New Year’s Day brought the first official efforts of the year to revise and sanitise the centenary of the 1916 Rising, with the rebels’ goal of an Ireland free from British rule getting airbrushed from the official narrative.
The Easter rebellion of a hundred years ago led to the independence of the 26 County state, a state which remains accused of turning its back on the Six Counties of Ireland still under British control. So the first major official events in Dublin to mark the Rising’s centenary were always going to be tight-lipped affairs with no reminder of the state’s failures.
Dignatories incliding President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Joan Burton attended the opening ceremony, at which the three flags which were flown on O’Connell Street during the rebellion were raised over the castle. The names of all 78 volunteers who died, including the 16 executed men, were read out.
Kenny told the crowd that the focus of the event was about how Irish people should “reimagine our Republic” in terms of new international relations and modernity.
Omitted from the picture was the unfinished business of 1916. Kenny even suggested the Proclamation of the Republic by the rebels on April 24, 1916 was not an actual declaration of independence, merely “the moment we have chosen to commemorate”.
Events deteriorated further that evening with a ‘Peace Proms’ event, a political spectacle which sought to put a positive spin on the partition of Ireland.
The event at the Convention Centre in Dublin featured traditional Irish music mixed with the drums and pipes of loyalist marching bands, an improbable blend of Irish and Scottish highland dancing, a ‘cross border orchestra’, and, inevitably, U2. Most controversially, it ended not with the Irish national anthem, but a cringe-inducing rendition of the rugby theme, Ireland’s Call.
The darker side of the government’s intentions for the centenary was also made apparent early in the New Year with the announcement that over a hundred new riot police have been trained, specifically to suppress any public protests during the main Easter Rising events later this year.
But after a national and international outcry, the coalition has officially backed down from a plan to involve members of the British Royal family to the Easter Rising commemorative events, replacing it with a campaign of “inclusivity”.
Minister for Culture Heather Humphreys, who is heading up the state’s commemoration plans, said that she believed the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in July, where many Irish soldiers died in World War One, was as important as the Easter Rising. “It is important to remember that 2016 will mean different things to different people,” she said.
Sinn Fein is organising its own events independent of the government’s official programme. The party is behind an exhibition about the Easter Rising in a former cinema north of O’Connell Street, and held a party rally on Thursday to mark the centenary year.
Other independent events have also been organised by a number of republican organisations, including commemorations in Dublin and Coalisland, County Tyrone.
In the US, the battle for the legacy of the Rising has also been intensifying, and the coalition government has been encouraging Irish Americans to reinvent their Irish identity.
Speaking in New York, the 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said he was aware the Rising and the subsequent War of Independence were financed by Irish-Americans in the early part of the last century.
But he suggested Irish-Americans should not concern themselves with British rule in the north of Ireland, and instead reflect on the “positive, ever-growing relationship” with Britain.
Launching a programme of commemorations, he expressed satisfaction that there was no sign of sections of Irish America “seeking to lay claim” to the legacy of the Rising. He indicated that the struggle for Irish freedom was at an end, praising instead what he said was the “journey of one hundred years for a lasting, just and peaceful settlement”.
Back at home, the state’s centrepiece television drama ‘Rebellion’ was broadcast to a sizable audience, but, tellingly, the drama was sanitised of rebel sentiment and blocked from being viewed online north of the border.
In Belfast, unionists were largely dismissive of efforts by the Dublin government and Sinn Fein to involve them in “respectful and inclusive” commemorations on the Rising and the Somme.
DUP leader and First Minister in waiting Arlene Foster vowed she would not be associated with anything to do with marking the centenary of the Rising, which she described as a “violent attack on the United Kingdom”.
CENTENARY ‘AN INCONVENIENCE’
At his party’s rally on Thursday in the Mansion House, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams spoke of the need to reclaim the spirit and vision of 1916.
“2016 is a time to celebrate our identity, to commemorate our past and to deliver on the promise of the Proclamation,” he said. “It is a time for big ideas. It is a time to stand up and be counted.”
But he noted the Irish revolutionary period was followed by a counter-revolution and civil war.
“The reality is that when partition was imposed by London there were activists who rejected it. There were others who reluctantly accepted it as temporary and hoped that the new southern state would act as a stepping stone to full national freedom.
“But there were also those who saw it as an end in itself. And there are many in the establishment today who share that view. They, like the Taoiseach, believe that our sovereign nation stops at the border. They just don’t get 1916. It is an inconvenient issue that they want to get out of the way.”
He argued that one of the big achievements of recent Irish history was that “there is now a peaceful way to end partition”, but the Irish establishment had no strategy to achieve this.
“Why would they? They want to maintain the status quo,” he said. “Of course Ireland and the world is a different place today from when the leaders of the Rising assembled on Easter Monday. But Irish republican values and objectives - the core values of the Proclamation - remain as relevant as ever.
“The Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 was ‘committed to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.’
“At its core is a belief that all people are sovereign and equal. That historic document is a clear statement of intent for an all-Ireland Republic built on the foundations of civil and religious liberty, social justice and equality for all citizens.
“It remains the mission statement of modern Irish republicanism.”