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Easter Rising: Divided by the past

The Republic will come to a standstill tomorrow for the official commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising. But the Ireland of 2016 is a vastly more inclusive, outward-looking society than that of 1916, argues Henry McDonald in Dublin, while in Belfast, Alex Kane says the idea of unionists and republicans standing shoulder-to-shoulder in 'shared reflection', while sounding worthy, is pointless

By Henry McDonald

Published 26/03/2016

On the march: the 1916 rebellion's 50th anniversary was marked in 1966 and gave rise to a revival in republicanism
On the march: the 1916 rebellion's 50th anniversary was marked in 1966 and gave rise to a revival in republicanism

Given the slaughter in Brussels this week, it was apposite that a television programme, devoted instead to the 1916 Easter Rising, would focus on the question of armed minorities, martyrdom and death cult.

It was even more poignant that one of those taking part in Michael Portillo's examination of the rebellion 100 years ago was the veteran Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk.

And it was by an uncanny coincidence that Fisk drew parallels on the show between the death-wish blood sacrifice that motivated Patrick Pearse and the young Muslim men from as far apart as Yorkshire to Iraq's Anbar province that die happy deaths in suicide-murders for their Islamist "cause".

On the surface, there appear to be some parallels between the Pearsean vision of national-rebirth-by-blood in the first decade of the 20th century and the maniacal devotion to death by the murderers of Isis of this century.

Martyrdom, the inspiration of individual acts of terror and violence (even against the wishes of a majority) and the holy writ of the vanguard are common features of both ideologies. Yet, the comparisons are also thin and ahistorical for a number of important reasons.

Pearse actually called off the revolt on the Saturday after the Easter weekend, because, while courageously oblivious and convinced of his own fate by firing squad, he worried about the possibility of even more civilian casualties in Dublin.

(One very worthwhile development of the 1916 centenary in the Republic has been the attention given to an important fact about the rising - the majority of those who died were civilians, including many children. Joe Duffy, of RTE, has done history - and his country - a great service here in his excellent book on the children of the Rising.)

Pearse, the poet-dreamer who read the Proclamation on the steps of the GPO a century ago, was not only concerned that continuing the doomed uprising would result in more "non-combatants" losing their lives in Dublin, he also - it has to be stressed again - was wholly realistic about the north.

Pearse ensured personally that there would be no parallel rising in what is now Northern Ireland, fearing - correctly - that there would have been a massive violent backlash from the unionist majority.

So, in one critical area, Pearse had an infinitely more humane outlook about the loss of civilian life in conflict than the sexually frustrated, religiously brainwashed, sad-sack militants of Isis, to whom there are no non-combatants, only true believers versus the "Kaffirs" - ie the rest of us, including the vast majority of Muslims, both Sunni and Shia.

A more troubling and also up-to-date concern about this year's centenary and its climax tomorrow along Dublin's O'Connell Street, is that it will act as inspiration for a new generation of hardline republicans, who are being told by the likes of the Continuity IRA that the there is "unfinished business" to do with 1916; that the "fourth green field", meaning Northern Ireland, is still in the hands of the British "occupier", ignoring, of course, the fact that the "British presence" are those unionists - the majority - who still prefer to remain British.

There is some historical evidence that the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966 was one of the many precursors of the Troubles and also inspired many young idealistic and disaffected people to sign up and fight for Ireland again.

It certainly spooked sections of the unionist community and was one factor in the reformation of the UVF in the same year, with attacks on the Donegal electricity supply and sectarian murders in Belfast.

Yes, there are dangers that 2016 could be exploited by republican dissidents, who will argue that they are no different from their predecessors a century earlier, in that they, too, were going against the grain, were a minority within Irish nationalism and were, after the smoke cleared from the urban battlefield, vilified and condemned widely on the streets of Dublin.

However, just because Ireland commemorates 1916 does not mean - in any way - that it is in the same socio-political scenario as 100 years ago.

As Karl Marx pointed out, history can repeat itself, but often the first time it is tragedy and the second time it is farce.

The Irish Republic of 2016 is a radically different place from the Ireland-under-the-Empire back then. In fact, it is now a society, which, despite all its problems, can have some pride looking back over 100 years.

This writer is about to embark on a PhD about the Irish Civil War, which is arguably a more formative period in terms of establishing the modern Irish Republic.

The period 1921-22 and its bloody internal battles were the years when the institutions of the state were forged - most notably the victorious Irish Defence Forces (then the Free State Army), of which 3,500 members will form the spine of the commemoration parade through Dublin tomorrow.

It is a remarkable achievement that, in the age of fascism, communism and a second even more costly World War, the new Free State and later Republic never suffered a military coup, or a Right-wing takeover, or that the Garda Siochana eventually became the recognised and universally supported police force of all (barring a handful).

And it is a tribute to the Republic's people that, even in present times of globalisation, economic crash, Emigration Ireland remains one of the few countries in Europe where anti-immigration parties have made no political impact whatsoever.

Among the thousands of men and women in uniform marching past the GPO tomorrow will be veterans of UN international peacekeeping missions, stretching from the Golan Heights and the slopes of Lebanon to the jungles of Africa and the mountains of Afghanistan.

While the Republic can point to the shameful failures of the UN in wars such as Bosnia, its military is still held in high regard for saving lives and helping to turn down the temperature in many other conflict zones.

Most crucial of all, perhaps, has been the opening of a national, intellectual debate about the meaning and legacy of 1916. Much of this has been devoid of jingoism, or flag-waving and chest beating.

There has been plenty of space for the greatest admirers of the rebel leaders within constitutional nationalism, such as Eamon de Valera's grandson, Eamon O'Cuiv, on the one hand and historian-critics of the Rising project, like Ruth Dudley Edwards, with her insightful, very critical, yet humane portraits of the rebels in her new book, on the other.

Such latter voices were absent back in 1966, when the Republic was a far less open, more myth-prone, clerically dominated society than the multi-cultural, relatively tolerant and pragmatic place it is today.

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