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Why Rising dreams still fuel unionist nightmares

By Alex Kane

It was the second paragraph of the 1916 Proclamation which was to have the crucial and lasting impact on unionism: "Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment and, supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory."

That "right moment", it seems, was when the United Kingdom - of which all of Ireland was still a member at the time - was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, among others. The "gallant allies" was taken to mean the Germans. In other words, it was pretty hard to draw any conclusion other than that the people behind the Easter Rising were guilty of treason.

That's how it was interpreted by the British government at the time and it's how it continues to be interpreted by unionism in Northern Ireland.

Unionism may have developed a reasonably cordial relationship with successive Irish governments since the mid-Nineties, but there's still no meeting of minds on Easter 1916. The DUP position is blunt: "The events of that failed rebellion should be studied, not celebrated. The legacy of 1916 is a poisonous one as it served to enshrine the notion that armed republican groups, no matter how small or deranged, can kill and maim for Ireland."

The UUP confirmed it would be running its own event in Dublin in early-April: "We will not be celebrating, or commemorating, rather we will be challenging the causes and consequences of the insurrection. We've had very positive engagement with the Irish government through the Taoiseach's office and we are planning to attend another official event on May 26 at Grangegorman, which is being arranged to remember soldiers who died and were buried in the cemetery."

Alliance Party leader David Ford has also turned down an invitation to an Irish government-organised event: "My problem is that the people who murdered Adrian Ismay, the people who murdered David Black, the people who murdered Ronan Kerr, the people who murdered two Garda officers, would all claim to be the direct inheritors of Easter 1916. I cannot associate myself with that, as minister of justice."

Mr Ford also said he was "uncomfortable" about the state "marking the efforts of those who engaged in violence" and said there were other means of achieving independence: "Until the point when the British general ordered executions, I think all the evidence was that it was regarded as undemocratic by the great majority of the Irish people, whatever part of the island they came from, whether they were nationalists or unionists."

The real problem for unionists, though, is their belief that the Proclamation remains the primary electoral/political fuel for republicanism in its democratic form; as well as the guiding star for armed republicanism.

And, regardless of the fact that both the DUP and UUP are prepared to share Executive office with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, both parties acknowledge that Sinn Fein's ultimate desire remains the fulfilment of the dreams and ambitions of the Proclamation.

Sinn Fein would not regard the Easter Rising as a failure. For them - as for the dissidents - it remains unfinished business. It remains unfinished business, too, for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail who, while being prepared to put it on the long finger, still like the notion of "A Nation Once Again".

Let's not forget, either, that, for decades now, the Proclamation has been read aloud outside Dublin's GPO every Easter Sunday by an officer of the Irish Defence Forces. To all intents and purposes, this remains a combination of a celebration and a commemoration of an unfinished task. So, it's no surprise that unionists don't want to be involved.

That said, I do agree with the view that both sides need to understand their collective history. Let's be honest: unionists were quite prepared to import arms and ammunition (from Germany) to protect their interests in the early years of the 20th century; they were quite prepared to establish their own provisional government and certainly contemplated what could have turned into a civil war with their own government in Westminster.

Their leaders, with the unambiguous support of the Conservative Party, made it clear in their 1912 Covenant (below) that they would fight their own corner, " ... using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And, in the event of such a parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognise its authority".

The language of the Covenant and Proclamation may be different, yet the sentiment and purpose was the same. Both were about identity and the right to be governed by what they regarded as "their own" people. Both documents were about defining territory and aspiration and both, albeit in different ways, remain relevant today.

That's why unionists came together in September 2012 to celebrate and commemorate the Covenant: and it's why republicans and nationalists are coming together this weekend to celebrate and commemorate the Proclamation.

But neither tradition can share the other's celebration, because they are competing and mutually contradicting celebrations. It would be like a divorced couple inviting each other to the wedding of their new partners, when those partners had been responsible for destroying the original marriage.

So, yes, we need to understand why things happened and how we reached particular places; but it is a nonsense to pretend that having Arlene Foster on a platform in Dublin tomorrow, or Gerry Adams on a platform in 2021 to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, is ever going to make a damn bit of difference about how we feel about each other.

Most nationalists and republicans would still, in their heart of hearts, like a united Ireland, albeit not one emerging from the barrel of a gun. And most unionists will continue to resist Irish unity. That has been the state of play for centuries. And it will remain the state of play.

It is important to understand why certain events mean so much to us, individually and separately, but it is stupid, possibly even damaging, to imagine that shoving our leaders into awkward photo-opportunities is the way to deal with history.

Unionists also fear that the Republic would be a cold house for them in terms of their religion and political beliefs.

The 2011 census indicated that Protestants accounted for less than 3% of the population and there is no current unionist political vehicle: unlike Northern Ireland, where both Catholicism and republicanism/nationalism continue to flourish. Against that background, there's little incentive - so they believe - for unionists to reach out.

When it comes to both parts of Ireland, the past is always in front of us, because the past remains the unfinished business of an unclosed book.

The invitations to stand shoulder to shoulder in "shared reflection" sound worthy, yet they serve no purpose. We haven't forgotten, or forgiven, what we did to each other. I'm not sure we ever can.

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