Pride in ‘inclusive’ 1916 commemoration rings hollow
Irish State managed to alienate North just as Brexit made unification a real prospect
Are we still tied to a single narrative of our history? 1916 commemoration at the GPO. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Has the 1916 centenary commemoration really been a great success? Were those independent-minded media critics, normally scornful of government and all its works, right to praise the official programme as well organised, sensitive, dignified and inclusive?
The term ‘inclusive’ was singled out at the start of the year by the Minister overseeing the commemoration as the feature which would distinguish 2016 from the 1966 celebration.
It emerged that the point of “inclusivity” was to claim 1916 and its commemoration for all the people, thereby marshalling maximum endorsement of 1916 among the population. The immediate objective, most assumed, was to deny ownership of 1916 to Sinn Féin.
Self-preservation may not have been the only factor prompting Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour to deny Sinn Féin’s claim of direct descent from 1916. Sinn Féin has distanced itself from support for violence, but it continues to defend the legitimacy of the terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA, and repeatedly honours publicly the leaders of that violence. Outside Sinn Féin, splinter republican groups continue the violence while claiming now to be the true inheritors of the mantle of 1916.
Claiming ownership of 1916 for the democratic state that is the Republic today and making it the seminal event in the national narrative may be justified as one way of cutting the umbilical cord which, in the eyes of some, ties the heroes of 1916 to any group still ready to use violence to pursue the same goal – an all-Ireland Republic.
The national narrative has long been a useful tool in fostering the sense of national identity vital to the development of nation states. Pearse had a highly imaginative vision of a spiritual Gaelic Ireland of yesteryear, full of youthful martial vigour and nobility which could be recreated in a Gaelic-speaking independent Ireland.
That vision, or delusion, lingers, but as this year has confirmed, the national narrative of modern Ireland is not about Celtic bards and warriors; it has more recent heroes and martyrs, and is all about a small nation seizing its freedom from an imperial colonial oppressor and taking its rightful place among the nations of the world.
Consider some statements emanating from Government:
The Taoiseach told us that the Rising was “the central formative and defining act in the shaping of modern Ireland”; Joan Burton, then Tánaiste, went further by describing modern Ireland as “the nation initiated by the rebellion of 1916”. She also said “a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women it honours and remembers”.
The scope of the commemoration – in classrooms, multiple wreath layings by the President, exhibitions, seminars, ceremonies galore, all take 1916 into a league of its own as the key event in Irish history.
Most national narratives are a mixture of history and myth. Many do not bear close examination, but with the passage of time acquire an almost scriptural status that serves the purpose of defining a national identity.
The national narrative of the United States is one of freedom and liberty. The Declaration of Independence placed first among the rights of man the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But this right was not extended to the indigenous peoples scattered across the new United States, nor to the millions of slaves held in bondage in the new Land of the Free.
The French celebrate the fall of the Bastille as their national day, and revere the French Revolution. That revolution inflicted appalling bloodshed on the French people and delivered the country into a new dictatorship and a century of political instability.
But such quibbles hardly matter; as in a national anthem it is the tune that people respond to, more than the words. The national narrative, helped by the passage of time, becomes a familiar hymn of comfort, reminding the nation of its heroic origins, its triumphs over adversity and the distinctive qualities, real or imagined, that make it unique among nations.
Despite the best efforts of John Bruton and some academics and commentators, the Rising is now the beginning, end and in-between of Ireland’s national narrative.
That seems to suit almost everybody, and it could be a serviceable narrative for the Republic for generations to come, apart from one thing – that narrative is meant to be one for the people of the whole island, but it is vigorously rejected by a substantial minority.
Northern political leaders were invited to the main commemoration ceremony; all the unionist parties and the non-unionist-non-nationalist Alliance party declined the invitation. The Alliance leader at the time David Ford explained: his difficulty was with the State putting such effort into commemorating those who had engaged in violence, when there was a democratic alternative. He agreed with the Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin that the Easter Rising was “profoundly wrong” and lacking in “any democratic or constitutional legitimacy”.
