Opinion: Did the 1916 Rising meet the requirements for a ‘just war’?

A major criticism is that the signatories of the Proclamation didn’t represent the Irish nation

Following Patsy McGarry’s description in this paper (5/1/16) of the Easter Rising as ‘immoral and anti-democratic’ and the debate it has fostered, it is worth examining how the insurrection might fit within the framework of the ‘just war’ tradition.

The 'just war' tradition – the ethical consideration of war – has existed in various cultures, religious and ethical settings. The brutality of war gave rise to certain questions. What could and could not be justified? Under what conditions could a party morally go to war (Jus ad Bellum) and, once in a war, how should a party conduct itself (Jus in Bello)?

The context in which war is fought is constantly changing: a war fought in the Middle Ages is qualitatively different to a modern conflict using weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, there are no hard and fast rules.

However, in the words of commentators such as Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius and more recently Tony Blair (yes, indeed!), there are common themes, often synthesised into four criteria on what makes engaging in a conflict morally justifiable.


Legitimate authority

The decision to wage a war must be taken by a proper authority. The idea behind this principle is to limit the occurrence of war and leave the decision-making to those who, it is hoped, have the people’s best interests at heart. In


, seven men ‘signed on behalf of the Provisional Government’, in effect, claiming to represent the will of the Irish people.

A major challenge to the ‘justness’ of the 1916 Rising is that these signatories had a limited claim to represent the Irish nation. Critics ask ‘Who gave Pearse or Connolly the right to speak for Irish people?’ This point would be valid in a stable, independent nation where revolutionaries capriciously tried to overturn an identifiable ‘will of the people’ which had been manifested in democratic elections.

However, in the case of Ireland, what Noam Chomsky describes as 'England's longest-held colony', it seems simplistic to castigate the signatories as 'undemocratic' for not pursuing the electoral route. Moreover, while the leaders may have had a democratic deficit, the colonial government had ignored the will of the Irish people for some form of self-government for at least one electorally verifiable generation.

Just cause

Only a cause deemed just may be a motive for engaging in warfare: a defensive war or one which challenges grave and prolonged violations of basic rights. The


Act of 1903, in theory, drew a line under some of the worst socio-economic grievances in rural Ireland but in many other respects the situation remained dire.

Some commentators suggest Britain was reforming its governance of Ireland and should have been allowed to do so. Not only is this virtual history, it ignores the fact that the (suspended) Government of Ireland Act 1914 was the third such stuttering initiative in a 28-year period. Indeed, as indicated by the behaviour of the mutinous British officers at the Curragh, were Home Rule to become a legislative reality, it is questionable whether the British army would have enforced such a settlement.


Critics rightly draw attention to the grave loss of life caused by the Rising: 485 people died, 40 of them children under 17. However, ethical thinking requires us to consider also the lives of those who resided in Ireland prior to the Rising. Thousands of children died in 1915 under conditions facilitated by the

British Government

and the harshness of the times.

Was the hardship brought about by the resort to violence proportionate to the level of grievance, economic and national, which existed prior to the Rising? Perhaps that is a matter of political stance.

Chance of success

For a war or insurrection to be considered just, there must be a chance of success. Doomed failures, heroic but suicidal ventures, no matter how righteous the cause, are considered immoral on the basis that they lead to a waste of human life.

Given the small number of rebels challenging the might of the British Empire at Easter 1916, it would be easy to dismiss the Rising as being without hope. However, factoring in the possibility of the Irish Volunteers turning out or operations such as that of Liam Mellows achieving success, it was not unreasonable for the leaders to believe the Rising had some chance of success. Stranger things have happened; not least the landing of Fidel Castro and 81 men on Cuba which led, in two years, to the defeat of Fulgencio Batista's modern army.

While the just war tradition has not put an end to war, it at least lets us put a label on why a conflict is just or otherwise. In the case of the Easter Rising it allows us to consider systematically the moral strengths and weaknesses of the decision by the insurgents to go to war.

Dr Conn Mac Gabhann works with the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain. His book The Barbarous Irish: A Just War Reflection on Insurrectionary Violence in the North of Ireland 1968-1998 will be published later this year by Anthem Press