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John Bruton: we should commemorate peace over violence

How we commemorate the past should reflect our aspirations for the future

John Redmond addressing a home rule meeting at Parnell monument on O’Connell Street in Dublin, in 1912. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

John Redmond addressing a home rule meeting at Parnell monument on O’Connell Street in Dublin, in 1912. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

 

I believe official commemorations, of their nature, have to be selective. So what criteria should guide the selection of events to be singled out for commemoration in government ceremonies, on government-issued postage stamps and in public sculptures?

Commemorations shape our emotional make-up as a nation. They build a shared sense of meaning for our living together, for this, and for future, generations. They are a form of civic education and should reflect our aspirations for the future, rather than just simplify or romanticise the past.

Ireland is not alone in focusing official commemorations on violent events. Serbia and France are other counties who do so. But that does not mean that this is healthy.

An overwhelming focus of official commemorations on events, like the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence, will not teach us much that will guide us in the Ireland of the 21st century.

In contrast, the patient and peaceful achievements of Irish constitutional nationalism have much to teach us.

As US president John Kennedy said: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but by the men it honours, the men it remembers.”

To give priority in commemoration to those who used physical force is not to reveal Ireland as it really is.

This State is a rule-of-law-based parliamentary democracy, which has integrated itself with its European neighbours through peaceful negotiation and compromise. It is militarily neutral and the military power is subordinate to the civil power.

In light of this, I question whether we should have treated the 1916 Rising and Proclamation as the foundation event of our democracy.

Questionable

This is particularly questionable if we also ignore or disrespect those who stuck to constitutional methods. But this is what Dublin Corporation members did when they successfully demanded that banners showing images of Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond be taken down from College Green earlier this year.

While it is right to commemorate the Easter Rising, as we do every year, that should be balanced by equivalent commemorations of non-violent achievements such as: the enactment of Home Rule in 1914; the ending of landlordism in the 1884 to 1924 period; the establishment of the National University in 1908; the introduction of old age pensions and National Insurance in 1909.

All are parliamentary and non-violent achievements, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party of Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon played an important part.

The 1916 Rising, in contrast, involved the deliberate taking of human life, in the middle of a war, and in alliance with the central powers, the First World War grouping that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The Rising lacked a prior democratic mandate of any kind and was in breach of a countermanding order.

The problem is that violence, once initiated, tends to persist. This is because once one has killed, or seen colleagues die, in a particular cause, it is very difficult to stop because a negotiated compromise can be presented as a betrayal of the dead.

The wording of the 1916 Proclamation also made compromise very difficult.

It claimed that an Irish Republic existed, from the moment it was declared outside the GPO. Ireland was, from that day forth, a “sovereign Independent State” of 32 counties. No room was left for compromise. Yet such a State does not even now exist. The Proclamation assumed the Ulster problem was there solely because it had been fostered by the British.

That wording proved to be a recipe for endless conflict. On the strength of the “indefeasible” claim in the Proclamation, people continue to be killed, including Adrian Ismay earlier this year.

It would be better to place the 1916 Rising in its historic context, rather than single it out as the special, one and only foundation event of the State.

After all, the principle of Irish legislative independence was already won, peacefully, two years before the Rising, by the passage into law of the home rule Bill. That centenary was not adequately commemorated by the State in 2014, but that can be put right on the 110th anniversary in 2024.

The enactment of home rule was won without a shot being fired. The only open questions remaining in 1914 were: Whether, or how, home rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps to Fermanagh and Tyrone; And if any of these counties were excluded, would the exclusion be temporary or permanent.

But if that issue of exclusion was settled one way or the other, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty, on the initial platform of home rule. Just as the 1921 treaty proved to be a stepping stone to greater independence, so too could home rule have been, but without the loss of life.

John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade unionists to accept a United Ireland, not to coerce them.

Many of the criticised limitations on the powers of the home rule parliament were only put there, in the first place, in the widespread, but unrealistic, expectation that all of Ulster could be persuaded to come in under a Dublin government. This explains the withholding of tariff powers, and of powers to legislate on marriage.

Under the arrangements being considered in 1914, if an Ulster county opted out of home rule, that county would have continued under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been no Stormont Parliament, and the position of northern nationalists would have been much better than it was under the 1920 Act.

The main objection, nowadays, to properly celebrating the enactment of home rule on its anniversary on September 18th, is that it did not create a united Ireland.

This is odd given that 1916 Rising and the war of 1919 to 1921 have not given us a united Ireland either, but we seem to have no problem commemorating them.

Hindsight

With the benefit of hindsight, I do not know how Irish nationalists of any persuasion really thought that rule from Dublin could ever have been workably imposed, against their will, on unionists, in places such as Antrim, North Down and much of Armagh.

Do present-day critics of home rule sincerely believe the Ulster unionists were just bluffing, and that they would have peaceably accepted rule from Dublin in 1914, 1916 or 1918 if it was imposed on them, and that failure to do that is a defect of home rule?

They might also ask themselves if the British could, or should, have coerced the unionists into a united Ireland. I am convinced the measures required to maintain that coerced 32-county unity would have undermined Irish democracy.

If one thinks these options through, it becomes clear that the scenario on which the Proclamation was built, of a coerced united Ireland at any cost, was unreal. The authors of the Proclamation may be excused for not seeing that at the time, but, after the experience of the last 100 years, this generation has no such excuse.

Instead of using the official ritual of 1916 commemoration to rekindle our national ideology around something that was inherently unrealisable, we should instead commemorate the entire process that led to our present statehood, with special emphasis on the landmarks that did not involve the use of force.

John Bruton was taoiseach from 1994 until 1997 and European Union ambassador to the United States from 2004 until 2009