He could equally have cited Paul Gallagher, Attorney General in Fianna Fáil governments under Bertie Aherne and Brian Cowen, whose opinion was that the Rising “had no legitimacy whatsoever”. A century earlier Roger Casement writing in his diary aboard the German submarine – taking him not to join the Rising but to try to stop it – described it as “madness and criminal”.
There are today some in the Republic who share those views, but who can still commemorate the 1916 leaders as courageous idealists whose actions, while misguided, profoundly influenced the timetable of independence. Those who have lived through the Provisional IRA terrorist campaign and still have to live with continued armed violence from Irish republicans, simply cannot buy it.
The irony of 2016 is that the national narrative as now framed excludes any possibility of unification; it has no room for anyone unwilling or unable to honour the Rising as the defining act of Irishness. Far from being inclusive, it is fatally divisive.
It is ironic because 2016 is also the of year of the Brexit vote, which suddenly raised the possibility of the partial dismantling of the UK through the departure of Scotland and the near certainty that Northern Ireland would be forced out of the EU contrary to the expressed wishes of a majority of its citizens.
Many in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU did so because they were convinced the consequences of Brexit for the province would be harshly adverse economically, and potentially damaging to community relations and progress towards normality.
The vote and the surrounding debate were painful reminders of just how little Northern Ireland matters to the British – mainly English – electorate. Long term, the idea of detaching the province from an increasingly insular UK outside the EU and becoming part of an economically thriving Ireland inside the EU, with the six counties enjoying a degree of self-government within a federal state, might begin to sound attractive. Is there any hope of that happening? Has the commemoration of the Easter Rising made it more or less likely?
The rush to obtain an Irish passport by considerable numbers from the unionist community would have been unthinkable up to now, and it did at least suggest a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to anything smacking of Dublin. But it was no indication of a sudden desire to embrace Irishness.
Conversely Irish nationalism, while claiming ownership of the entire island, has never shown much interest in accommodating the varieties of Irishness that do not fit into its own narrow definition.
Writing during Easter Week 1916 James Stephens – no admirer of unionism – chastised pre-Rising Irish nationalism for doing nothing to mollify and court “the Black Northerner”. “Before we can talk of Ireland a nation”, he wrote, “we must make her one.”
In 1972, as violence was soaring in the North, one of the brightest young lights in the modernising wing of Fine Gael, Michael Sweetman, went further, questioning the whole concept of the nation and describing the vast majority of people in Ireland as “a mongrel lot . . . not classifiable into one, two or any other number of nations”.
He cited the suspension by London of the Stormont Parliament and government in the same year as sweeping away much that been done in the North since 1912, and argued that Dublin should do the same, go back to 1912 and “relinquish a great deal of what has happened since in the South so that both parts of the country can make a new start”. Among things he thought might be swept away was the narrow concept of Irishness based on the primacy of Gaelic culture, the rejection of British strands in Irish traditions and “a particular view of history which made a virtue of fighting against Britain and a vice of defending British rule”.
“It is not from that kind of republicanism, with its glorification of violence in the past and its incitement to violence in the present, that the new Ireland will come.”
Michael Sweetman’s voice was lost when he died in the Staines air crash in June 1972, and the leader of the party he served so well now proudly declares himself “a 1916 man” and there is less chance than ever of going back to 1912.
Marriage of extremists
And yet there is much change – vastly increased cross-Border trade and commercial activity; far more cross-Border travel; good relations between Dublin and London and cross-Border institutions (of a sort); and, pending Brexit, the absence of any visible Border. The South is no longer the poor neighbour with appalling infrastructure – instead its prosperity, despite recent setbacks, and its road network and Dublin trams are the envy of Northerners.
However, the Belfast Agreement has frozen Northern politics in a marriage of extremists, making evolution out of extremism slow and difficult.
All the political parties in Dublin still name the reunification of Ireland as their prime aspiration; all affirm that this can come about only with the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. They must see that a peaceful reunification can happen only with the agreement of a majority of what might be loosely termed the unionist community.
