Civil Society Needs To Be Anchored In Civic Republicanism

Posted on
20 Jun 2019
by Dr. Fergus O’Ferrall

The following essay is excerpted from Civil Society: Perspectives and Reflections, The Wheel's new collection of essays, papers and personal reflections. Learn more here.

The important milestone of The Wheel’s 20th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect upon the future of civil society in Ireland. This is especially needed at a time when democracy is in crisis in so many parts of the world.

Ireland is not immune to this, with its major democratic deficits, North and South. I suggest that the most urgent need of civil society organisations is to clarify the public philosophy which is required to underpin a flourishing participatory democracy. Only when we embed in our thinking and practices an appropriate philosophy for active citizenship can we be confident that civil society organisations will fulfil their essential roles in Irish society. I am convinced that civic republicanism is the public philosophy that we ought to embrace in order to anchor civil society in a context where it will become central to the well-being of all citizens.

"This is a key notion of freedom - freedom from either private or public domination - and it is central to civic republicanism."

What is civic republicanism?

Civic republicanism as a political philosophy is grounded in the classical republican tradition which originated in Roman political thinkers like Polybius, Cicero and Livy. The idea of the ‘free person’ not subject to a master’s will and equal to other citizens was central to this tradition.

This is a key notion of freedom - freedom from either private or public domination - and it is central to civic republicanism. It implies that each free citizen is adequately resourced and protected by laws made by all citizens against such control or domination. In order to secure this freedom, the laws must be a public affair – a res publica - and ought not be controlled by any private interests or power.

This republican conception of the freedom and equality of citizens has continued to inspire actual republics in history however far short they fall below the ideal they espouse. Ireland has been an important exemplar of this republican aspiration, particularly from the eighteenth century, when republican ideals were espoused by many - famously by Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. The contest between the republican ideal of freedom as non-domination and the classical liberal definition of freedom (and more latterly the neo-liberal definition) has continued right up to this day. Classical liberalism defined freedom as noninterference and this became in neo-liberalism freedom for the market to be the main mechanism to determine societal outcomes including people’s life chances. In the neo-liberal world order in which we live - one which has led to the current crisis in democracy following the crash of 2008 and to the neo-liberal austerity imposed in its wake - extreme inequalities, great imbalances of power and multiple sites of domination proliferate. The public realm has been hollowed out and made incapable of addressing adequately the common good in education, health, housing and welfare.

No longer is the republican value of equality, for example, merely rooted in political philosophy. Empirical research has demonstrated the highly destructive personal and social effects of the rising inequalities which characterise so many societies. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s two vital books, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009, 2011) and The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being (2018), place the civic republican value of equality upon a scientific basis and leave no excuse to civil society organisations for silence on inequalities or being co-opted into service provision which salves the consciences of those who support neoliberal approaches that result in gross inequalities.

Civic republicanism is the public philosophy most appropriate obviously for a society claiming to be a republic. It is based upon the challenging concepts of freedom as non-domination, of active citizenship, of participatory democracy, of solidarity (fraternity), of an equality of conditions to enable freedom and engagement in public affairs to be practicable for all citizens. The philosophy is focussed upon the core concept of the common good. It requires social justice based upon laws which protect a common set of basic liberties and requires that such laws are framed and implemented by government - local, national and international - under a form of public and democratic control that guards against private or public domination.

What is civil society and what role should it play?

When we speak of civil society we may mean just a description of any organisation or movement that is not part of the economic market or of the State. We might also mean the associational practice of citizens combining for to meet some need or purpose not met by commercial or State agencies. We may also speak of civil society to commend norms and values such as active citizenship, the need to diffuse power to citizens themselves and to moral force of citizens seeking to achieve some ends through coming together to give voice to some cause. The Carnegie UK Trust’s very valuable Inquiry into Futures for Civil Society in 2007 understood civil society in these terms: associational life, the ‘good’ society and as arenas for public deliberation: in summary “civil society is a goal to aim for (a ‘good’ society), a means to achieve it (associational life), and a framework for engaging with each other about ends and means (arenas for deliberation)”.

It is the normative meaning of civil society—the concept of the ‘good’ society—that it is vital to explore and to articulate. When we seek to do this we come quickly to understand that civil society is a necessary and vital underlying structure in the creation and renewal of democracy. My argument is that in the absence of a proper philosophy underpinning the roles played by civil society we will fail to renew our Irish democracy in the twenty-first century. Broadly speaking that renewal must be a major shift toward enriching representative democracy with participatory and deliberative democracy. To facilitate this shift Irish civil society organisations and movements must themselves be schools of active citizenship and exemplars of deliberative democratic practice. If they so become, they will combat the prevailing neo-liberal view of citizens as merely self-interested actors. Citizens mobilised in civil society organisations are attracted out of such overly privatised lives to create ever-widening circles of critical, informed, participating, altruistic citizens serving public needs and purposes.

Civil society and the condition of Ireland

It is appropriate in this decade of centenaries and as we celebrate twenty years of The Wheel’s work in coordinating and developing the voluntary sector to reflect on how our present political culture and ideological confusion inhibits a fully flourishing civic republic in Ireland. I have been reflecting on this ever since I was first involved in The Wheel from 1998. I wrote a book on Citizenship and Public Service Voluntary and Statutory Relationships in Irish Healthcare (The Adelaide Hospital Society, Dundalgan Press, 2000), dedicated to The Wheel, in which the late Dr. Mary Redmond, founder of The Wheel, wrote a foreword. Here she quoted the Green Paper on Supporting Voluntary Activity, published in 1997:

“The rapidly changing economic and social situation in Ireland requires serious consideration on how best to change society in order to make it socially and economically inclusive. There is a need to create a more participatory democracy where active citizenship is fostered. An active voluntary and community sector contributes to a democratic, pluralist society... [emphases by Dr. Redmond].“

Dr. Redmond noted that these phrases are meaningless “as long as Ireland’s public philosophy legitimating voluntary action is as inadequate as it is”. In the book, I set out how an impoverished public discourse in Ireland and the resource dependency of many voluntary bodies on the State might be addressed through embracing a civic republican conception of society. Living out such a conception empowers and equips bodies of active citizens to contribute fully to public purposes.

