Casting a Cold Eye on 1916 (and 1966)

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Platform, Volume 23

In Northern Ireland the ‘decade of centenaries’ got off to a lively start, for unionists, with debates and parades in 2012 to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant—such as this exhibition by the Grand Lodge of Ireland at Schomberg House, Cregagh Road, Belfast. But three years on, the Stormont Executive still has no agreed programme for the Decade of Commemorations. (Unionist Centenary Committee)

In Northern Ireland the ‘decade of centenaries’ got off to a lively start, for unionists, with debates and parades in 2012 to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant—such as this exhibition by the Grand Lodge of Ireland at Schomberg House, Cregagh Road, Belfast. But three years on, the Stormont Executive still has no agreed programme for the Decade of Commemorations. (Unionist Centenary Committee)

In March 2012 the Stormont Executive announced that it would bring forward a programme for the Decade of Commemorations. It said that it was appropriate and necessary for the Executive to set the tone and provide leadership ‘in putting an official acknowledgement process in place’. The convoluted final phrase may help explain why, three years into the decade, there is still no programme. The Executive has had many distractions, but the most likely reason is that the enforced Unionist–Nationalist coalition is so deeply divided on the events of the decade that agreement on how to commemorate them is beyond it.

That does not mean that each community will not be celebrating its own agenda. The decade got off to a lively start, for unionists, with debates and parades in 2012 to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. The UK-wide obsession with the Great War has extended this far, with particular emphasis on the Battle of the Somme centenary coming up next year. But generally there is little sign of massive public interest. With enough annual commemorations, usually accompanied by some unpleasantness, the public appetite for any more may not be there. Besides, there was no great single event in Ulster in that decade to commemorate—even partition and the creation of Northern Ireland is not associated with any one date. Like the South, the North has never designated an ‘independence day’. But the South has 1916 and the Easter Rising, a single cataclysmic event, and a date, albeit a moveable one, of more significance than St Patrick’s Day. The repercussions of 1916, and of how it has been commemorated, stretch down to the present day, arguably with more real impact on Northern Ireland than on the South.
The immediate result of the Rising was the triumph of Sinn Féin, of a violent, extreme nationalism over peaceful democratic nationalism. This triumph led directly to a bloody fight for independence and a civil war, and also to a vicious if brief attempt to destroy, by force, the Northern Ireland agreed in the Treaty. When the dust settled, after the Civil War, Irish nationalism had achieved nothing more, and arguably less, than it had been on the way to winning before the Rising, but at the cost of many lives, a more rigid partition, a bitterly divided Northern Ireland, and a legacy of violent republicanism that was to trouble the island to this day.

The reassertion of parliamentary democracy under the Free State and its strengthening through the 1930s and 1940s created the widely respected, and admired, Irish Republic of today. But, bizarrely, the credit for this increasingly went to the men of 1916. The 50th anniversary celebrations in 1966 portrayed the Rising as the critical event in national history. The false and terrible beauty of violence replaced the long slog of democratic politics in the Irish national narrative. The 1966 commemorations helped to reinvigorate a republican movement in disarray and more able, a few years later, to exploit the civil rights campaign and communal disorder in the North.

No one in Northern Ireland can, and no one anywhere in the island of Ireland should, look back to 1966, or to 1916, without contemplating the 30 years of terrorist violence of the Troubles which led to 3,500 deaths—many more than died in the Rising and the War of Independence combined—and to great material and economic damage, and a Northern Ireland more deeply divided than before.

The IRA was not the only terrorist group involved, but without it there would have been no 30-year campaign of murder, bombing and destruction. Could a group of passionate nationalists with no mandate and little public support resort to violence and not have been inspired by that other group of passionate nationalists, with no mandate and little political support, who in 1916 did the same thing? Did 1966 play some part in motivating young men to join the IRA? Could the current ‘celebration’ inspire those still ready to join active republican terrorist movements?
Earlier this year the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers reported that the threat of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland is still officially graded ‘severe’. Tackling terrorism, she said, remains the highest priority for government. That is the background against which the centenary of the violent uprising of 1916 is being marked. Earlier this year Irish government ministers were promising that this would be a ‘radically new and different’ (from 1966) kind of commemoration, with ‘no shying away from the harsh realities of conflict’ or ‘glorifying of bloodshed’ (Heather Humphreys, Irish Times, 31 March 2015). Tánaiste Joan Burton wrote of a new ‘inclusiveness’ in both the event and the debate surrounding it that would enable us all to share in the commemoration (Irish Times, 6 April 2015).

But how does a country, or a government, celebrate 1916 without glorifying bloodshed? The tánaiste, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, has told us that ‘a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women it honours and remembers’. She referred to ‘the nation initiated by the rebellion of 1916’, and the man most often remembered in her article was James Connolly. Did 1916 ‘initiate’ the Irish nation? Was there no Irish nation before 1916? Or did 1916 launch a different kind of nation? Connolly in 1916 was not acting as a socialist and trade unionist but as an extreme nationalist, happy to join an armed conspiracy.

The Belfast Agreement has not solved or settled the Northern issue. An exhausted electorate was persuaded to accept a deal that deemed as equally valid the flatly contradictory unionist and nationalist stances on the future of Northern Ireland. That principle was built into the institutions of government, in the hope that it would buy sufficient peace, and time, for the Northern parties to resolve the problem themselves. Seventeen years on, there is still more deadlock than resolution.

For that stalemate to be broken, there have to be major shifts in perceptions and attitudes, and a reapp-raisal of long-held political views. To an extent it has begun; the absence of a physical border and greatly improved transport links have transformed Northerners’ perceptions of the Republic. Unionists can no longer see the South as a priest-ridden Catholic theocracy. They envy the modern road networks, the signs of affluence in Dublin. It is no longer ‘the poor South’. Surveys in the North show that a growing number of Catholics express satisfaction with life in the UK and have no great desire for Irish unity.

In 2014 former taoiseach John Bruton opened the way to a serious public and political debate on the Rising by questioning its morality and its impact on the state and society that emerged from it. One response from Taoiseach Enda Kenny—that he is ‘a 1916 man’—sums up the profoundly disappointing level of debate among Dublin politicians. It seems that a great opportunity will be missed.
Mr Kenny insists that the Rising was ‘the central formative and defining act in the shaping of modern Ireland’. In a way, he is only too right. Independent Ireland was born partitioned, and in violence, and then slumped into an illiberal, inward-looking poor country, plagued by intolerable levels of emigration, repeated threats of armed subversion, a dominant and interfering Catholic Church and a determination to force the population to speak a language they did not know or want to know.

It would be far better to celebrate the emergence of Ireland from that state ‘formed and shaped’ by the Rising, and to acknowledge that, however brave the rebels were, they were misguided and their actions harmed the island, and still do.

Dennis Kennedy is a former Deputy Editor of the Irish Times.

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