissent that exists within the labour movement—all while retaining the right to analyse, critique and resist imperialism.
     Finally, the 1867 Proclamation makes a number of references to material conditions, class conflict and economic justice that were later abandoned by the authors of the 1916 Proclamation in favour of the limited promise of social and political equality. In it the Fenians record their disgust at “the starvation and degradation brought to your firesides by the oppression of labour” and pledge to “secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour.” Thanks to their European socialist connections, the Fenians recognised the primacy of the battle between labour and capital and understood the fundamental contradiction between them.
     This analysis in turn carries any number of implications for present-day republicans who are about to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Fenian rebellion. Ireland, north and south, is beset with problems that are a symptom of capital’s temporary defeat of labour over the past thirty years: obscene and rising levels of income and wealth inequality; large-scale tax avoidance, facilitated by the indigenous middleman class; a homelessness crisis; the underfunding and creeping privatisation of the health service; the commodification of all that remains in public ownership; and the almost complete erosion of workers’ rights and protections—to name but a few. In these circumstances there can be no justification for easy cohabitation with capital or its political representatives, including Fianna Fáil and the DUP.
     Where “one-nation” republicanism focuses on social and political equality, we must also articulate the demand and political strategy for achieving economic equality. Where the leaders of “one-nation” republicanism speak the language of compromise and cross-class alliances, between the exploited and those who would exploit them, it is our duty to remind the grass roots of those movements of the neo-liberal experience in Ireland and stress the importance of class struggle in shifting the balance of power back to citizens. This is the best way in which we can honour and renew the Fenian tradition.
     The two conditions that could have helped the Fenians grow into a mass movement—a developed Irish working class and a serious socialist influence—were both absent in 1867. It can be argued that we are closer to achieving those conditions. One measure of our progress will be the extent to which we engage seriously in the coming months with the ideas espoused by the Fenians.

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