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Why we may be playing with fire over the 1916 events

What is the difference between the weekend's re-enactment of the 1915 funeral of Fenian leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa and last month's paramilitary display at the burial of hunger striker Patsy O'Hara's mother Peggy? Sadly, nothing, writes Eilis O'Hanlon.

Published 05/08/2015

The funeral of Peggy O’Hara, mother of INLA hunger striker Patsy O’Hara
The funeral of Peggy O’Hara, mother of INLA hunger striker Patsy O’Hara
Sinn Fein’s full-scale re-enactment of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa for the centenary commemoration of his death at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin
Peggy O'Hara
Claire Hanna

It's a common complaint that Christmas starts earlier each year. Tinsel on sale in September. Advent calendars in the shops before the kids go back to school. That's nothing. In the Irish Republic last weekend, on the first day of August, the official countdown to next Easter began.

Of course it isn't any ordinary Easter, but the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which will be marked with all due pomp and circumstance across the country in a series of high-profile events.

The countdown began ceremonially last Saturday at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin with a re-enactment of the 1915 funeral of Fenian leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, largely seen as an important step on the road to Easter Monday at the GPO.

In fact there were two events. One, an official shindig involving President Michael Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and a second, presumably more ideologically pure one, hosted by Sinn Fein a few hours later at which Gerry Adams turned up in a natty titfer from the period.

Don't knock it. As the Irish economy clambers out of recession business is going to be brisk for fancy dress shops over the coming months. Shares in replica pistols will be booming.

But watching today's generation play at being yesterday's soldiers, the thought does cross one's mind: how exactly is this any different from the recent INLA pantomime at the funeral of hunger striker Patsy O'Hara's mother, Peggy.

All agreed that those clowns were sad, sinister little specimens indeed, wallowing in a past that wasn't theirs and which it would be better to let quietly lie; but couldn't the same be said about the historical amateur dramatics that are set to dominate public life in the Republic all the way through to next summer?

Come to think of it, how is this any different from the Twelfth of July celebrations? Every summer constitutional nationalists shake their heads disapprovingly as Northern Ireland does its traditional thing, imagining themselves superior for not needing to indulge in such bullish assertions of identity. But isn't that what they're now doing, too?

Of course, Orange parades happen every year and this is a once-in-a-century event; but either it's okay to make a big deal of once-divisive events or it isn't.

It can't be acceptable or unacceptable based on who's doing it and whether one personally finds the spectacle aesthetically or politically pleasing, otherwise it's purely a matter of taste, not principle.

The Republic thinks that it can handle all this without any negative side-effects because it's a mature, settled democracy and there's no more harm in them dressing up as rebels than there is for middle-aged accountants in the Home Counties camping it up as Roundheads and Cavaliers at the weekend.

That optimism, though, should probably be filed away under the heading 'Famous Last Words'. That's the thing about playing with fire. No one ever expects to be burned.

The organisers of these events may well be complacent, middle-class people, comfortable in their sense of self; but there are plenty of disaffected young people caught between conflicting impulses. On the one hand, being told that they mustn't follow the example of their forebears who took up arms. On the other hand, being regaled with the symbolism and theatre of violence in such a way that is bound to make it seem rewarding.

Psychologically so, but also literally, in that it is rewarded politically, and that's still a potentially deadly game when Ireland remains, metaphorically, in a state of civil war.

Most obviously in the north, where two tribes thinking has even been encoded into the political set-up at Stormont; but in the south, too. The two main parties in Dublin, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, were formed in the aftermath of the War of Independence when they took different sides on whether to sign the Treaty, and this fact has shaped their sense of who they are ever since.

Increasingly, though, they're having to admit that there's not much difference separating them and that the real civil war is now between themselves and a confident, growing Sinn Fein.

When Sinn Fein postures as the heirs to the men and women of 1916, seeking to forge a single chain that unites the GPO with Bloody Friday, the hunger strikes and Canary Wharf, it's hard to see how established parties in the south are meant to resist that narrative - because modern-day republicans have a point.

If anyone is closest to the spirit of Patrick Pearse, with his desire for a blood sacrifice, it's them. It was O'Donovan Rossa who first came up with the strategy of bombing the British mainland, after all. There's a direct connection to the present.

There are important differences. The rebels of 1916 laid down their arms quickly to avoid more civilian deaths. It took Sinn Fein/IRA 30 years to get tired of funerals.

All the same, they can certainly wrap themselves in those green gladrags much more effectively than the established parties who've had decades to grow soft and forget the snug feel of a warm gun.

That's why mainstream politicians always get into a tangle when trying to reconcile these hypocrisies, because they're forced to make too many finicky distinctions and invariably trip over their own illogic.

It happened to MLA Claire Hanna on Monday's Stephen Nolan Show as she struggled to explain why she was objecting to a display of paramilitary insignia at a loyalist band parade on the Ormeau Road last Friday in spite of one of her SDLP colleagues attending the paramilitary-style funeral of an old friend in 2012 at which the Real IRA fired shots.

"All of these glorification acts have no place," Ms Hanna rightly said without really resolving the contradiction to the satisfaction of anyone listening.

This is the tightrope on which mainstream politicians always wobble. When you're explaining, you're losing.

Sinn Fein is able to play a craftier game, knowing full well that 2016 offers an unprecedented opportunity to claim legitimacy both retrospectively for the Provisional IRA campaign and prospectively for its right to take the lead in reshaping the post-2016 political landscape in its own image as the true inheritors of the spirit of the GPO.

It will exploit these theatrics ruthlessly between now and Easter and decent nationalists, far from formulating a counter-strategy to head it off at the pass, are walking straight into the trap.

Which, if nothing else, will make it a deal harder for them to take the moral high ground in the next marching season.

It seems we're all dressing up in silly costumes to relive the so-called good old days now.

Belfast Telegraph

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