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‘The past is never past’: Ireland’s history of political violence, and how to deal with it

Unthinkable: Author and academic Michael Ignatieff is in Dublin this week exploring how revolutionary history ‘can be used to tip over the democratic wagon’

The president of the United States, Joe Biden, has a phrase he likes to use about Ireland: “We Irish are the only people who are nostalgic for the future.” It is cute but hardly true.

Any sober analysis of Irish politics and culture would have to conclude we are neither uniquely forward thinking nor especially free of romanticism about the past. For Michael Ignatieff, the acclaimed academic and former Canadian politician who is visiting Dublin this week, a different phrase comes to mind — that of James Joyce in Exiles: “The past is not past. It is present here now.”

“The past is never past; we keep being compelled by it in ways we don’t fully control. And the only way to control it is to understand it in all its complexity and ambiguity,” says Ignatieff, who has been invited to deliver the annual Edmund Burke Lecture at Trinity College Dublin on Thursday.

Part of Ireland’s past that remains potent is our history of revolutionary violence, a history that has been used to try to justify terrorism in the Troubles and could be used in future to legitimise who knows what. “Violence has accompanied the creation of your democracy,” says Ignatieff, “and the question is this: how do modern democratic societies deal with and control this revolutionary legacy?”


Speaking to The Irish Times, he says: “The example that set me thinking about this is January 6th, 2021, in Washington.” The storming of Capitol Hill can be seen as either “a wild, right-wing mob who smashes up the sacred citadel of American democracy or — and this is the challenging thought — a bunch of patriots who, animated by the traditions of the American Revolution, rise to the defence of democracy because they believe an election has been stolen...

“In the US, in Ireland, in France, in lots of other countries, revolutionary traditions are volatile. They can be used to tip over the democratic wagon.”

The author of numerous books on human rights, politics and international affairs, Ignatieff once led the Liberal Party in Canada and more recently was president of the Central European University — an institution that was forced out of Hungary after a legal battle with Viktor Orbán’s government over academic freedom. In advance of his Dublin lecture he speaks to the Unthinkable column.

Why should we pay attention to Edmund Burke?

Michael Ignatieff: “He is the greatest 18th century thinker about this precise problem [of political violence] because he supports the Glorious Revolution [in England] of 1688, he approves the American Revolution of 1776 but he thinks the [French] revolution of 1789 and revolt of the United Irishman in 1790s as an abomination. How do you explain that?

“What makes him fascinating is he takes off against the French Revolution within about six months of it occurring — he writes this stuff long before the Terror ... He said ‘watch out, this is not going to end well’, and he was right. Burke remains chillingly relevant to this day.”

Stories of rebellion are alluring — look at Hamilton and Les Misérables, two of the world’s biggest stage shows. It seems revolution taps into a very human desire.

“Sure, I think utopianism and revolutionary idealism speak to something very profound in human beings, that is a desire to be reborn, a desire for redemption, a desire for a completely new start. I think this runs deep in people and the people who Burke was arguing against were religious dissenters in Britain — Richard Price and others — who when they heard about the French Revolution they quoted from the Bible: ‘Now let thy servant depart in peace because I have seen the coming of the Lord.’

“Revolution taps into this longing for rebirth free of sin. It taps into the same longings religion taps into. Burke was nothing if not respectful of religious emotion; he just thought that when applied to politics it was profoundly dangerous. Because the problem is not those aspirations to be reborn — to have an Ireland born anew, pure and free of the British yoke, and all that stuff — the problem is there is a connection between redemption and violence. To get there you had to kill a lot of people; it just goes with the territory.”

How do you deal with the history of revolutions once they have taken place? Should they be commemorated, honoured or approached with more a more critical eye?

“Well, I’m an historian ... so I’m going to say you have got to look at it warts and all. In the Irish case, you have to look at the absolutely heroic character to it, the stubborn centuries’ long determination to be independent. You gotta respect that but you’ve also got to look unsparingly and clearly at the violence on both sides of this struggle, and count the cost.

“I’m not trying to denounce the Irish nationalist tradition. I’m not trying to denounce anybody’s tradition. I’m just saying these traditions have some tremendously positive sides but also they legitimise violence and, because they do, they are dangerous.”

Looking at Ireland and other countries, is there a connection between having a revolutionary past and tolerance towards political violence in the present?

“I think I am saying that but I want to be careful. These things play out very specifically in each national context. You can be a proud Irish nationalist committed to a united Ireland and at the same time hate terrorist violence ...

“So what I am not saying — I repeat not saying — is that the Irish nationalist tradition is somehow corrupted by its tolerance for violence. No, I’m saying some Irish nationalists have always despised terrorist violence but there are other strands of the Irish, republican, nationalist violence who have been, let’s say, permissive, in fact complicit, in fact encouraging of acts of terrorism against innocent civilians, and that’s just in my view not a good thing...

“Similarly, in the US, there are people who think that the American revolutionary tradition authorises people to rise up and defend democracy when that democracy is in peril. And that tradition has wonderful sides to it — it makes America one of the most democratic societies on earth. But it also does have a side in that it encourages extremism ... and extremism is a real problem in American politics.

“I’m trying to make the point that we’re not talking about a bunch of, you know, fascist goons. It’s easy to deal with fascist goons. It’s much more difficult to deal with people who conscientiously believe they are acting in best traditions of American history; that is a much more serious problem.”

When is political violence justified?

“Well, I think there are two situations in which violence and the defence of democracy can be justified. One of them we’re living through right now, and that’s Ukraine, a very democratic society that’s invaded by a foreign power ... That is perfectly clear and urgent, and it’s also the case in Taiwan, as uncomfortable as that may be...

“The second case is the case that Burke described, which is when abuses have continued for so long and show no signs of abating. He says those conditions may of necessity force you to march on the capital, take up arms and defend your democracy, but it has to be defence of democracy not a rise of arms to install an authoritarian regime...

“So Burke understands where revolution comes from, but he says, look, any reasonable thoughtful person makes revolution the last thing you turn to when all else fails, and it can only be justified in situations of absolute necessity. That seems to me to be just 100 per cent right.”

The annual Edmund Burke Lecture, hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, will be delivered by Michael Ignatieff on Thursday, Oct 6th at 6.30pm in the Edmund Burke Theatre, TCD. Tickets are free from Michael Ignatieff is also participating in a public discussion on academic freedom at the Royal Irish Academy on Friday