An Irish Voice of Balanced Dissent reaffirms the Republican Ideal

Fintan O’Toole, in Irish Times, 20 September 2022, with this title “Monarchy is a bad habit. Up the Republic” …. with highlights imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi … and caricatures added

In the General Post Office, during the rising of Easter 1916, Joseph Mary Plunkett explained what would happen when the British were defeated. The new Irish government would invite the youngest son of the Kaiser, prince Joachim of Prussia, to come and be crowned as king of Ireland.

Watching the mourning in Britain for the deceased head of another German royal dynasty, I thank the gods of history for not lumbering us with king Joachim and his brood. I am very glad to be a citizen, not a subject.

I don’t want to disparage or disrespect the genuine emotions of so many of our neighbours. Their system of government is a matter for themselves.

Their sense of loss runs deep. Their attachment to their queen is not merely obsequious — it expresses an ideal of collective belonging that carries real weight.

Nor do I think that there is something genetically republican about the Irish. Let’s not kid ourselves: if Britain had been a republic a century ago, independent Ireland would have been a monarchy.

But a republic is what we are, and the great show of monarchy that climaxed on Monday should make us, by way of contrast, all the more proud of that identity. And all the more determined to live up to it.

In 1776, the great English republican Thomas Paine wrote, in relation to his country’s monarchy, that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right”. Monarchy is a habit we in Ireland managed to break.

And it’s a bad habit, a dependency. Like most drugs, it delivers its highs, but it does so at a great physical and mental cost.

Part of the price is the necessity to lie about history. The hereditary principle rests on the notion that the present head of state descends from ancestors who were pure and holy and sacred.

This can’t be anything other than a lie. Paine suggested of “the present race of kings” that “could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunderers”.

So what? Supporters of monarchy would say that turning history into a fairy tale is a harmless fantasy. But it actually does a lot of harm in both principle and practice.

The idea embodied in monarchy is that a particular family is entitled to sit at the top of the entire structure of the Constitution because it carries the blood of some ancient chief plunderer.

This is merely nepotism on steroids. And nepotism is not an abstract concept or a pretty adornment. Monarchy validates the accumulation of inherited wealth and privilege by a minority.

It is not innocent. It solidifies a structure of gross inequality.

The queen’s lavish funeral was a display of fabulous wealth in a society that treats the poor with utter contempt. As John Burn-Murdoch pointed out in the Financial Times over the weekend, the poorest people in Ireland now have a standard of living 63 per cent higher than their counterparts in Britain.

Love of royalty sits comfortably with exceptional cruelty towards those the plebs. Having someone to look up to feels better when you have someone to look down on.

The spectacle is not innocent either. The bible of monarchy is Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution. (The young Queen Elizabeth is seen learning the ropes from it in The Crown.)

Bagehot is surprisingly upfront about what is going on. The masses “defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women; a wonderful scene of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it.”

This is the essence of the British monarchy: it is a theatrical show of wealth that ordinary people are compelled both to pay for and to enjoy. Applaud or be a traitor.

It’s true of course that we in Ireland get to enjoy the show for free. But also true that we have the choice to do otherwise, that because we are not subjects we are not obliged to attend it or to defer to it.

A republic, on the other hand, is, as Philip Pettit puts it, a place where “we can look one another in the eye without reason for fear or deference”. If you meet the president, you want to show respect for his office, but you do that by looking him in the eye. Bowing would demean not just yourself, but the State of which you and he are equal citizens.

The republic also means that because the head of state is elected, he or she gets to speak, not just for us, but to us. We pick a Mary Robinson or a Mary McAleese or a Michael D. Higgins, not to be expensive ornaments, but to articulate our ideals and values.

That power to choose does more for a nation’s dignity than any phalanx of horse guards or panoply of costumed courtiers. Up the Republic.

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One response to “An Irish Voice of Balanced Dissent reaffirms the Republican Ideal

  1. His name is Fintan, not Finlan. His writing is always good

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