It of course requires that the ambivalence in the Irish Republic about our commitment to a civic republican vision of society be addressed. One fruit of the reflection on our emergence as a State before 1922 in this decade of centenaries has been increasing knowledge and awareness of the various forms of radicalism that were on offer in the revolutionary period only to be suppressed in the more suffocating atmosphere of the Free State. It is timely that we seek to recover such social radical themes around workers, feminism, socialism, public welfare, cultural exploration, freedom and equality as we approach the centenary of the State in 2022. At the heart of such radical thinking is the civic republican conception for the free, equal and active citizen in a truly republican society and state.

Sources for reflection

Having counselled the need to understand and embrace civic republicanism as our public philosophy in Ireland I ought to suggest some key sources that will be very helpful in addressing this exciting challenge. I am most indebted to the Irish political philosopher, Philip Pettit, for his clear articulation of this political tradition and what it might mean today. I was delighted that he has delivered The Wheel’s annual lecture; his work is essential reading: Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997) and Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World (New York, 2014) are modern classics. Collective inspiration that we may benefit from includes the work of TASC, the independent think-tank dedicated to promoting equality, democracy and sustainability. I was privileged to be editor of Towards a Flourishing Society (TASC, 2012) which contains TASC’s A Vision of a Flourishing Society and my own essay, Visioning a New Civic Republic and Building a Republican Society and State, as well as key contributions on the theme of a flourishing society. More recently I was privileged to co-chair The Wheel’s People’s Conversation on Re-thinking Citizenship. I have learned a great deal from a Coalition of Hope group discussion and process which sought to imagine “a new project of human flourishing” and resulted in the recent book, A Dialogue of Hope Critical Thinking for Critical Times (Messenger Publications, Dublin, 2017). Given that the neo-liberal narrative is spent and that an alternative narrative is essential to addressing climate change and our complex democratic crises, the essays in this book are key sources for reflection. My own essay, Key Areas for Constructive Engagement: Solidarity, Community and Active Citizenship, invites “thinking big for dark times” and sets out some possible lines of action as we imagine a very different Republic - a ‘Civic Republic’ - in Ireland.

"The benefits of collective reflection by citizens seeking the common good is evident to me"

It calls for a stronger civil society voice and an enlarged public sphere through new and well-resourced public deliberative fora. One of the many very useful sessions that the Coalition of Hope authors had was facilitated by The Wheel to discuss the issues raised. The benefits of collective reflection by citizens seeking the common good is evident to me, not only through The Wheel, which commenced under Dr. Mary Redmond so successfully with this very methodology, but through the other group reflections in different contexts which I have just noted. The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention and the Citizens Assembly have illustrated beyond doubt the benefits. I suggest that a network of wellfunded civic forums ought to be established in every local authority area. Deliberative democracy is key because it has the capacity to produce better policies and decisions, to enhance to legitimacy of decisions and above all to strengthen civic virtues. Citizens learn to listen and have an opportunity to be properly informed and to develop trust as they deliberate together. It is timely now that each civil society organisation studies such key reference books as The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century (JosseyBass, San Francisco, 2005 and paperback, 2011) and the excellent overview in The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford, 2018), and seek to apply practical and sustainable forms widespread public deliberation in every locality.


The renewal of our commitment to a genuine republican society and state is an urgent task. The seedbeds of the civic virtues required in such a Civic Republic are sown in civil society organisations. We must not distain the hard task of thinking through this together, and building a consensus in society for the principles and values of civic republicanism. As Dr. Redmond reminds us, an inadequate public philosophy renders meaningless our rhetoric about active citizenship and inhibits greatly the potential contribution and roles of all civic society organisations. We face a choice: we may submit to the neo-liberal ideology with its false view of the self-centred human person, or we may empower ourselves to be altruistic shapers of a new participatory society that is flourishing and sustainable.

The next twenty years will be determinative of all our futures. Martin Luther King Jr. preached these words:

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

On the evidence of its success in the first twenty years I am confident that The Wheel will play a decisive role in giving a clear voice to the ‘good people’ so that we not only repair and bind up the broken people and communities in Ireland but we ask why they are broken and insist upon building a new Civic Republic - one which will stand for a great and generous experiment in human well-being and happiness. Such a Republic will be founded upon an educated and intellectually-vibrant citizenry, imbued with civic virtues and dedicated to the common good. That is our great task for the next one hundred years of an independent State now formally established as a Republic.

The Author

 Dr. Fergus O’Ferrall was formerly Adelaide Lecturer in Health Policy in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Trinity College, Dublin and previously was Director of the Adelaide Hospital Society. Other positions he has held include Chief Executive of Macra na Feirme, President of the National Youth Council of Ireland, Chairman of The Wheel and Governor of The Irish Times Trust. He has written a number of books and articles concerning health policy. Dr. O’Ferrall is also an historian and he has published a number of books on Irish history. In 215 he was designated Lay Leader of Conference, 2016- 18, by the Methodist Church in Ireland.