From Shan Van Vocht, November 6, 1896.
In last month’s issue of the SHAN VAN VOCHT, the editor, in commenting upon the strictures passed by our contributor on the French Revolution, asks for an expression of opinion on the relative merits of —?. As both the article in question and the editorial revolutionary uprisings and moral force agitations note suggesting the discussion apparently take it for granted that the query with which this communication is headed, must be answered in the negative, an assumption which I believe to be entirely erroneous, and the fundamental mistake in the calculation of our modern Irish revolutionists, I would suggest that as the broader and more comprehensive question this be instead the basis of the proposed controversy. To make my position more plain, I may say, I write as one who believes that the concession to Ireland of such a limited form of local autonomy as that embodied in Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill would not in any sense be a step towards independence, but would more likely create effectual barriers in the way of its realization.
The question thus arises, are those who see in an Irish Republic the only political ideal worth striving for to eschew political action and seek in secret conspiracy alone to prepare for revolution? Up to the present every genuine Irish revolutionist has acted on this belief, that political action was impossible for republicans.
Now I assert the contrary. A revolution can only succeed in any country when it has the moral sanction of the people. It is so, even in an independent country; it is doubly so in a country subject like Ireland to the rule of another. Within this century no Irish revolutionist had obtained this sanction before he took the field. In 1848 the majority of the Irish people pinned their faith to the Repeal Association, which had disavowed even the right to resist oppression, and the Young Irelanders themselves had made no reasonable effort to prepare the popular mind for revolution, but had rather been precipitated into it against their will. Under such conditions failure was inevitable. Those who were willing to “rise” had no means of knowing how far their aspirations were shared by their fellow-countrymen elsewhere, and lacking confidence in themselves, with the recognised leaders of public opinion against them, the effort ended in disaster. The history of the Fenian movement was somewhat similar. The number of actually enrolled members formed but an insignificant minority of the population, the vast majority of our countrymen, though perhaps sympathising with the Fenian ideal, put their trust in politicians who preached tame submission under the name of “prudence” and “caution,” and in the critical period of the movement flung the weight of their influence on the side of “law and order.”
In both cases the recognised leaders of national thought were on the side of constituted authority and against every revolutionary effort. The facts are as undeniable as they are lamentable, and they speak in trumpet tones in favour of such a re-modelling of Irish and revolutionary tactics as shall prevent a recurrence of similar disasters in the future. This, I hold, can be best accomplished by a political party seeking to give public expression to the republican ideal. One point needs to be emphasised in this connection, viz., it is not republicanism, but the counsel of insurrectionary effort to realise republicanism, which gave to previous Irish movements their odour of illegality. A candidate for political honours (?) is as much at liberty to put the attainment of a republic on his programme as he is to pledge himself to Home Rule or any other scheme of political reconstruction. Were a political party formed in Ireland to educate the people in sound national ideas by pledging every candidate to openly repudiate the authority of the Crown and work for the realization of republican principles, it would achieve a much needed transformation in Irish politics.
Hitherto every Irish agitation has sought to make its programme as broad and loosely defined as possible, in order to enrol under its banner every section of Irish national opinion – loyal Home Rulers, Conservative Nationalists, Compromising Whigs, and Nationalist Democrats – all alike were welcome. Such a basis is undoubtedly best for the purposes of “agitation,” but it is worse than useless for the purposes of earnest revolutionists seeking a definite end. But such a party as I speak of, with an avowedly republican programme, would, in its very definiteness and coherence, have immense advantages to recommend it to the consideration and support of practical-minded men. It would prevent the emasculation of our young men by the vapourings of “constitutional” patriots; it would effectually expose the sham Nationalists, and, let us hope, drive them from political life; it would at every election in which it took part, afford a plebiscite of the people for or against the republic; it would enlist the sympathy of many earnest patriots whose open natures shrink from secret conspiracy; it would ascertain with mathematical accuracy the moment when the majority of the Irish people were ripe for revolution, and it could not be suppressed while representative government was left in Ireland. By adhering steadily to the policy of pledging every candidate to its full programme, whether they stood for Parliament or local governing bodies, it would ensure that when a majority of the Irish people had at the ballot-boxes declared in favour of the revolutionary party, every soldier of the cause would know that in the fight he was waging he was not merely one of a numerically insignificant band of malcontents, but a citizen soldier fighting under orders publicly expressed in face of all the world by a majority of his fellow-countrymen. This I hold to be an eminently practical method of obtaining our end. It would exclude the possibility of our national principles being betrayed in the moment of danger, or compromised in the hour of success to suit the convenience of interested party politicians. It would inspire confidence in the most timid by its recognition of the fact that to counsel rebellion, without first obtaining the moral sanction of the people, would be an act of criminal folly which could only end in disaster. It would make Irish republicanism no longer the “politics of despair,” but the science of revolution.
It may be urged against such a proposal that the first need of Irish politics is unity, and that such a party would only accentuate the division at present existing. This, however, could only be the case if our present representatives refuse to accept the pledge of loyalty to the free Irish Republic and to it alone. If they do so refuse, then they are unfit to be representatives of the Irish democracy and cannot be removed too soon. The objection in itself implies a suspicion of the genuine nature of the patriotism so loudly vaunted by our party politicians. Unity is a good thing, no doubt, but honesty is better, and if unity can only be attained by the suppression of truth and the toleration of falsehood, then it is not worth the price we are asked to pay for it. I would, in conclusion, earnestly recommend the readers of the SHAN VAN VOCHT to study the suggestions contained in this paper, and if they approve of them, to act accordingly. Should this meet with a favourable reception, I may, if the opportunity occurs and the editor permits, give in a future issue my ideas on the programme of political and social reform, on which such a party might fight in Parliament and the country, while the public opinion of Ireland was ripening behind them, impending the arrival of the propitious moment for action.
JAMES CONNOLLY, DUBLIN