Daily Ireland, 12 April 2006
1916 and all that...
To justify or to sympathise or, at the minimum, to understand, 1916, is to justify,
sympathise or understand the IRA’s armed struggle in the North. It is inescapable,
regardless of what casuistry is employed to argue otherwise...
By any objective standards there was more cause for an armed struggle in the
North post-1969 than there was for the 1916 Rising.
If 1916 was about the denial of freedom and British misrule in Ireland, the
armed struggle in the North was about the denial of the same freedom and a
more egregious form of British misrule in the form of partition with its
‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.
In Ireland’s major cities in the early part of the twentieth century there
was extreme poverty and high unemployment. There had been two deaths in
baton charges during the Dublin lock-out in 1913, which preceded and helped
define the radical nature of the Proclamation. There had been three deaths
at the hands of the British army after the Irish Volunteers’ Howth
gun-running incident in July 1914. By 1916 it was obvious to the prescient
that Home Rule – as proposed in the suspended statute – had been thwarted by
the Unionist/Conservative threat of violence, but that a dramatic, violent
assertion of Irish independence might inspire and embolden the general
population (or, at a minimum, strengthen Ireland’s demands in post-war
Compare the conditions in 1916 to the conditions which nationalists
suffered: Fifty years of humiliation; the physical persecution of any
outward expression of their identity; discrimination in housing, employment
and investment; its minority position entrenched; a people denied access to
government or power to change government; deaths at the hands of the RUC,
B-Specials, loyalists and the British army long before the IRA reorganised
and launched its armed struggle.
To justify or to sympathise or, at the minimum, to understand, 1916, is to
justify, sympathise or understand the IRA’s armed struggle in the North. It
is inescapable, regardless of what casuistry is employed to argue otherwise.
The founders of Fianna Fáil trace their lineage back to those who resisted
and fought against the Treaty in the civil war, to those who waged guerrilla
war for independence, to those who occupied the GPO and declared a Republic.
Let’s put it in starker terms.
Say Cumainn na nGaedheal, which was formed in 1923 from the pro-Treaty
element of Sinn Féin and which took power as Free Staters, had remained in
power for 50 years with the support of the British government. That during
those years it financially, economically and politically discriminated
against and gerrymandered those areas which supported Fianna Fáil. That the
police force, comprised only of its supporters, oppressed Fianna Fáil
supporters, batoned them off the streets, killed some of them when they
demanded their rights and burnt thousands of them out of their homes, before
killing more of them at barricades or at street protests. Wouldn’t Fianna
Fáil and its grassroots have a sympathetic view of a physical-force struggle
against single-party rule, and the British army coming in to defend that
rule? Of course, they would, and o, republicans welcome the decision by the
Dublin government and establishment to celebrate and commemorate the Rising.
Yeats worried: “Did that play of mine send out /Certain men the English
Dublin worries, “Does this commemoration of ours/Justify the men who shot
The answer is, yes, it does, but no one, not the IRA, not Sinn Féin, not
Fianna Fáil or any party or organisation owns the Rising or its legacy.
Celebrating it, however, triggers certain imperatives, primarily an
examination of the malignity of British rule in Ireland, the divisions it
caused between brothers and sisters, families, communities, political
parties. It should encourage a revision of what really happened to the North
and an analysis of the forces at play. It can only lead to conclusions which
will not harm but explain the republican movement, its motivation, its
history, and how it survived and thrived.
It is a debate which frightens the major political parties in the 26
counties, in the same way as they fear the truth about collusion emerging
which would trigger other imperatives – that is, dealing with the reality of
British government involvement in bombings and assassinations and probable
infiltration of the state itself.
Such discomfiting truths would leave the populace more open to understanding
and sympathising with republicans on the issue of the North. Such truths
could impact on contemporary politics to the advantage of Sinn Féin, and so
such truths must be avoided, must be minimised, hidden, denied or distorted.
Ninety years after the Easter Rising Britain is the ally!
My first consciousness of Easter was always chocolate eggs.
That culture of boiling a hen’s egg in tea, patiently painting it and then
rolling it down Bearnagh Drive never caught on in 1950s Andersonstown.
Soon I was to discover the politics of Easter. I remember the Falls decked
with bunting in 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the Rising.
When I first went to the Felons Club at the age of 14 or 15 and began
learning something about my country the Rising was the big date in Irish
history. I also learnt about Tom Williams and his comrades in Belfast, and
Brendan Behan in Dublin, being arrested on Easter Sunday after republican
commemorations and about republicans having to run a gauntlet of RUC men
when they went to march to the republican plot in Milltown.
After 1969 I read up on the period and devoured Tim Pat Coogan’s and Bowyer
Bell’s respective histories of the IRA.
I took part in republican Easter parades, stood proudly in the Cages of Long
Kesh, in the yards of the Crum and the Blocks, during those poignant minute
silences when we remembered our fallen comrades. I spoke at Easter
commemorations the length and breadth of Ireland and got a feel of how
widespread and visceral was the love for and devotion to the patriots of
The ‘defence’ of the Republic declared from the steps of the GPO, or the
re-establishment of that Republic, and the quest for a united Ireland all
became synonymous, was taken as a given as the ultimate solution to
Ireland’s English problem.
There is a maxim by a famous German Field Marshal that: “No battle plan ever
survives contact with the enemy.” Well, that political plan of reunification
has survived contact with ‘the enemy’s’ propaganda, with the arguments of
unionism and Free Statism.
Were the dream pursued just for the sake of sentimentality it would be
madness and pointless, but a united Ireland would make social and economic
The successes of the Celtic Tiger have reduced unionists to the argument of
opposing it solely on political/cultural grounds.
Within my lifetime a united Ireland is unlikely to be configured as a
unitary state, but united it will become and it will be a better place than
a land disfigured by British rule.