By Steve Davies.
Daniel O’Connell is an icon for Irish nationalists; and he was a pivotal figure in the line of descent from Wolfe Tone to Parnell and the later founders of the Irish state. It is entirely right therefore that Dublin’s most important street should bear his name. He is best known, of course, for his crucial part in the passage of Roman Catholic Emancipation, with his mazing organisational ability manifesting itself in the formation of the Catholic Association. It was his victory in the County Clare by-election, which precipitated the political crisis that led to the passage of Emancipation in 1829. His later campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union also assures his place in the Irish nationalist pantheon.
However there was much else to his career, since he was an active and outspoken politician with clear and forceful views on a wide range of subjects, which he expressed often and publicly. However an examination of his many parliamentary and public speeches reveals something very interesting that is largely absent from the standard nationalist account. From such an examination we get a clearer picture of his ideology or beliefs and through that of the nature of his wider political project. The evidence should in fact lead us to rethink common ideas about the relationship between nationalism, particularly Irish nationalism, and classical liberal (or as we might say today, libertarian) thought.
The place to start such an investigation is in what some might think a surprising location. Not all of the figures in subsequent Irish nationalism viewed O’Connell in such a benign light. In particular James Connolly abhorred him and launched a savage attack upon the man and his ideas in chapter 12 of his “Labour in Irish History”. For him O’Connell was a supporter of the capitalist class and an avowed enemy of trades unionism and working class organisation. This may pique the interest of anyone who does not share Connolly’s revolutionary socialism and suggests that we may find materail of interest when we read the Liberator’s speeches?
One aspect of his thought, which has received attention recently, is that he was a strong opponent of slavery. As well as supporting the abolition of slavery in the British Empire he was also a consistent and firm supporter of abolitionism in the United States and a close friend and correspondent of Frederick Douglass. His attacks on slavery were not pragmatic or driven by economic analysis but rather reflected a more philosophical commitment to freedom and self-determination of which slavery was the grotesque antithesis. His belief in human freedom also underlay his strong and consistent support for free trade and associated campaigns such as that to repeal the Corn Laws. In this he was one of Cobden and Bright’s most reliable allies in Parliament. He invariably both spoke and voted in favour of moves towards freer trade. He was also an ally of Cobden’s on the question of anti-imperialism and opposition to the bellicose foreign policy of the British government of the day. This was linked to his support for the idea of ‘retrenchment’, meaning a reduction in levels of government spending and the associated taxation.
In fact he was in general one of the most radical and consistent advocates of laissez-faire in Parliament and outside it. This showed itself in strong opposition to government regulation of things such as working hours and conditions of employment. It was this that particularly enraged James Connolly who quoted the following from one of his speeches “they (Parliament) had legislated against the nature of things, and against the right of industry. Let them not be guilty of the childish folly of regulating the labour of adults, and go about parading before the world their ridiculous humanity, which would end by converting their manufacturers into beggars.” (The emphasis is Connolly’s addition).
O’Connell was not however in any way a supporter of the established institutions of the state. Like other radical liberals such as Cobden he supported measures to reform the administration of the state and its constitutional structure. He was not therefore in any sense a conservative or supporter of the established order. He was in fact was a consistent and radical classical liberal. His goal and vision was that of a modern but minimal state, following a political economy based upon free exchange and individualism. He wanted radical change but was utterly opposed to the use of violence and intimidation. He completely rejected the kind of revolutionary politics associated with the Jacobins and the French Revolution. Instead he developed a highly effective form of peaceful mass mobilisation and the use of the existing structures of representative government.
His nationalism and vision of Ireland as a self-governing nation under the British crown was part of this and to a great degree motivated by it. In other words it was his commitment to liberty and self government that led to his nationalism, and not the other way round. His career and ideas should therefore lead us to reassess the relationship between Irish nationalism and classical liberalism, and should put paid to the simplistic idea that there is some inherent incompatibility between the two.