Commemorating 1916: We are all equally entitled to call ourselves republican

The leaders of the Rising would probably be perplexed by next month’s marriage referendum, but it is consistent with the values enshrined in the Proclamation

When WB Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, the awarding committee said his inspired poetry gave “expression to the spirit of a nation”. It could use the word nation by then, largely because of the role played by the Rising in the restoration of Irish nationhood.

In the 1990s, when I was minister for overseas development, I met Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, at his home to discuss the effects of the Rwandan crisis. I noticed his shelves contained books about 1916. He explained the Rising had been studied closely in African countries fighting colonialism.

So the Rising has had an impact beyond Ireland, and it is right that its centenary next year will be celebrated. Any celebration, however, should be considered and reflective. It should not mirror the triumphalism of 1966 or serve the agenda of any sectional interest or political cause.

The Republic, and republicanism, do not belong to any one group or political party. They would be much diminished if they did. We are all of us equally entitled to call ourselves republican and to be inspired by the values espoused in the Proclamation. And we are all equally charged to make good in our time on the challenge posed by the leaders who penned that document a century ago.

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Just as the commemoration will be inclusive, the debate should be too – about our past, our present and our future.

Looking back, as the first woman leader of the Labour Party, I believe the roles of the labour movement and women in the national revolution are often understated.

Huge step forward

The establishment of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1909 by James Larkin and James Connolly, followed by the foundation of the Labour Party in 1912, marked a huge step forward in the organisation of working-class people. It led to the 1913 Lockout, the radicalisation of a generation of workers, and Connolly’s establishment of the Citizen Army. From there flowed the army’s participation in the Rising and Connolly’s chair-bound execution, which, more than any other event, brought about the transformation in public mood.

Labour led the anti-conscription campaign in 1918 and the then Labour leader, Tom Johnson, was instrumental in drafting the democratic programme adopted by the first Dáil in 1919.

Similarly, we remember the women who fought fearlessly for independence, from Constance Markiewicz to Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who tendered the surrender on behalf of Pádraig Pearse when the Rising had run its course.

To paraphrase John F Kennedy, a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but also by the men and women it honours and remembers. And the nation initiated by the rebellion of 1916 is, though not without its faults, one to be proud of. While it may be fashionable in some quarters to decry our state-building, independent Ireland has a proud history. We have retained democracy and rule by law since our foundation. We have healed a bitter civil-war divide.

As Nyerere’s bookshelves showed, our independence acted as a spur to others as the colonialism of the 19th century was steadily deconstructed in the 20th.

We have lived peacefully and committed no aggression against other states. If we consider the violent tumult of the 20th century, Ireland has stood as a beacon of stability. It is true that the early years of our statehood were dominated by a conservative and authoritarian social code. We are still dealing with that legacy today. It is true, too, that 1916 offered no substantive answers to the split among the Irish people revealed by the Home Rule divide. In my view, neither of the two states on the island was the better for partition. It took John Hume to convince us that the divide between our peoples was more significant than the territorial divide. The Belfast Agreement is the tribute to his analysis.

As part of the commemorations programme, I’m happy our schoolchildren will get the opportunity to envisage not alone what a new Proclamation could look like, but will also study the true meaning of the Tricolour, as in the reconciliation between orange and green.

The Republic now

So how would the men and women of 1916 view their Republic now? It’s hard to know. They were no more a homogenous lot than the modern Labour Party. They would marvel at how far we have come in some respects and be frustrated at how far we have to go in others. From being an unequal member of the UK to one of the most prosperous nations in the world, we have come some distance. I’d like to think Connolly would be proud of the role of his party in bringing about that progress.

That work continues. It continues on the economic front, where the Government is building the recovery and creating new jobs and opportunities for our people. And it continues on the social front, where, next month, we are putting the issue of marriage equality to the people.

I cannot say Connolly or any of the 1916 leaders would have supported this referendum. They would probably have been perplexed. But what is certain is that this referendum is consistent with the Proclamation’s goal to provide “civil liberty, equality, and equal opportunity”.

And that it will be determined by the Irish people, as sovereign, is exactly what the signatories desired.

Joan Burton is Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party