Today, Easter Monday 2012, is a reminder in more ways than one of our history. The Titanic is taking centre stage this month. The big political centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Ulster Covenant are yet to come.
As the pages of history are reopened to recall events of a century ago, what message do they convey to us — another excuse for one side or the other to celebrate or a time for more realistic reflection by all of us?
The forthcoming spate of centenaries marking the Rising of 1916 and the signing of the Covenant in 1912 present a major challenge. Handled insensitively, they have the capacity to knock the peace process seriously off course. Commemorated objectively, they can enlighten us as to the rights and wrongs of unionism and nationalism on this island in the past century.
If those who built the Titanic or marched rebelliously against Home Rule, or occupied the GPO in Dublin, could return to this island now, what might they think?
These anniversaries offer an opportunity to set our history in proper perspective. To recognise that behind the simplicity of flags and emblems lies a far more complex story just as the Titanic centenary has told us so much we never knew about the people who built it and its sinking.
The more we delve into the past, the more facts are uncovered, the more likely the myths which distort so many minds on this island can be rectified.
The Titanic anniversary has led to factual and fictional representations, documentaries and Sunday night serials, opening windows on a bygone age. Film makers and TV producers should do the same with regard to Home Rule and the Easter Rising and, if they do so, they will also help to dispel more myths. For example, what might James Connolly or Edward Carson make of the modern Ireland, north or south?
No matter how revered they are by one section of the community or the other, the reality is that neither Carson nor Connolly got his way. The Republic of today is a far cry from Connolly’s vision of a socialist state. Its very independence, for which so many, like Connolly, were prepared to give their lives, is now seriously compromised. Even the relationship with Britain, totally fractured by the Rising, is better than at any time in living memory.
As for Edward Carson, had he known that the partition of his native island would become so permanent, would he have signed the Covenant? Or as a Dubliner had he known that his broad concept of Irish Unionism would be redefined so narrowly as the domain of northern Protestants, might he have had second thoughts about his Home Rule rebellion?
In respect of the leaders of the Easter Rising and the signators against Home Rule, I hope historians will pose questions some may not wish to ask. There will be answers some may not wish to hear.
There are hopeful signs. Ministers at Stormont, in the Dail and at Westminster appear to recognise the requirement to keep the centenaries on an even keel. This is no time for partisan politicking. Rather we have a chance to open our eyes, see the full picture of the past, and begin to bridge the gulf in understanding which has beset this island since the days of Carson and Connolly.
We live in a very different society on this Easter Monday 2012 from that which provoked Carson and Connolly to act as they did a century ago. Home Rule is Rome Rule no longer. The Stormont Executive is the very antithesis of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. The British Government is even bailing out the Irish economy. The Irish state has rolled out the welcome mat for a British monarch.
One unionist leader has just delivered his pluralist 21st century vision of Carson’s Unionism on Irish state television while another, just elected, says he will attend or even address a Sinn Fein conference. Unionist leaders are falling over themselves to attract nationalists. Republicans are acquiescing to, if not accepting, partition as never before.
Despite the worst efforts of republican dissidents, the war looks truly over. The shibboleths of unionism and nationalism are being sidelined in the interests of political and economic pragmatism. In turning back the clock to 1912 and 1916 we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the past has much, if any, relevance to today.
Our world has moved on from Edward Carson and James Connolly. We cannot ignore our history as the thousands who are flocking to see the new Titanic centre are demonstrating. But in revisiting the politics of the 20th century, through the coming centenaries, we should be reinforcing a message to our minds. There is no going back.