Varadkar defends holding RIC commemoration amid boycotts of event

Minister criticises those ‘seeking headlines’ as mayors say they will not attend ceremony

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he is “disappointed” at the decision of some figures to boycott the official commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Dublin later this month.

A number of mayors have said they will not attend the event, but Mr Varadkar said such mayors could allow someone else from their councils to attend in their stead.

Fianna Fail’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan has become the most senior member of his party to say that he will not be attending.

He said it was appropriate the two police forces were remembered, but not in the context of the Decade of Centenaries.

In a letter to Mr Flanagan, he stated both police forces were complicit in a “violent response to oppose and suppress the democratic wishes of the majority on the island.

“I do not believe there is a moral equivalence between the struggle for Irish independence between the years 1912 and 1922 and the effort made to suppress that struggle by the military forces of the colonial power.”

On Monday night, Dublin city councillors became the latest figures to snub the event, describing the ceremony as “obscene” as they voted against participating in it.

Independent councillors Cieran Perry, Nial Ring, Christy Burke, John Lyons, Noeleen Reilly and Sinn Féin proposed a motion objecting to the event, saying the RIC had an “intolerable record of barbarism” while carrying out British rule in Ireland.

They said the event was an “affront to generations of patriots who struggled to end centuries of imperial tyranny” and was an attempt to “question the very legitimacy of our battle for independence and sovereignty”.

The RIC had “brutalised and murdered workers” during the 1913 Lockout, the motion said.

“Only a subservient Government suffering from a postcolonial state of mind and ashamed of our revolutionary history would encourage this disgraceful event,” the motion concluded.

Councillors voted by 38 to 10 to “not participate or have representation at the event”.

Fianna Fáil’s John Sheehan, the Lord Mayor of Cork, and Cathal Crowe, the party’s mayor in Clare, had both previously said they will not attend the event. Paul McAuliffe, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, will be busy hosting a civic reception for the president of Greece on January 17th, the same day as the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) commemoration in Dublin Castle.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris will address the commemoration event, which is part of the State programme to mark a decade of centenaries.

Event defended

Speaking on Monday, Mr Varadkar said the Government stands over the decision to commemorate the RIC and DMP.

“I think it’s a shame that people are boycotting the event but the Government stands over the decision to hold the event,” he said.

“I’m disappointed to hear that some people are going to boycott the event. I think that is regrettable. I remember, you know, 10, 15 years ago it was very controversial to commemorate the deaths of [Irish] soldiers in [the first World War], because some people felt that they shouldn’t be remembered because they fought for [the] United Kingdom, because they fought for the British.

“That has changed. We now all accept, or almost everyone accepts, that it is right and proper to remember Irish people, soldiers who died in the first World War. And I think the same thing really applies to police officers, police officers who were killed, Catholic and Protestant alike, who were members of the RIC and the DMP; many of those [officers’] families are still alive and remember them,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I suppose if somebody is taking a decision not to attend, I would ask them, if they’re not going to attend to at least allow somebody from their council to do that. It’s often the case . . . [with] a public event that if the mayor or cathaoirleach cannot attend the leas-cathaoirleach does.

“So if they want to take a personal decision not to attend, that’s their decision, but there may be other people in their city or in their county who feel differently. I would like to [have] the deaths of these men . . . recognised.”

In a statement, Mr Flanagan said that the event was part of a drive towards “mutual respect and mutual understanding of the different traditions on the island” undertaken as part of the decade of centenaries, and was not a celebration.

Sensitivities

Mr Flanagan stressed that the decade of centenaries was an “opportunity to remember all of those who died over the period”.

He acknowledged there was sensitivities on both sides and that the RIC had “found itself on the wrong side of history” during the War of Independence.

“The intolerance that was often characteristic of Ireland in the past sometimes forced people to deny their own family histories and airbrush parents, grandparents and siblings out of the picture for doing no more than serving as an army officer or police officer to support their families,” he stated.

“It should be noted that the vast majority of Irish people who served as army and police officers did so with honour and integrity.

“That is why it is disappointing to see some public representatives abandon the principles of mutual understanding and reconciliation in an effort to gain headlines.

“So many . . . Irish families share this complex history and these facts should be explored and acknowledged as all the threads of our history, within families and as a nation, make us who we are today as a people,” he said.

He pointed out that the Government hosted a small ceremony in Grangegorman cemetery in 2016 for the 125 British soldiers who lost their lives during the Rising.

“These commemorations are about our history, not our mythologies, and as Minister for Justice and Equality, I am happy to endorse the recommendation of the Expert Advisory Group that we commemorate the place of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police in Irish history.”

In a tweet on Monday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald urged Mr Varadkar to cancel the event, saying it was “crass Fine Gael revisionism gone too far”.

“Govt commemoration of RIC, Black&Tans, DMP a calculated insult to all who stood for Irish freedom. Nowhere else would those who brutally suppressed national freedom be afforded a state commemoration,” she tweeted.

‘Not appropriate’

Mr Sheehan had told the Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM that he didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to attend the ceremony.

Former mayor of Cork Tomás MacCurtain was assassinated by RIC officers in March 1920.

“A commemoration kind of implies a celebration of achievements and I don’t think that is appropriate given our history. For that reason [I] won’t be attending.

“When you are having a national commemoration like this you are kind of commemorating the institution. That was a troubled period of history in Ireland and I acknowledge that some Irish people were looking for a wage and a way of living and may have joined the RIC in that context then.

“There [are] many good people who might have joined for many, many different reasons.

“But you are commemorating an institution that does not have a good history in Ireland and took the side of the Black and Tans during the War of Independence. Particularly given Cork’s history with the Black and Tans. The RIC were part of that,” he said.

“I don’t think it is appropriate that when we are commemorating all the struggles other people did in Cork and Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, and there we are kind of celebrating the other side.”

Last week Mr Crowe said he was boycotting the event, which he described as “historical revisionism gone too far”.

Mr Crowe believes it is “wrong to celebrate and eulogise” the RIC, “an organisation that was the strong arm of the British state in Ireland”.

In a statement, Mr Crowe said: “In the main, I think all of the Government’s State commemorations have been apt and tasteful but I see the commemoration of the RIC as a step too far.

Utmost respect

“A further issue I have with the State commemoration is that An Garda Síochána will be central to the entire event.

“The guards have my full and upmost respect but I don’t believe that historically or ethically they should seek to claim any form of descent from the RIC.”

There have been calls in Waterford for its council to join the growing boycott. Mayor John Pratt said the commemoration “doesn’t sit well” with him but he has yet to decide on whether to attend.

“As mayor I can’t just go on what I think personally,” said the Labour councillor in a statement. “I have to try to represent all parties and none, especially if attending events outside the city and county.

“I’m open to hearing the views of other people before I make an informed decision. While history is important it shouldn’t be a cause for division. I’d prefer to be spending my time bringing people together to fix problems in the here and now.”