Éire Nua as first published by Sinn Féin in 1971 claimed to base itself on the Constitution adopted at the 1967 Ard Fheis which included a commitment to establish a Democratic Socialist Republic. That had not been uncontested and was amended to include a reference to the Republic founded “on Christian principles by a just distribution and effective control of the nation’s wealth and resources.” (Dublin 1971, p1.) The introduction referred to its original draft having been “suppressed.”
We will look at the social and economic proposals in another piece, but the main impact which Éire Nua had was in relation to its proposal to establish four provincial federal parliaments and specifically that one of them would encompass the whole nine counties of Ulster which even with the ending of Partition would have had a slight majority of Protestants.
Later critics within the movement who attacked this as a recipe for re-partition were dishonest. For not only would such an entity only have come into being following a British withdrawal or declaration of intent to withdraw, but that it was part of a much more radical scheme for the administration of a 32 county Republic in which the four provincial parliaments helped to elect an All Ireland federal parliament.
The basis for that were to be decentralised and democratically elected bodies from community councils based on parishes, to District councils comprised of members representing community councils and directly elected members; and then regional administrations within each province which were responsible for most of the day to day running of education, health and other sectors and which would have their own tax revenue.
The federal parliament would be made up on a 50:50 ratio of delegates from the provincial assemblies and others directed elected under PR. Far from being “right wing.” It had many similarities to classical anarchism, especially given its co-operative economic dimension. Co-operativism and federalism were among the key political ideas of the French anarchist Pierre Proudhon.
Reaction to Éire Nua
The launch of Éire Nua came at a critical juncture in the early years of the conflict in the Six Counties. 1972, the worst year for casualties, began with the shooting dead of 14 civilians in Derry. Stormont was suspended at the end of March, and an IRA truce declared in June foundered on the rocks of IRA bombs in Belfast on ‘Bloody Friday’ in July and provocative actions by the British army.
It might have been regarded as a bad time to launch proposals for a political settlement and indeed Éire Nua was mostly lost in the smoke of bullets and bombs. There were nonetheless some positive reactions even from loyalist organisations which led to tentative contacts on the basis of discussions on the proposals for a federal Ulster until Dublin Minister Conor Cruise O’Brien exposed them, and the participants to danger, in 1976. The source of his information would not be difficult to imagine.
The reaction of both states, which were in the process of exploring a return to devolved administration in the Six Counties through power sharing, and of the main likely unionist and nationalist participants in talks leading to such a development, was hostile. The British obviously regarded it as a threat to the union, and the Irish political elite were unnerved by the suggestion that the southern state too would have to give way under the proposals.
Commenting on the 1974 contacts between republicans and loyalists, initiated by Desmond Boal of the DUP, the United States Ambassador to Dublin John Moore succinctly summed up that response. While he believed that it was of value that republicans and loyalists were engaging and that federalism was a viable option, that it was a negative factor in the aftermath of Sunningdale and the ongoing if forlorn hopes for a workable power sharing arrangement (Wikileaks.)
Some of the intellectual response to Éire Nua was particularly interesting when it addressed the wider implications it had for the whole of Ireland and its future economic, social and indeed existential development. Desmond Fennell was the foremost of those outside of the republican movement to engage but unfortunately like the proposals themselves, Fennell’s contributions were mostly lost in the maelstrom of events.
Desmond Fennell and the New Nationalism
Éire Nua was put forward as a discussion document and one open to amendment. One of those attracted by its potential was Desmond Fennell, the Belfast born and Dublin raised writer and philosopher. Fennell remains one of the few Irish intellectuals of the past 50 years who has managed to transcend the stifling shackles of the navel gazing and self-loathing of an insular and still Anglo fixated liberalism obsessed with a long dead past fighting, as Fennell himself once said, battles that were won and lost more than a generation ago. He is perhaps Irish thought’s Beckett to the Irish Times’ Roddy Doyle.
One of the aspects of Éire Nua which attracted Fennell was its vision of a truly post-colonial revolutionary Republic. Not only was he involved in an attempt to establish the bones of a Connacht decentralised federation, but contributed to the shaping of the document with his proposal that the basic unit of governance be community councils based on local parishes.
A lecture which he delivered in Monaghan to a meeting of Comhairle Uladh in August 1972 was published as A New Nationalism for the New Ireland which is well worth a reading as an insight into the potential, unfortunately lost at the time, of the ideas contained in Éire Nua.
He noted that the Éire Nua project had had already developed far beyond the notion of a nine county Ulster administration, which had naturally attracted most attention given its relevance to the political and military crisis in the north: “We are now proposing not merely that the Northern unionists modify their political allegiance and that the governmental system in the Six counties and neighbouring counties be remade from the bottom up. We are also proposing the disbandment of the 26 county state as it now stands and its replacement by our communitarian and pluralist republic.” (Monaghan 1972, p2.)
He recognised the huge barriers in the way of its achievement. Central to that would be the winning of popular support which was necessary if the democratic political and economic structures were to become viable. As the history of radicalism has shown such support is not only hard won, but often transient. When what were designed as participatory democratic organs atrophy and become dominated by the same individuals and groups, then they relapse back into the mundane, or worse. History has shown that totalitarianism often has its origins in what were ostensibly popular movements for self-governance which are taken over by centralising parties.
When Sinn Féin in Dublin began to greatly expand its electoral and popular support in the late 1990s some of us believed that this had the potential to form alternative or parallel means for communities to take control of their own destinies. Much of that electoral support had its roots in community movements such as the anti drugs campaign which held mass meetings around the city. What if, we naively perhaps thought, that elected councillors not only attend City and County Council meetings but also continue to hold regular weekly or monthly meetings in the communities that elected them rather than dealing with people now as individual supplicants through advice centres?
Perhaps that might become a means of empowering communities beyond and in addition to what they already successfully accomplished in relation to local sports clubs, scouts, facilities for the elderly and so on. But like so much else, this was lost in the headlong rush into constitutionalism and clientalism. The voter as the consumer of, and the political representative as the mediator for, favours from The Man.
Fennell recognised the sharing of a common objective with the Marxists, but that the objective of Marxist socialists was not the creation of conditions that would “favour the development of a truly human life … but actually bring such a life about – which is superstition” (ibid, p4.) Which is why Marxism takes an authoritarian turn because humans fail to live up to their imagined ideal, rather than deal with humans and the communities they create as the flawed entities which they are.
Recognising the latter reality, and regarding the centralized bureaucratic state, of whatever ideological complexion, as the enemy of self-government and human freedom the Irish revolution needed to work towards “the restoration of man to his full human nature.” (p6.) That, claimed Fennell had been the central objective of the leaders of the early 20th century revolution, and he referenced Connolly, McSwiney and even Collins in support of that. Collins had rejected wealth creation as an end in itself, entailing as it does the “self-obliteration of a hive of bees.”
The Republic needed to be a “community of communities,” and just as “our basic communities will be self-governing within the nation, it goes without saying that our national community will be self-governing within the world.” (p11.) In common with the revolutionary thinkers he referred to, Fennell identified the main enemies of achieving their objectives, not as the state or ruling class which if confronted with violence – which is sometimes necessary – will always have the advantage of potentially “unlimited violence.”
Therefore, the front line was in people’s own minds. The enemies were a lack of vision emanating from alienation based on “a power other than themselves,” and the power structure which was built on that, and created a “network of material and mental domination.” (p18.) We will look next at the proposals to address the first aspect, and the abandonment of the Éire Nua proposals for the governance of a 32 county republic.