[To determine] a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

How about a republic?

After three elections in which we couldn’t bring ourselves to elect a government, the coronavirus has given us space to pause and think about what that means and how it will all work out once the pandemic is under control. It’s clearly impossible to say what will happen next in a once-in-a-century event, but there’s no harm in relieving the boredom of whatever remains of the restrictions by imagining the kind of world we could create from what’s left of the old one. And we could start with George Bernard Shaw’s advice that it’s past time to see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’; it’s time to dream of what never was and ask, ‘Why not?’

Why not a first-class, single-tier healthcare system to which we all have equal access? Why not a first-class single-tier education system to which we all have equal access? Why not provide housing for everybody in need and make certain that ‘no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter’ as the first Dáil promised? Why not a taxation system that makes the rich pay their share?

In short, why not a twenty-first-century republic where equal citizens support and defend the common good in their own self-interest?

Could the answer to all of those questions possibly be because we’re no longer citizens of a republic but units in an economy that’s run in the best interests of those with the money and the power and the influence? Could it be because the richest ten percent of the population own more of the nation’s wealth than the other ninety percent combined while the poorest ten percent own less than nothing at all?

And could it be that we’ve gone along with it because we’ve bought into the deluded belief, or bad-faith argument, that those with the money and the power and the influence create wealth and provide jobs. That’s what we’ve been told, but French economist Thomas Piketty shattered the myth of trickle-down economics in 2014 when he pointed out that following the explosion of billionaires in the US during the nineties and noughties, national per-capita income growth halved, falling from 2.2 percent to 1.1 percent (Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

So, let’s start again. How about a republic? And on the subject of things that never were, why not a republic that fulfils the promises of the First Dáil?

Immodest government

Easily enough said, but realistically, how do we get there from here? We could start by taking a look at Clement Attlee’s post-war UK Labour Government.

Within six years of ousting the national hero, Winston Churchill, from office, they established the National Health Service, the National Assistance Act, and a system of social insurance covering every citizen regardless of income. In short, they created nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

They introduced free compulsory secondary education. They  nationalised ‘the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel’. (Derek Brown, theguardian.com).

Now that was a revolution.

Churchill once described Attlee as a ‘modest man with much to be modest about’, but there was nothing modest about the revolutionary reforms his Government brought about; they changed the lives of ordinary British people, particularly the poorest.

Easily enough said, but realistically, how do we get there? We could start by taking a look at Clement Attlee’s post-war UK Labour Government. Within six years of ousting the national hero, Winston Churchill, from office, they established the National Health Service, the National Assistance Act, and a system of social insurance covering every citizen regardless of income. In short, they created nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state. They introduced free compulsory secondary education. They  nationalised ‘the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel’. (Derek Brown, theguardian.com).

Now that was a revolution.

Churchill once described Attlee as a ‘modest man with much to be modest about’, but there was nothing modest about the revolutionary reforms his Government brought about; they changed the lives of ordinary British people, particularly the poorest.

The working class were healthier, better educated, and better housed. Their children grew up to be the first generation that saw large numbers of working-class students study at the universities that were now tuition free[i]. And incidentally, as members of the first television generation, young people in general were more—if not necessarily better—informed and happy to shout about it. Welcome to the sixties.

Seventy-five years later, as the radical right in the UK ransack Attlee’s achievements, we’ve made it clear here at home, with our votes and our marching feet, that we want change. We don’t want a make-do-and-mend patchwork of what we already have, leaving us more or less where we started, we want a government as revolutionary as Attlee’s.

Instead, as of the time of writing, we have a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party mashup that makes nobody happy, least of all Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens: an immodest government with very much to be modest about.

Albert Einstein said that we can’t solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. Though we do keep trying. Swinging endlessly between governments formed by either one of two parties that come from the same socially conservative, right centrist, and redundant tradition of party politics in Ireland got us into the mess we’re in. But take Einstein’s word for it, it’s not going to get us out of it.


[i] They stayed free until 1998, when fees were reintroduced by Blair’s New ‘Labour’—by people who had themselves benefitted from free university education.

A time for revolutions

The emergent political landscape anticipated by those unresolved elections is roughly speaking, populated by two contrasting and equally discontented factions: those who want to stick to fiddling with the neoliberal deck chairs but with different people doing the fiddling—they just don’t know who—and those who want to deal with the iceberg problem and change course but don’t know which way to turn.

That space between wanting to deal with the iceberg and not knowing which way to turn is the natural home ground of the progressive left and it’s been lying empty, available for occupation by misinformation, disinformation, hate speech of one sort or another, and the toxic oversimplification and outrage to be found in certain corners of social media. Nature may abhor them, but fake news loves an ideological vacuum.

The left needs to reclaim that space.

By general consensus, the establishment parties have failed the country. The anger and the cynicism directed at the terrible twins of social conservatism, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, speak of more than dissatisfaction with the old stories. The disillusionment that came with the collapse of those familiar framing narratives has left us with a growing dislocation from an inauthentic politics in which spinning and fudge are more than just rhetorical devices, they’re intrinsic to political discourse. Spinning factoids distract us from the process by which wealth is steadily transferred upward in unregulated neoliberal logic. And as money rises and coagulates at the top, so too does power and that doesn’t trickle down either.

The independents, by and large, have let us down; some of them even got as far as the Cabinet table and made not a blind bit of difference for all their occasional bluster—we still got pure Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil pro-corporate, pro-landlord policies.

And the left are busy fighting wars of ideological purity.

The left’s asleep

So, how do we translate a shift in voting patterns into a clawing back of the wealth, the power, and the privilege that have been trickling up for decades? Why not a first-class healthcare system, a first-class education system, housing for everybody in need? In order to get there from here, the various left factions have to stop scoring points against each other and work on building a consensus approach to solving specific problems through cooperative action across and outside of party-political lines, and across lines of racial, class, and cultural identity.

This won’t be a coalition, where smaller parties go to die, but an alliance or cooperative—a Commoners Co-op—made up of progressive thinkers coming together for a single term only, with a fixed programme of government composed entirely of shared non-negotiable red lines that might include:

  • building houses so that we all have equal access to a home;
  • nationalising the hospitals and implementing Sláintecare, or a variation thereof, so that we all have equal access to healthcare;
  • nationalising and properly resourcing schools, colleges, and universities so that we all have equal access to education;
  • implementing an urgent programme to deal with climate change so that we can all enjoy a habitable planet into the future, and so that we all have equal access to clean air and water now;
  • introducing a wealth tax or a third income tax band, because revolutionary change doesn’t come cheap.

Those red lines can’t be limited to promises or broad policy outlines; they have to be fully worked out and costed plans for achieving each of the agreed policies, or a specified part of one or more, over five years. The cooperative would hold itself responsible for any shortfall or over-run and would dissolve itself after that single term with all members going their separate ways.

Outside of those non-negotiable red lines, individual members of the cooperative would agree to differ, with a firm commitment to ditching the whip. Members would be free to bring forward Private Members’ Bills for a democratic vote, devolving some of the power now resting within the cabinet to parliament and to the democratic process.

That should shake things up a bit and, hopefully, change the electoral maths forever. We now have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to political parties and independents from left of centre to centre-left to radical left—demonstrating both the diversity and the perversity of progressive opinion. And right now, we also have a clear appetite for change among the electorate. What are we waiting for?


[i] Universities stayed free until 1998, when fees were reintroduced by Blair’s New ‘Labour’—by people who had themselves benefitted from free university education.

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