Stephen Collins: McGuigan killing raises questions about Rising commemorations

‘Both governments have been treading softly on issues such as this for fear of upsetting the delicate balance that has kept the power-sharing administration in the North in place’

The investigation into the killing of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast is raising uncomfortable questions for Sinn Féin, but it should also provoke some serious soul searching across the political spectrum about the State’s attitude to violence, past and present.

For Sinn Féin the investigation comes at a critical time, just six months or so before a general election in the Republic that looks certain to put the party in a more powerful position than ever before.

Whether the electorate in the South will be influenced by the fact it appears the IRA hasn’t gone away after all is an open question, but if proof is forthcoming it will be impossible to ignore.

It may prompt Ireland and Britain to reassess the "constructive ambiguity" that has led them to turn a blind eye to activities like the involvement of former senior IRA figures in the massive, multimillion- euro cross-Border smuggling trade.

Both governments have been treading softly on issues such as this for fear of upsetting the delicate balance that has kept the powersharing administration in the North in place.

However, the alleged involvement of republican figures with close links to the Sinn Féin leadership in the brutal killing of Kevin McGuigan has the capacity to transform the situation, with unforeseeable consequences for everybody.

There is an argument that the apparatus of a terrorist campaign cannot be dismantled overnight, but it is now 21 years since the peace process resulted in the IRA cessation of August 1994.

Since then republican leaders have been playing a prominent role in politics North and South of the Border. If the IRA has still not gone away, questions must arise about the sincerity of the republican movement’s commitment to democracy.

The latest outbreak of violence has also raised the old conundrum of how the Irish State should commemorate the violent acts in the past that played an important part in its creation.

Just two weeks ago, the programme of events leading to the commemoration of the 1916 Rising kicked off with a formal event to mark the funeral of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa at which Pádraig Pearse delivered his famous oration.

President Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny were among the dignitaries at the ceremonies at Glasnevin cemetery. Not to be outdone, Sinn Féin staged its own elaborate re-enactment, featuring a large group of supporters wearing the uniforms of the Irish Volunteers and carrying replica guns.

In a letter to The Irish Times a few days later, historian Carla King pointed out that O'Donovan Rossa stood above all for a policy of terrorism in which ordinary English people, including children, were murdered in a campaign of bombing in the 1880s that undermined support for nationalist demands.

Poison gas

King pointed out that at one point O’Donovan Rossa even speculated about the possibility of releasing poison gas in the House of Commons, in which a sympathetic prime minister,


, would struggle to enact Home Rule for Ireland.

"It is therefore deeply saddening that, at a time when the Irish Government and people are loud in our support of reconciliation after the experience of decades of bombing campaigns in British and Irish cities, the first act in our official commemoration of the 1916 events is to honour a man who dedicated his life to attempts to bomb his way to Irish independence," concluded King.

The event was just an appetiser for what is to come next year. As well as a variety of official events marking the Rising, Sinn Féin is planning a massive project that will put its O’Donovan Rossa pageant into the shade. At the heart of this is the question of how this State and its people should mark the events that culminated in Irish independence in 1922 and whether the commemoration of violent events in the past can be used as a cover for those still wedded to violence as a political tactic today.

There is no argument about the fact that violence played a significant part in events that led to the creation of the State, but violence also played a significant part in events that have disfigured our history at regular intervals since then.

That is why a dignified commemoration of the various events, including the 1916 Rising and the first Dáil, that marked the road to independence would be more appropriate than a simplistic glorification of violence, as happened on the 50th anniversary in 1966.

There has already been a considerable amount of thoughtful debate and reflection about the series of events that led to independence, but there is a danger this could swamped by the commemoration of the Rising next Easter.

French revolution

In a fascinating lecture at the recent

Parnell Summer School

, Trinity College historian

Sylvie Kleinman

compared how


and the

United States

commemorated the revolutions that gave birth to their respective republics.

She pointed out that in the United States, the iconic painting of the signing of the declaration of independence in 1776 depicted the founding fathers in an orderly indoor event celebrating the triumph of politics.

By contrast in France innumerable images of the Bastille in flames with the people storming the symbolic fortress of tyranny were the usual representations of the foundation myth of the Republic.

The 1916 Rising is obviously an important part of our foundation myth, but the campaign for Home Rule and the meeting of the First Dáil also need to be properly marked if we want to be true to the values of our democratic State and ensure they survive into the future.