Towards a Secular Republic

An egalitarian republic requires a radical rebalancing of power, says Éilis Ryan.

If the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave
None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well-equipped to decide what is a fetter.
– James Connolly, The Reconquest of Ireland

James Connolly’s 1915 critique of the oppression of women stands in stark opposition to the experiences of women in the last century in Ireland. Connolly’s republicanism saw the anti-imperialism of the Rising as inseparable from struggles against all forms of oppression – whether by the state, the Church or the wealthy, whether against women or the working class.

But it was Catholic nationalism, and not the ideals of Connolly, which shaped our independent state, as expressed by the 1937 Constitution. One hundred years on, if we are to finally establish a republic in which women are equals, it is essential that we are honest about this fact.

The 1937 Constitution guaranteed that the State would “pass no law attempting to abolish the right of private ownership or the general right to transfer, bequeath and inherit property.” Time and again, this clause has been used to justify why the state “cannot intervene” to reduce rents, to prevent evictions, or to take over vacant buildings. The protection of wealth has taken precedence over ending our current homelessness crisis.

Neither did newly independent Ireland value women as Connolly advocated. Amongst the political parties which emerged from the War of Independence, there was almost no disagreement about the important role which the Catholic Church should play in Ireland, and, by extension, the limits to be placed on women’s autonomy and rights.

Too often the State has prioritised Catholic ‘morals’ over women’s lives

From the first debates of the new Irish parliament in 1927, through to 1950, abortion and contraception are mentioned only twice; once in 1929, by a Cumann na nGaedheal Minister for Justice, and again in 1947, by a Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, both times in relation to the need to ensure that the state censorship board ensured that no publication was circulated which promoted the “unnatural prevention of conception” through either contraception or abortion.

It would be easy to suggest that such conservativism was simply “of its time.” But to do so would be to to ignore the many women who did know and accept the need for abortion right from the foundation of the State; throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many women died each year while accessing an illegal abortion in Ireland.

The conspicuous absence of such suffering from political debate is an all too familiar story in twentieth century Ireland. Whether in relation to symphysiotomy, rape within marriage, or the Magdalene laundries, too often the state has prioritised Catholic ‘morals’ over women’s lives.

While the power of the Church is nowhere near as significant as it once was, its influence is still felt. Its role in the education system in particular continues to place constraints on how the state and its citizens develop.

Sexuality and relationships education, for example, only became mandatory in secondary schools in 2003 in Ireland. But even now, parents are allowed to remove their children from such classes if they have “conscientious or moral objections to the inclusion of such programmes on the curriculum.” Many schools also supplement state-mandated sexuality education with external, Catholic speakers.

Some of those who fought in 1916 saw the declaration of a republic as only one step towards overturning the core power bases of Irish society – capital and the Church. As well as their struggle, we remember the State that did emerge; the thousands and thousands of women subject to violence in their homes and in State institutions, without a democratic, secular government willing to uphold their rights as citizens, to stand up against the power of the Church.

Equality for women requires more than the words of 1916 Proclamation – and it will require more than the removal of dated articles from our Constitution today. To build a republic in which women are truly equals, we must be willing, once and for all, to transfer power away from the Church, and ensure it is held only by a democratic government accountable to the people.

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