How those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it
Published 17/03/2009 | 11:05
We learn from history that men and women never learn anything from history.
Hegel, the German philosopher, said it — and the Dubliner, Shaw, in his preface to Heartbreak House, said he was right. The love affair of Irish republicanism with the gun is a perfect example; for the outflanking of the peacemakers in Sinn Fein by their gun-toting ex-comrades is the oldest tale in the bloodstained pages of the Irish story.
Daniel O'Connell, ‘the Liberator', was the first victim in modern times. Always a constitutionalist — and a monarchist — he backed off from law-breaking and got much further with his mass meetings and his oratory than he ever would have with the gun. But when he died in 1847, the way was left open for the firebrands of Young Ireland and, later, the Fenians.
They had no use for O'Connell's disdain for secret societies, his loyalty to the Crown and his federal ideas. They wanted the British out, but accomplished little. Once they were suppressed, Parnell took the stage in the House of Commons, backing Gladstone's push for home rule, followed by John Redmond; only for the home rulers to be outflanked in 1916 by an armed Rising which appalled the vast majority of the Irish — until the British, distracted by crises on the Western Front, foolishly put the leaders before a firing squad. Michael Collins, of the newly-emergent Sinn Fein, raised the sporadic ambushes mounted by the rebels to the status of a guerrilla war, only to be shot himself by one of his own when — like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness — he made peace and settled for a treaty offering half a loaf.
De Valera, whose status regarding the shooting remains ambiguous to this day, took to the hills and ditches of the new Free State with his anti-treaty Irregulars and their 7,000 rifles. In the summer of 1922, he took on Collins' Sinn Fein peacemakers and fought them for almost a year, until forced to lay down his arms by the utter ruthlessness of the new government. But when he and his suppporters took their seats in the Dail in 1927, de Valera being returned as head of government (president of the executive council) at the election five years later, the IRA did not go away. Throughout his long leadership of Fianna Fail, the physical-force men continually intrigued to outflank him — by letting off bombs in English cities and, during the Second World War, conspiring with German agents in Eire to damage the Allied cause, on the grounds that it was also the British. The local folklore has it that Gerry Adams' father was among those who lit bonfires on Divis to guide the bombers of the Luftwaffe in 1941.
After the war the IRA attempted to raise the standard once more in its campaign of 1956-61. But it got nowhere because the nationalist people were not behind it.
The movement split in 1969 (over the issue of recognising the Northern Ireland and United Kingdom Parliaments) and the Provisionals were born.
Republicans split again in 1986 (producing the Continuity IRA) when Sinn Fein voted to enter the Dail; and split yet again, in 1994, over the Provisionals' ceasefire (which produced the Real IRA).
Considering this troubled catalogue, the events of the past week or two look much too much like a re-run of history. Those old enough to recall the outbreak of serious street riots in Northern Ireland in 1969 find the spectacle of manipulated teenagers stoning the police in a Lurgan estate too dreadfully familiar. The sinister aspect of their role is that these are members of a generation which should be a product of Agreement politics: they were little more than toddlers when the Belfast Agreement was signed and only small children at school when Patten paved the way for phasing out the RUC.
No doubt it is just in this sort of principled tug of war that the segregated Northern Ireland school system sticks out as a baleful ball and chain. What is needed most, in the drive to spread acceptance of the Agreement culture and Sinn Fein's new stance, is the continuous cross-fertilisation of ideas: a debate between youngsters who really know each other — not between those who, from time to time, are shepherded self-consciously together by their minders, on carefully arranged occasions, to regard each other like rival species in a zoo.
“Society speaks with one voice,” declared a Lurgan priest on Sunday morning. Does it?
That is the loaded question upon which the fate of this community hangs. I quote the history to underline the depth of the vicious currents from which it must escape and the longevity of the historic trend it must buck.