Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: Up The Republic! ed.Fintan O'Toole

Up The Republic! Towards A New Ireland edited by political and cultural commentator and Irish Times assistant editor Fintan O'Toole has an interesting front cover by Jorn Kaspuhl of a man pushing Ireland out of deep water, following on from the image of the euro sinking on his previous book Ship of Fools. In this run up to 2016, whether this is possible and the reality of Ireland as a republic is addresed by eight of Ireland's leading scholars. And it is a hefty weight of contributors made up of lecturers, poets, editors and professors so we should pay attention.
Fintan O'Toole kicks off with a discussion titled 'Do You Know What A Republic Is?' addressing the history of republics and of which type Ireland is, commenting that 'it is obvious that the Irish people as a whole have taken spectacularly bad care of their republic. if it was a child the social workers would have come for it long ago' and asks how to begin again. O'Toole's answer is by recognising that the half republic we had between 1922-2008 is gone for good. His essay is truly food for thought, in particular his summary of the differences between austerity in post-war Britain (narrowing the gap between top and bottom) and austerity Ireland which has dramatically widened the gap between lowest and highest earners creating a class divided society.
Iseult Honohan, political and international relations lecturer at UCD addresses 'The Republic as a Tradition and an Ideal in Ireland Today.' Considering republican ideals, what it can offer today and more specifically Irish republicanism with its challenges and pitfalls, mainly populism with its sometimes simplistic solutions, 'over emphasis on service or the responsibility of citizens at the expense of overpowering them', taking other models as blueprints (i.e. France) and of isolation by withdrawal from international institutions. As`Honohan points out 'republicanism cannot simply be taken ready-made off the rack.'
Elaine Byrne, political science lecturer at Trinity College Dublin takes on the subject of 'The Democracy of a Republic', reminding us early on that democracy rule by the people does not mean that it is actually democratic. Confused? Byrne's argues that democracy is flawed with majority rule manifesting itself in world parliaments dominated by well-educated, middle-aged and middle-class men, producing popular decision rather than what is best decision and rewarding short-term decision making for a public demanding uncomplicated expediency. Sounds about right. Direct communication by internet and mobile phone has transformed attitudes to authority with WikiLeaks and Anonymous. The crisis of trust in Ireland was addressed by Byrne in 2011 in her project We the Citizens which shifted opinions, empowered through involvement and became accepting of negative change (i.e. tax increases) through expert testimony and deliberation. As she summarises, 'only the knowledgeable citizen can become the competent citizen.'
Tom Hickey, fellow in law at NUI Galway has the interesting title 'Civic Virtue, Autonomy and Religious Schools: What would Machiavelli do?'' which shows how a republican state seeks to maximise non-domination, empowering citizens but at the same time it must develop virtue in its citizens. this thick account of civic virtue can undermine liberty in citizens who differ in their values. Hickey cites the 2004 French law prohibiting wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. the education of young citizens, the extent of involvement of the state before it oppresses or errors in promoting the autonomous and secular citizen. The enormous debate concerning Religious Denominational schools is explored (a whole book in itself) and whether there is a case today fro religious schools at all.
Dearbhail McDonald, legal editor of The Irish Independent addresses the tough question of 'The Law and the Republic.' She reminds us that we are not alone in Europe in coming to terms with the idea of no longer being a self-determined state and asks whether the law is somehow not fit for purpose. As the design flaw of the European project led to a near collapse of the Irish economy, our innate sense of justice however has not been served by courts compelling governments to protect or identify new citizen rights. McDonald uses this platform to address the failure of legislation to adapt to modern societies needs, in particular that of abortion. Not shy of identifying failures in the legal system judicial ethics are discussed and the outdated unsatisfactory system of appointments. the role of the law is critical in re-imagining a new republic.
Fred Powell, professor of social policy at UCC addresses 'Citizens or Subjects? Civil Society and the Republic.' Citing the Occupy movement from 2011 and Haruki Murakami's novel IQ84, a world of surveillance and 'Little People', both illuminate the current world's dominance by unaccountable systems of power and citizens willingness to struggle against them. Grand historical narrative has lost its force. Political language, truth and power- those slippery words are addressed as are the advantages of 'strong democracy', taking responsibility for dramatic restoration or, as Citizen Smith would have said "Power to the People." Powell feels it is hard to see an end to Ireland's crisis; choices being pointless ideological austerity with all the other escape route having been closed equaling a political paralysis and a collapse of western liberalism.  To this end he sets out ten principles for citizenshp in the Second Republic.
Philip Pettit, professor of politics and human valuesat Princeton addresses 'Republican Reflections on the Occupy Movements.' Pettit was invited by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero to assess his 2004-8 government's performance. A political system that failed the young people, he also identified his own mistakes in his naivety in the believing the international financial system would enable Spain to provide economic welfare and his failure to realise restrictions resulting from Spain's Eurozone membership.Riding the tiger, the reliance of governments on the international financial systems is addressed, radical responses, their mistakes and lessons to be drawn from the financial crisis. How we should respond to this crisis brings us back to the Occupy movements- giving expression to the peoples insistence that government should live up to the expectations. Generation of discussion on these topics will, Pettit trusts, make democracy a winner.
The final essay is by one of Ireland's leading poets Theo Dorgan, 'Law, Poetry and the Republic.' As Dorgan points out, the question of what to do 'with our poor battered republic' is a question that opens onto further questions. What is wrong needs to be diagnosed before proposing what is to be done. the people's alienation from the government dilutes the contract as does he claims the lack of connection between justice and law. Dorgan's discussion of the language of the law highlights its constraints by linguistic precedent which brings unease to people when faced by it. the reserved language of the law needs interpreters, and this schism between state and its language on one side and the people on the other. Dorgan's request is simply to find a 'dialogue between state and people in a living language.' His closing statement is quite monumental, 'lawyer and politician, poet and citizen, we face a common task. To build a right republic we must find the right words.'

This is not a book I would immediately pick up off the shelves but reading it I found myself quickly drawn into the essays, each cherently setting out the issue and arguing a solution or a pause for thought. The essays are reader-friendly and I found myself noting particular arguments to mull over later or sound out with others. Eight respected scholars have been brought together to discuss the important subject of the way forward after the demise of the Republic and we should sit up and take note.
Published by Faber and Faber

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