The mantle of 1916


If ifs and ands were pots and pans . . . the debate initiated by former taoiseach John Bruton about the historical necessity for the Rising, and responded to by Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív, is one of those for which a definitive answer is impossible to come by. If the Rising and the violence of the War of Independence had not happened, would the British have anyway conceded first the Home Rule promised in 1914, and then, in time, independence? Perhaps. Perhaps, not.

And, of course, the row is less about uncertain, “what if” history, and more a tussle over political ownership of the events marked by the decade of commemoration and the national narrative. Who are the real inheritors of the founding fathers? A political “my grandfather was in the GPO” contest, that is seen as somehow – though how is not clear – enhancing individual parties’ claims to popular affection now.

Sinn Féin has been assiduously paving the way to stake its claim to be the true inheritors. All the more important to it because the mantle of 1916 might wrongly be seen to legitimise its past violent militarism – a tradition which, ironically, it has been trying to distance itself from. (And despite the irony that Sinn Féin, to whom both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil also owe paternity, did not participate in the Rising).

Mr Bruton has a point, however, in the context of the supposedly all-embracing nature of the “decade”. His insistence that the State should, by marking the passage of the Irish Home Rule Bill in September 1914, identify itself more publicly with the interrupted constitutional tradition represented by John Redmond, stands. And does so irrespective of whether or not one accepts his more controversial contention that it is “more relevant to modern Irish realities and prospects than the other anniversaries to be remembered later”.

Mr Ó Cuív’s historical speculation also has a modern subtext – the defence of neutrality – and a wish to tar Mr Bruton, and Fine Gael, as Redmondite, Europhile warmongers. Case not proven. But this one will run and run.