By Patrick Murphy (for the Irish News)
They have been commemorating the wrong anniversary. Instead of celebrating the partition of Protestants and Catholics into two separate groups in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, would it not be more appropriate to commemorate one of the few historical occasions when political unity overcame sectarian division?
Welcome to the 225th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion. Begun on May 24, it was organised by the United Irishmen. They fused Presbyterian radicalism with the republican concept of citizenship, together with the ideals of reason, tolerance and scientific advancement in the period known as the Enlightenment.
Belfast Presbyterian, William Drennan, founder of Belfast Academical Institution (Inst), called it “the restless power of reason”. Based on Wolfe Tone’s support for the dispossessed, the United Irishmen (UI) were a model for radical, non-sectarian politics and social development (everything which the GFA was not).
One of the USA’s founding fathers, Thomas Paine, was an honorary member of the UI’s Dublin branch. Nobody mentioned him in the GFA celebrations (which were effectively political rallies supporting the US and the EU, with side-swipes at the DUP).
Speakers emphasised Seamus Heaney’s line about when “hope and history rhyme”. However, they neglected Heaney’s recollection of his youth, when “people met in the house, they would sing songs or recite poems about ’98”.
As US academic John Hobbs has written, growing up, Heaney “knew little about 1916”, but “a lot about 1798”. He acted as a United Irishman blacksmith in a local play, “forging pikes on a real anvil fetched from Devlin’s forge at Hillhead”. In 1966 he wrote Requiem for the Croppies, about the Wexford peasants of ’98, while others remembered the 50th anniversary of 1916.
Heaney saw ’98 as bridging the sectarian divide, as advocated by Wolfe Tone (described by Heaney as, “A patriot with folded arms in a shaft of light”).
Tone drew heavily on the literary works of Sheridan, Swift, Goldsmith and Shakespeare, elevating him above the political horse-trading of the GFA. His intellectual influences included French philosopher Rousseau, who argued that people could experience true freedom only if they had their rights and wellbeing ensured. (The GFA didn’t bother with philosophy.)
Tone’s non-sectarianism was echoed by the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which was opposed by the two ultimate beneficiaries of the GFA: Paisley and the IRA. Paisley opposed civil rights, falsely claiming it was a nationalist plot. The IRA opposed it because it was not a nationalist plot.
From 1798 to 1998, Ireland changed tragically. Britain secured the union by pitting Protestant against Catholic, which led to partition and today’s sectarianism.
The solution to those differences in 1998 was to seek to recreate the spirit of 1798, but the DUP and SF had abandoned what they claimed were their origins.
Paisley founded the DUP, not on the radicalism of Ulster Presbyterianism, but on the later anti-Catholicism of Roaring Hugh Hanna and Henry Cooke (whose statue stands with his back to Inst.). SF’s decision to represent only Catholics at the GFA negotiations abandoned Tone’s teachings for those of Daniel O’Connell.
Sectarian ambition denied us a second Age of Enlightenment.
The leaders of ’98 were flogged and hanged. GFA leaders were recently embraced by a British secretary of state entering a dinner in Hillsborough Castle. So which best served Britain’s interests: 1798 or 1998?
Instead of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter we have parliamentary apartheid, where Protestants and Catholics must self-identify. It has therefore become the patriotic duty of nationalists to insult and mock unionists, while assuring them they can march on July 12th in a new Ireland. God help us all.
You see, the problem with this country is not that we are obsessed by history. It is that we are possessed with historical ignorance.
As John Kells Ingram’s song, The Memory of the Dead, asks, “Who fears to speak of Ninety-Eight? Who blushes at the name?” An appropriate answer might be everyone at the recent Good Friday Agreement celebrations.