1916 and all that...

By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)

By any objective standards there was more cause for an armed struggle in the North post-1969 than there was for the 1916 Rising.

If 1916 was about the denial of freedom and British misrule in Ireland, the armed struggle in the North was about the denial of the same freedom and a more egregious form of British misrule in the form of partition with its ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.

In Ireland’s major cities in the early part of the twentieth century there was extreme poverty and high unemployment. There had been two deaths in baton charges during the Dublin lock-out in 1913, which preceded and helped define the radical nature of the Proclamation. There had been three deaths at the hands of the British army after the Irish Volunteers’ Howth gun-running incident in July 1914. By 1916 it was obvious to the prescient that Home Rule – as proposed in the suspended statute – had been thwarted by the Unionist/Conservative threat of violence, but that a dramatic, violent assertion of Irish independence might inspire and embolden the general population (or, at a minimum, strengthen Ireland’s demands in post-war negotiations).

Compare the conditions in 1916 to the conditions which nationalists suffered: Fifty years of humiliation; the physical persecution of any outward expression of their identity; discrimination in housing, employment and investment; its minority position entrenched; a people denied access to government or power to change government; deaths at the hands of the RUC, B-Specials, loyalists and the British army long before the IRA reorganised and launched its armed struggle.

To justify or to sympathise or, at the minimum, to understand, 1916, is to justify, sympathise or understand the IRA’s armed struggle in the North. It is inescapable, regardless of what casuistry is employed to argue otherwise.

The founders of Fianna Fáil trace their lineage back to those who resisted and fought against the Treaty in the civil war, to those who waged guerrilla war for independence, to those who occupied the GPO and declared a Republic.

Let’s put it in starker terms.

Say Cumainn na nGaedheal, which was formed in 1923 from the pro-Treaty element of Sinn Féin and which took power as Free Staters, had remained in power for 50 years with the support of the British government. That during those years it financially, economically and politically discriminated against and gerrymandered those areas which supported Fianna Fáil. That the police force, comprised only of its supporters, oppressed Fianna Fáil supporters, batoned them off the streets, killed some of them when they demanded their rights and burnt thousands of them out of their homes, before killing more of them at barricades or at street protests. Wouldn’t Fianna Fáil and its grassroots have a sympathetic view of a physical-force struggle against single-party rule, and the British army coming in to defend that rule? Of course, they would, and o, republicans welcome the decision by the Dublin government and establishment to celebrate and commemorate the Rising.

Yeats worried: “Did that play of mine send out /Certain men the English shot?”

Dublin worries, “Does this commemoration of ours/Justify the men who shot the English?”

The answer is, yes, it does, but no one, not the IRA, not Sinn Féin, not Fianna Fáil or any party or organisation owns the Rising or its legacy.

Celebrating it, however, triggers certain imperatives, primarily an examination of the malignity of British rule in Ireland, the divisions it caused between brothers and sisters, families, communities, political parties. It should encourage a revision of what really happened to the North and an analysis of the forces at play. It can only lead to conclusions which will not harm but explain the republican movement, its motivation, its history, and how it survived and thrived.

It is a debate which frightens the major political parties in the 26 counties, in the same way as they fear the truth about collusion emerging which would trigger other imperatives – that is, dealing with the reality of British government involvement in bombings and assassinations and probable infiltration of the state itself.

Such discomfiting truths would leave the populace more open to understanding and sympathising with republicans on the issue of the North. Such truths could impact on contemporary politics to the advantage of Sinn Féin, and so such truths must be avoided, must be minimised, hidden, denied or distorted.

Ninety years after the Easter Rising Britain is the ally!

My first consciousness of Easter was always chocolate eggs.

That culture of boiling a hen’s egg in tea, patiently painting it and then rolling it down Bearnagh Drive never caught on in 1950s Andersonstown.

Soon I was to discover the politics of Easter. I remember the Falls decked with bunting in 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

When I first went to the Felons Club at the age of 14 or 15 and began learning something about my country the Rising was the big date in Irish history. I also learnt about Tom Williams and his comrades in Belfast, and Brendan Behan in Dublin, being arrested on Easter Sunday after republican commemorations and about republicans having to run a gauntlet of RUC men when they went to march to the republican plot in Milltown.

After 1969 I read up on the period and devoured Tim Pat Coogan’s and Bowyer Bell’s respective histories of the IRA.

I took part in republican Easter parades, stood proudly in the Cages of Long Kesh, in the yards of the Crum and the Blocks, during those poignant minute silences when we remembered our fallen comrades. I spoke at Easter commemorations the length and breadth of Ireland and got a feel of how widespread and visceral was the love for and devotion to the patriots of 1916.

The ‘defence’ of the Republic declared from the steps of the GPO, or the re-establishment of that Republic, and the quest for a united Ireland all became synonymous, was taken as a given as the ultimate solution to Ireland’s English problem.

There is a maxim by a famous German Field Marshal that: “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Well, that political plan of reunification has survived contact with ‘the enemy’s’ propaganda, with the arguments of unionism and Free Statism.

Were the dream pursued just for the sake of sentimentality it would be madness and pointless, but a united Ireland would make social and economic sense.

The successes of the Celtic Tiger have reduced unionists to the argument of opposing it solely on political/cultural grounds.

Within my lifetime a united Ireland is unlikely to be configured as a unitary state, but united it will become and it will be a better place than a land disfigured by British rule.

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