1916 centenary should not be played by anyone for party political advantage

Opinion: The Rising was a complex event, best understood in the context of the bloodletting of the Great War

Éamon de Valera under arrest in Richmond Barracks, Dublin after the 1916 Rising. Fifty years later his role in that event was used to assist his re-election as president.

Éamon de Valera under arrest in Richmond Barracks, Dublin after the 1916 Rising. Fifty years later his role in that event was used to assist his re-election as president.


The powerful television documentary about the disappeared has obviously proved embarrassing for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams but it should also prompt wider reflection across the political spectrum about the reality of political violence in Ireland over the past century and how it should be commemorated.

The horrifying thing about the story told by the documentary was not so much that it shone a light on the viciousness and cruelty of the Provisional IRA but the fact that so many members of the Catholic/ nationalist community on both sides of the Border were prepared to justify it or at least look the other way.

The programme revealed how normal standards of human decency can be swept aside when a society is put under unbearable strain by political violence that facilitates the behaviour of psychopaths.

One of the ironies of the programme was that the most damning testimony against Adams came from former comrades, addicted to the cult of violence, who opposed the belated moves by the republican leadership to bring the IRA campaign to an end.

While Seamus Mallon hit the nail on the head with his famous remark that the Belfast Agreement of 1998 was “Sunningdale for slow learners” it is still a case of better late than never. There was no justification for the Provisional IRA campaign, particularly after the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, but the fact that Adams and McGuinness finally brought it to an end is something to be welcomed rather than deplored.

Propaganda campaign
One of the many positive things arising from the documentary about the disappeared is that it might put a dent in the ongoing propaganda campaign by republicans to convince people the IRA campaign was a legitimate response to the injustice that undoubtedly existed in Northern Ireland.

That campaign has been quite successful and has helped to facilitate Sinn Féin’s emergence as the dominant nationalist party in the North and a growing political force in the Republic. The sordid reality of the IRA campaign as revealed in the programme might make people think twice about accepting the republican propaganda version of “the war”.

It should also prompt all of the political parties in the Republic and society in general to be wary of accepting a simplistic account of the events of 100 years ago as the centenary of 1916 gets ever closer.

The Irish and British governments have made a genuine effort to inaugurate an inclusive decade of commemoration that respects the historical experience of all the people on the island of Ireland from the Home Rule Bill of 1912 to the creation of an independent Irish state in 1922.

However, there is no doubt that all of the momentous events of the decade, from Home Rule to the meeting of the first Dáil in 1919 and the establishment of the State in 1922, will inevitably be overshadowed by the commemoration of 1916. Violence and carnage inevitably fascinate subsequent generations more than the laborious nuts and bolts of nation-building.

The Rising was a complex event that cannot be understood outside the context of the times and particularly the bloodletting of the first World War. However, there is a danger that, shorn of context, it can be presented as a glorification of the cult of violence, as happened in 1966.

Of course every country has a national myth and most centre on violent events. The problem with the Irish case is that there are still people here committing murder on the basis of a warped understanding of what happened in 1916. That is why it is essential that the commemoration should be handled maturely.

All of the parties in the Dáil need to tread warily in the commemorative stakes for fear of giving ammunition to forces outside the democratic process. There is a danger that in their efforts to get one up on each other the Dáil parties could do some real harm – that applies as much to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as to Sinn Féin.

At the Fine Gael presidential dinner last Saturday night Taoiseach Enda Kenny referred to the next election taking place in April 2016. The implication is that it will be held at the last possible moment with the 31st Dáil being dissolved on March 8th, 2016, a full five years after it first met.

While Kenny’s reference can be taken with a grain of salt, as governments always maintain they will serve out the full term to the end, it tallies with speculation by some in Fine Gael that the party could get an election boost by remaining in power for the 1916 centenary commemorations.

The Taoiseach would do well to recall what happened in 1966, when Fianna Fail cynically sought to use the 50th anniversary celebrations to ensure the re-election of Éamon de Valera as president. In a shameful episode, RTÉ allowed itself to be manipulated into providing minimal coverage of the presidential election campaign because de Valera declined to debate with his opponent, Tom O’Higgins of Fine Gael. However, de Valera as a surviving commandant of 1916 appeared on RTÉ night after night attending one 1916 commemorative event after another.

Despite the Fianna Fáil government’s use of the State broadcasting service in a manner akin to that normal in the Soviet Union of the time de Valera only scraped home by 10,000 votes.

If the 1916 commemoration didn’t work particularly well on the 50th anniversary for the then all-powerful Fianna Fáil there is no guarantee that the 100th anniversary is going to do anything for Fine Gael.

It would be better for everybody if the next election, on whatever date it is held, is fought on the issues of the day while 1916 is commemorated with proper understanding and respect in a spirit of non-partisanship.

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