Bastille Day, the Democratic Programme 1919, Third Isaiah and a New Ireland

It was a constellation of ideas on the day of the dissolution of the 30th Dail.

In chance conversation at lunchtime I learned that in 18th Century Belfast, Bastille Day parades were more significant that 12th July parades. The city, like much of Europe was convulsed by new ideas and political radicals such as Thomas Russell and Mary Ann McCracken expressed their radicalism in action like protesting against the sugar trade and its links to slavery. They, and others like them, celebrated the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

On the way home I listened to the closing speeches of the 30th Dail. How ironic that the final speaker was Caoimhghin O Caolain of Sinn Fein who quoted from the Democratic Programme of the first Dail in 1919. The Democratic Programme was  radical document espousing a peculiarly Irish form of socialism, but it was also a firm rejection of the cult of blood sacrifice and the strange mysticism of the 1916 rebels.

In its place the Programme offered the revolutionary French ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity with an Irish flavour.

The 1919 Dail was arguably the most representative parliament that had yet been convened and this was its programme for government. Only 600 words, that’s all. This document should have been the true founding document of the State (read it in its entirety here).

Instead, after independence, the document was ignored. The pure pragmatism of political parties trumped the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, in favour of the rhetoric of the 1916 Proclamation, and we ended up with the gombeen politics of the recent history.

What might we have created had the Democratic Programme been adopted? What if all identities on the island had been recognised from the beginning instead of 80 years and thousands of deaths later? What if the oppressive regimes of churchmen had not served only to restrict freedoms? What if all children of the State had been cherished from the beginning? What if every one had the right to participate in the wealth created by the State?

Later that evening I continued my reading in the book of Isaiah, particularly Third Isaiah (chps 56-66). Here is a call to the re-creation of a decimated community, traumatised by defeat, destruction and exile, returning with a task to build anew. Third Isaiah is an encouragement to remember the mistakes of the past, and to resolve not to repeat them. It is a manifesto for a new State.

The parallels with the Democratic Programme are startling. It’s almost as if the framers of 1919 had read Isaiah 65.

Isaiah 65:20a
Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days..

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

Isaiah 65: 20b
(Never again will there be) an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth. He who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.

The Irish Republic fully realises the necessity of abolishing the present odious, degrading and foreign Poor Law System, substituting therefor a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation’s aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation’s gratitude and consideration. Likewise it shall be the duty of the Republic to take such measures as will safeguard the health of the people and ensure the physical as well as the moral well-being of the Nation.

Isaiah 65:21
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.

We declare in the words of the Irish Republican Proclamation the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be indefeasible, and in the language of our first President. Pádraíg Mac Phiarais, we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare. (Get that last sentence!!)

We affirm the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service to the Commonwealth, and declare it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.

Isaiah 65:23
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.

It shall be our duty to promote the development of the Nation’s resources, to increase the productivity of its soil, to exploit its mineral deposits, peat bogs, and fisheries, its waterways and harbours, in the interests and for the benefit of the Irish people.

Again and again it seems that the deepest instincts of the founders of the State were right and true. Isaiah calls this instinct justice and righteousness – in theological terms we call it a hendiadys, two words linked by a conjunction which are intended to be taken together to express a single, more complex, idea. In this case it is the idea of social justice expressed in multiple dimensions. Justice and righteousness in relationship with God, yes!, in the courts, yes!, but also in the elimination of exploitation and oppression.

Justice and righteousness in all the social structures and institutions of the State. Justice and righteousness in the behaviours of all citizens of the State.

The violence of 1916 and its aftermath have not served us well as the founding myth of the nation. But maybe we do need to revisit our past, to look again at the 1919 Democratic Programme and reinterpret it for this day.

But also time for Christians in the State to have confidence in our Scriptures to speak some sense into the mess.

(apologies for the long post, but these are extraordinary days here and we are desperate for resources to help us. Third Isaiah might be one)

2 thoughts on “Bastille Day, the Democratic Programme 1919, Third Isaiah and a New Ireland

  1. As ever, an excellent post Glenn. Was never aware of the Democratic Programme previously… It really is time for it to be looked at again… Not sure a Fine Gael led government would be the ones to do it tho, even less so SF, despite one of their members citing it, as they are still wedded to the romantic rhetoric of the 1916 “martyrs” that has condemned this island to continuously repeating the past. This post is worth a wider read south, and north of the border.

  2. thanks David. Yes it’s an interesting document isn’t it. not sure if anyone in govt would be prepared to look at the kinds of issues it raises because of the vested interests, but it would be interesting to see a faith group taking it on to produce a contemporary version wouldn’t it?


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