The IRB and English republicanism

I took the opportunity while in Ireland last week to visit the excellent An Cafe Liteartha in Dingle and pick up a copy of the new book on The IRB by Owen McGee.

From what I’ve read so far, the book certainly lives up to its very positive reviews. There is one passage in particular I think is worth highlighting here. It concerns the IRB’s response to Isaac Butt’s proposal for a federal United Kingdom.

Butt’s idea was unworkable because the creation of a federal government for the United Kingdom would have necessitated drafting a written (republican) constitution, while the entire British system of government, the monarchy’s role therein and its professed status as an empire, was totally dependent, legally speaking, on the unwritten nature of the British constitution. His idea might have appealed to English or Irish republicans but few others. 

Reputedly, James Stephens favoured the idea of the United Kingdom becoming a federal republic (minus the Crown and the House of Lords), with both Britain and Ireland possessing an equal constitutional status, and that it was only because he realized its constitutional impossibility that he was a separatist. His openness to various alternatives was perhaps best reflected by the fact that he tried to form an IRB alliance with the English republican movement during 1865. His intermediary on this occasion, Frank Roney, a Belfast Labourer, found English republicans such as Charles Bradlaugh and even a young Joseph Chamberlain to be fairly sympathetic towards the IRB’s political ideals, but the English radicals professed republicanism did not extend beyond a resentment of the financial burden being placed on the general British public by a useless aristocracy – A conservatism on their part that Roney judged was rooted in thier deep British nationalism. (The IRB – The Irish Republican Brotherhood from the Land League to Sinn Fein, p46) (hyperlinks not in original – obviously!)

This point about the strength of British nationalism is very similar to the converse one, about the weakness of English nationalism, which Charles Townshend makes in the extract I recently posted about the home rule all round scheme forty years later.

Incidentally, McGee’s footnotes highlight this interesting article on English republicanism by Dorothy Thompson.



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