Commemorating the 1916 Rising

The Defence Forces will march past the GPO on O'Connell Street in Dublin tomorrow in the first military parade commemorating …

The Defence Forces will march past the GPO on O'Connell Street in Dublin tomorrow in the first military parade commemorating the 1916 Rising for some 30 years. The event comes at the end of what Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has called a week of remembrance, reconciliation and renewal. Mr Ahern has also indicated that he sees the current 90th anniversary celebrations of the Rising as a prelude to a grander centenary commemoration in 10 years time.

Nobody would argue with the Taoiseach's desire for an inclusive, celebratory and forward-looking commemoration but is a military parade the most appropriate symbol to celebrate our sovereignty, independence and democracy? One can agree that the level of sovereignty and independence which we have enjoyed over most of the 20th century was the result of the 1916 Rising. But it is a much greater stretch to see that event as the cradle of our democracy.

The fact that tomorrow's official State commemoration is the first to be held in this form since the early 1970s tells its own story. The annual military Easter parade was abandoned because of the Northern "Troubles" with its inflamed emotions, vicious and often vindictive violence, and attempts at polarising people throughout this island into crude camps of republicans and loyalists. In that tinder-box climate - and it is easy to forget the uncertainty and dangers of those days because we now know how it all turned out - it was considered unwise to continue official celebrations of an event in which a small minority took up arms to pursue goals for which they believed history would thank them. All the ambiguities in our national and political culture, symbolised by 1916, had come face to face with the barrel of a gun.

What has changed now, of course, is that the barrel of that gun is no longer in our faces. But it is unwise to assume it has gone away forever. There are still those among us who believe in the right of individuals to ignore through force of arms what the people think they want. They can point, with some justification, to the terrible beauty of 1916 to vindicate their belief.


The Northern peace process, the Belfast Agreement and the IRA's decommissioning of weapons last year have all changed the political landscape. To political cynics, tomorrow's parade may be nothing more than an attempt by Fianna Fáil to deny Sinn Féin the electoral advantages of being the only ones to wrap the Tricolour around them. While political decisions are frequently electoral in motivation and short-term in design it would be a major mistake to use something as important as 1916 for expedient purposes. We learned a lot, often painfully, over the years of bloodshed in the North; the depths to which hatred can go, the viciousness of sectarianism, the bloodlust of revenge killings, the perversion of idealism. Unfortunately, there are signs that once the horrors stop the memories fade rapidly for those without personal experiences.

Ireland went through all of this once before, during the War of Independence in the years that followed 1916. Afterwards, the nasty parts were excised from our collective memories and we learned only of heroic deeds and victorious struggles against impossible odds. It would be unfortunate if recent history was to be handed down with a similar selectivity. Irish history should not have to be, to paraphrase Seamus Mallon's famous phrase, a succession of lessons for slow learners. Eamon de Valera shouldn't have had to wait for half a decade to learn the lessons that Michael Collins did in the Treaty negotiations: it should not have taken another 70-odd years for Gerry Adams to learn the lessons Eamon de Valera learned in the 1920s.

The greatest political achievement of independent Ireland has been the creation of a stable, sovereign democracy. Its birth was by no means certain; the 1916 Proclamation promised a future elected government but its leaders' actions also created an undeniably undemocratic and militaristic strain in Irish politics. The State's first years were ensnared in civil war and subsequent examples from abroad extolled the merits of fascism or communism and derided the weaknesses of democracy. Yet, against the odds, democracy prevailed and we should be truly grateful for that and to all those who made that outcome happen.

Mr Ahern has done much over the years to end the civil war divisions, honouring, as he put it last weekend, those who founded the State as well as those who stood by the Republic. One can take issue, as Enda Kenny has done on Fine Gael's behalf, with the potted history of subsequent events that the Taoiseach outlined last weekend in his National Library speech and in an interview on RTÉ's This Week programme. But the creation and maintenance of this democracy is something to which all parties have contributed.

That is something to celebrate, something which can unite and reconcile old divisions as well as accommodate newcomers. Re-instituting an old-fashioned military parade is not the best way to do this. That is not to criticise the Defence Forces - the real Óglaigh na hÉireann, as Mr Ahern correctly described them - who have served this democracy very well, especially during its first uncertain decades, and, more recently, with their peace-keeping duties. Military parades are not what peace-keepers do; they are dated, remnants of the 20th century and reminiscent of regimes who extolled the merits of militarism. They are surely not the symbols of a State which prides itself on its military neutrality.

The militarism of Easter 1916 was of its time, in a world at war, but it has left us an uneasy legacy that does not fit too readily with today's Republic of citizens who, as Mr Ahern rightly said last weekend, should be tolerant, respectful of other's view, have a civic responsibility and be welcoming to the new Irish coming to make their home here.