This includes many people who are not nationalists or unionists, and are indeed often highly critical of political unionism. But social attitude surveys indicate that they, along with a perhaps surprising number from the loosely termed nationalist community, are happier with Northern Ireland remaining within the UK than in a united Ireland. What the impact of Brexit will be on their thinking remains to be seen, but many will be looking more closely at the Irish State this year and wondering what life in it might be like for them.
The commemorative events of 2016 will hardly have reassured them. Like David Ford, many will have been dismayed at the vast official effort that went into commemorating an act of violence when the diplomatic process had progressed so far.
Ireland’s national narrative stresses the importance of neutrality and traces it back to 1916 and that banner ‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland’. But the Proclamation makes a lie of that, with its reference to ‘gallant allies in Europe’ meaning the Kaiser’s Imperial Germany.
Two years earlier the Great War had begun with Germany’s brutal crushing of “gallant little Belgium”. Writing in early 1916 Patrick Pearse cared little for Belgium when he singled out “modern Germany” as a “great nation . . . fully and magnificently expressing” the spiritual aspect of nationality.
That expression of nationality, that national narrative was, in the near future, to help create Adolf Hitler and condition the German people to follow him. It should remind us of how potent and dangerous a national narrative can be.
Central to Pearse’s idea of nationality was language, and to this day it is part of nationalist ideology that Irish is the national language. It is certainly a part of Ireland’s cultural heritage, and a living language for a very small minority; but the national language is English, and to pretend otherwise is to peddle nonsense.
Commemorating a ‘buffoon’
Was the commemoration handled sensitively and with dignity? Where was dignity when the first official event saw the Head of State bowing to the memory of O’Donovan Rossa, a man chiefly remembered as a fanatical bomber, a terrorist and, in the words of Michael Davitt “the buffoon of Irish revolutionary politics”, and whose only contribution to 1916 was to die in 1915, thus giving Pearse the opportunity to deliver the much quoted oration at his funeral.
If the main reason for a wholesale State-sponsored feting of the Rising was to deny Sinn Féin and other republicans claiming ownership of it, no one seems to have told President Higgins.
In a little noticed paragraph in his address at St Enda’s in July honouring Pearse, the President seemed to be adopting a classic Sinn Féin line. Referring to what he called some tendentious writings post-1966 on Pearse’s legacy he said the following:
“In the context of what has been called ‘the Troubles’, loose revisionism sought to make the suggestion that Pearse had provided the ideological template for the Republican violence of 1969 and later. This was of course a somewhat simplistic and ideological assumption, and contemporary historians are more interested in the human rights breaches and the political and social basis of conflict and exclusion as a source of violence in the Northern Ireland of the 1970s.”
That second sentence, however convoluted, can mean only one thing – that the violence of the 1970s in Northern Ireland stemmed more from “human rights breaches and the political and social basis of conflict and exclusion” than it did from Republican ideology. In other words, as Sinn Féin maintains, the murders and bombings were in pursuit of justice and equality. Thus in a few words the President dismissed the wealth of scholarship and historical analysis of a whole generation.
Is that what the southern State officially believes? Is that now part of the national narrative? Under the Constitution every public address the President gives must have received the approval of the Government.
Throughout the worst years of the Troubles, John Hume, the acknowledged leader of northern nationalists, repeatedly said that there was no issue or cause in Northern Ireland that merited the taking of a single life. President Higgins specifically refers to the 1970s; yet the demands of the civil rights movement were met by the early years of that decade, and unionist rule was ended by the imposition of direct rule from London.
In the run-up to the centenary year, Heather Humphreys told us that Ireland had changed dramatically since 1966, claiming that it had evolved into a mature democracy, no longer tied to a single narrative of its history. “We are more than capable of accommodating – indeed welcoming – a diversity of views on the historical events of the 1916 period,” she said.
Can she still really believe that? Almost nothing in the official commemoration programme supported such a judgment.
Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times