Easter Rising should be seen as start of ongoing civil war

The commemoration of 1916 should be used primarily as a chance to heal divisions

As the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 approaches it would perhaps be wise to take a closer look at the underlying causes of this momentous event in Irish history and its implications and consequences for the current generation of Irish people, North and South.

I believe the Rising should be viewed as the start of an Irish civil war – a war that has not yet been fully resolved. This war in its early days resulted in independence for the southern 26 counties but continued in one form or another and was to reach its peak during that period of great hatred and destruction, euphemistically known as The Troubles. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 brought the open warfare to an end but cannot be said to have definitively settled the long-standing constitutional issues underlying the conflict.

For most Irish people, the Civil War refers to the conflict which took place when opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty took up arms in 1922 against the newly formed Irish Free State. It would be more accurate to suggest, however, that the real civil war in Ireland over the past 100 years has not been between rival branches of Irish nationalism.

Nor was it between the Irish people and the people of Britain or England. Rather it is between those who aspire to an independent sovereign Irish state (ie nationalists/republicans) and the minority of Irish people who have instead favoured a permanent political connection with London and loyalty to the British Crown as part of the United Kingdom.


Whether we like it or not – and bearing in mind there have always been significant exceptions on both sides – the distinctions between these two viewpoints has invariably been based on religious denomination as an indication of political affiliation.

However, it is conceivable that, without the events of Easter week 1916, the admittedly sharp divisions which have for so long existed between these two main traditions on the island could have been greatly reduced – and possibly resolved entirely – solely by peaceful means and normal democratic procedures.

Negation of democracy

What happened instead was a negation of democracy: none of the 1916 leaders had ever been elected to public office in Ireland and yet took it upon themselves to declare war/rebellion in the name of the Irish people. Their actions – and the harsh retaliation of the British – did later lead to an overwhelming majority for republicans in the general election of December 1918, although it is often forgotten that Sinn Féin’s tally on that occasion amounted to no more than 46.9 per cent of the total votes cast on the island.

Furthermore, there is little doubt that a degree of intimidation took place in certain constituencies to deter Redmondite candidates from standing and that an electoral pact with the Labour Party ensured it put forward no candidates, even in seats which they could have been expected to win.

The result in the six northeastern counties with their unionist majority was an even greater failure of democracy. There, one-party rule and blatant gerrymandering at constituency level ensured the nationalist minority were effectively excluded from participation in the democratic process and were treated after partition as second-class citizens.

Divided island

The question then arises whether the Irish people would have been better served if the Rising had not taken place . It is difficult to answer such hypothetical questions but here are some historical facts which may help.

Regrettably, what emanated from the Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement of 1921-22 was an island divided into two sectarian-based states. The northern state made no secret of its sectarian discriminatory nature from the beginning. The southern state started off on a more egalitarian footing but the internal political divisions created by the recent conflict and the economic woes of an under-resourced and inward-looking economy resulted in a stagnant, socially backward society that matched in very few respects the high ideals of the 1916 Proclamation.

What eventually emerged was a deeply conservative gerontocracy ruled by those who had led the State to independence but who had little concept of modern economic practices and were shamefully subservient to the dictates of the Catholic Church on a wide range of social, health and educational issues.

Most importantly, the 1921-22 settlement did not remove violence or the threat of violence from the political framework on any part of the island. The murderous military campaigns launched by Irish republicans (in both Ireland and Britain) since 1922 – and the equally brutal response of loyalist paramilitaries and the British security forces – bear stark witness to that fact. The toll in both human and material terms has been enormous for such a small country and reached its peak during the 30 years or so of the Troubles.

One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that a heavy responsibility for the democratic failures and the intermittent strife on the island over the past 100 years must rest on the shoulders of those who instigated and launched the 1916 rebellion – partition and its associated ills being arguably the worst effect. Indeed there is now a wide acceptance that the political division of the island has been a significant contributory factor to the sectarianism and social repression that plagued our society for so long.

It can, of course, be argued that such social and political ills would have occurred even if an undivided Ireland had remained under British rule or if a (weak) home rule parliament for the entire island had been established in Dublin. No doubt this is true to some extent but there is every reason to believe that the checks and balances generated by a more equal relationship between Catholics and Protestants throughout the island would have ensured less injustice and discrimination and a greater level of understanding and social tolerance on both sides of the sectarian divide.

In addition, it is almost certain the damaging economic war of the 1930s could have been avoided as could the dire socio-economic circumstances of the 1950s (by which time the population of the 26 counties had dropped to 2.8 million).

It is perhaps apt at this point to draw a comparison between the political evolution of Scotland and Ireland. While there are clearly many differences between Scottish and Irish nationalism, it is evident from the recent referendum and general election in Scotland that nationalist tendencies in these islands cannot be stifled even by lengthy delays, unprecedented prosperity or external threats. Just as is likely to be the case in Scotland before too long, I have no doubt independence would have eventually been achieved in Ireland – although precisely when and in what form it is impossible to say. Arguably, however, Ireland might be a better place today if it had taken Scotland’s less direct route to independence.

This is not to suggest the Easter Rising was insignificant or that its leaders were not motivated by the highest ideals or the desire to achieve the greatest good for the Irish people. Many of the aspirations enunciated in the Proclamation were worthy of support by all right-thinking people (eg “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”). In this respect, the legacy bestowed upon us by the Rising was not only inspiring but helped to shape us into the nation that we are today.

Sadly, however, it also added to the deep divisions between nationalists and unionists which – at least in the case of Northern Ireland – remain unresolved.


The centenary of the Rising is certainly, therefore, worthy of commemoration. I would suggest, however, that the occasion should be used primarily as an opportunity to heal divisions and to recognise that The Troubles of the past 100 years amounted to nothing less than a tragic civil war between our two main traditions.

The recognition of this situation by all sides would, I believe, go a long way towards removing some of the bitterness and antagonism that exist so strongly to this day between many elements of republicanism and unionism.

If the forthcoming commemorations can bring us even a few steps closer to achieving this end, they can indeed play a valuable role in healing old wounds and improving our society. We might thereby get just a little closer to fulfilling Theobald Wolfe Tone’s aspiration of substituting “the common name of Irishman” for Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

Dr Niall Holohan retired in 2014 as ambassador to Saudi Arabia after 40 years in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He had previously served with the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Council and the North/South Ministerial Council. The views expressed are entirely his own