It's time to leave behind 1916 and the 'forever' war

RITE AND REASON: Not until the 1998 Good Friday agreement did Irish nationalism come to terms with Irish unionism, writes SÉAMUS…

RITE AND REASON:Not until the 1998 Good Friday agreement did Irish nationalism come to terms with Irish unionism, writes SÉAMUS MURPHY

THE RECENT murders of two soldiers and a policeman in Northern Ireland by the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA reminded me of the title of a 1970s prize-winning sci-fi novel, The Forever War.

Will our “war” never end?

There is still the view among a minority that the 1998 Good Friday agreement was a betrayal of 1916 Irish republicanism.


It accepted, however temporarily, a unionist “veto” and continued British “occupation” of Northern Ireland.

That minority view, of the Good Friday agreement as a “sell-out”, is consistent with the attitude of the Provisionals in the 1980s, of the IRA during the Border Campaign of the 1950s, and of the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. It is also in line with the views of the men and women of Easter 1916.

When around 1912 it had become clear to even the most optimistic nationalist that Northern unionists would not agree to Home Rule from Dublin or separation from Britain, and that they would fight rather than give in, nationalist Ireland couldn’t cope.

In sheer frustration a minority decided in 1916 to start shooting the British. That has been, under varying circumstances, the enduring element in our “forever” war. Not until the 1998 Good Friday agreement did Irish nationalism come to terms with Irish unionism.

Even still the term “Irish unionism” sounds alien to many.

Today we hope for forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps those gifts cannot be had without repentance. Northern unionists need to repent of discrimination against Catholics. Nationalists need to repent of the contempt and hatred toward unionists involved in refusing to take seriously their view of Ireland’s future.

Nationalists need to repent of refusing to accept (as the Good Friday agreement accepts) that one could be Irish and British.

Nationalists need to repent of what psychologists call ‘transference’: we couldn’t fight the unionists without looking sectarian, so we transferred the aggression to a more PC target and started shooting the British instead, scapegoating them for not coercing the unionists into a united Ireland.

The Easter Rising crystallised those attitudes into a template that some people still follow, no matter how bloody the result.

One can’t blame it all on the 1916 leaders. Later generations of nationalists carry responsibility for romanticising the Easter Rising, treating its political thinking as not merely beyond criticism but normative for Irish political thought.

We refuse to consider that the logic of the Good Friday agreement might be moving us to transcend and move beyond the logic of the Easter Rising.

After the Nazi era, Germans had to face their past: not just the genocide, but also the violent, undemocratic nationalism.

They did it, despite the emotional anguish associated with challenging the tribal gods, and telling one’s parents that they were wrong.

Like Senator Eoghan Harris, who has given a lead on this, I too had relatives who took up arms in the 1916 era, and I agree with him that their good intentions did not prevent their being wrong.

The Germans have learnt from their history. Irish nationalists must face the negative impact of the Easter Rising, on pain of it being said that we are incapable of learning from our history.

The charge of “revisionism” will, no doubt, be hurled in reply. Perhaps my critics should advert to Sinn Féin’s “revisionism”, already hard at work at massaging the history of the Provo war of 1969-94, showing it as the legitimate heir of Easter 1916.

The Rising stalled us for 80 years on the road to the Good Friday agreement. We are not yet there, for the Rising was still celebrated this year with far more fanfare than the Good Friday agreement.

Openness to the Other, and not just the unionist, is inescapable today, at a time when Ireland’s destiny and well-being cannot be scripted in isolation. Our relationships to the EU, to immigrants, and to the global economy are central to our well-being and ought to be central to our identity.

Here Easter 1916 is positively counter-productive, since the dominant note there is of a self-sufficient, autarkic isolationism: our (nationalist) selves alone.

We need to transcend that vision, leaving behind 1916 and the ‘forever’ war.

Fr Séamus Murphy SJ lectures in philosophy at the Milltown Institute, Dublin