John McManus: Is it valid to compare 1916 rebels to Islamic State?

UK commentators have gone where Irish ones fear to tread

Several different nationalist groups took part in the 1916 Rising, but many of the rebels shared a similar background and motivation.


The temptation to look at how Fleet Street covered the centenary of 1916 is of course irresistible. There is a touch of covering your face and reading through your fingers, particularly where the Daily Telegraph is concerned

A couple of the paper’s columnists – Charles Moore and Nigel Jones – went somewhere in the last few days that writers on this side of the Irish Sea are understandably reluctant to tread.

Both have drawn comparisons between the rebels of Easter week and modern-day ideological extremism in a most high-profile manifestation: Islamic State.

The first impulse is to dismiss the suggestion that they might have some common ground as ludicrously offensive. And given the platform on which both men stand it is easy enough to do so. The Daily Telegraph is of course the bastion of the British establishment and considered by many to be in some way anti-Irish. Why should we be surprised that they want to trash the men behind a key inflexion point in Britain’s decline as the pre-eminent global power?

But we owe it to ourselves and perhaps to Pearse, Connolly and the other rebels to tease out the argument. If there is one thing that we can actually congratulate ourselves about when it comes to the current commemorative orgy, it is the willingness of people to look at 1916 from different perspectives, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.

Moore, who among other things was the authorised biographer of top Irish hate figure Margaret Thatcher, hones in on the notion that Pearse was a religious fanatic. “He had a homoerotic vision of the macaomh, the beautiful young scholar warrior who would die for his country – half the Irish mythical hero Cuchullain, half Jesus.”

He then makes a leap to Isis. “A century later, this distasteful confusion of political fanaticism with faith is even more in fashion, but nowadays in Islam, not Christianity. Among those rebels executed by the British shortly after Pearse was his devoted brother, Willie. In Brussels last week, a pair of brothers, Ibrahim and Khalid al-Bakraoui, detonated two of the three bombs which killed 31 people.”

It has taken Ireland a hundred years to come to its senses, he says, before asking: “Must it take another century before a comparable questioning of supposedly holy killing comes to dominate the Muslim world?” He closes by throwing in the by now almost obligatory lines from Yeats about a terrible beauty being born.

Heroes and patriots

So far so nasty. Nigel Jones sets out his stall in an equally hyperbolic fashion, pointing out that Easter Monday was “the last occasion when a then-British city was taken over by armed fanatics bent on inflicting bloody carnage in the name of a political ideology with quasi-religious overtones”. Eventually “the Easter rebels were transformed into heroes and patriots who had suicidally sacrificed themselves for the noble cause of Irish freedom”, he adds.

He takes a quick swipe at the Belgians – always fair game for the Daily Telegraph – by noting “the stumbling incompetence 100 years ago of the British authorities which matched, if it did not exceed, the staggering ineptitude of the Belgian ‘intelligence’ services”.

He then makes his substantial point, which is that if “a minority within a minority of extremist Irish republicans, dedicated with almost fascist zeal to the shedding of blood for its own sake” could manipulate and hijack a moderate majority, why should we be surprised at the rise of Islamic State. He finishes with a rallying call for moderate Muslims to speak out – and, of course, a quote from Yeats.

The comparisons between 1916 and Islamic State are superficial and can only be pushed so far before breaking down. The most obvious flaw being that the rebels were not terrorists and set out to engage the British army in conventional combat. The civilian deaths were collateral damage, a term which is often heard emanating from the mouths of those engaged in the war on terror.

Suicidal maniacs

But somewhere amid all the Yeats quotes and glib referencing of suicidal maniacs and religious fanatics, there is a parallel between 1916 and terror attacks on Brussels and Paris.

But it is not the one that Moore and Jones allude to. Regardless of your view of Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders of 1916, their executions would not have unlocked something quite so powerful in the Irish unless a real and tangible underlying grievance existed and was not being addressed.

The lesson of 1916 for Britain and Europe is that more attention should be paid to what wrong is going unaddressed in their Muslim minorities that allows Islamic State terror cells to prosper. I will spare you the appropriate quote from Yeats.

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