Wednesday 26 November 2014

Why a royal presence at the 1916 Rising centenary would be a historical contrivance

Diarmaid Ferriter

Published 17/04/2014 | 02:30

President Michael D Higgins and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during last week's State Visit
President Michael D Higgins and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during last week's State Visit

During the recent state visit of President Michael D Higgins to Britain, Queen Elizabeth announced in her speech at the state banquet in Windsor Castle: "My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Free State."

Perhaps we should not be that surprised at this. After all, in September last year, when speaking to the British-Irish Association in Cambridge, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore suggested "if we are true to the lead" that President Mary McAleese and the Queen demonstrated during the state visit in 2011 "then I would hope that we can host representatives of the royal family and the British government, along with the leaders of unionism, in Dublin in three years' time in remembering the Easter Rising."

It is clear from these speeches that this gesture is seen as part of a continuing peace process that serves the needs of contemporary politics. Clearly, both the British and Irish governments want to continue the momentum underpinning improved Anglo-Irish relations and shared commemorations are seen as a way of doing that.

But such a politically inspired commemoration is very different from an honest appraisal of history, and there should be space created to debate the appropriateness and wisdom of what has been proposed.

Gilmore insisted in his speech in Cambridge that people have "a responsibility to prepare and carry out our commemorations in a way that gives no offence and is mindful of the sensitivities of all citizens". This appears a noble and sensible aspiration, but there should also be a responsibility to do justice to the complexity and legacy of the 1916 Rising by not making the royal presence a main focus in 2016, with the inevitable security lockdown and tensions it would create, and the degree to which it could drown out a proper domestic reflection on what happened in 1916 and all that flowed from that.

The pageantry associated with state visits is one thing, but a commemoration of 1916 might be better served by a focus on ordinary lives as they were lived and lost in 1916 due to a variety of different allegiances, and the meaning of the proclamation of 1916, rather than on yet another elitist pageant involving representatives of a monarchy that is the antithesis of republicanism.

In responding to the Queen's Windsor speech, Taoiseach Enda Kenny suggested "from a government perspective we have to work out with our authentic historians on the best way to do these things in a commemorative sense". Presumably, that was a reference to the government appointed "Expert Advisory Group" on commemoration, which was established two years ago, and which is composed of a variety of historians, myself included.

The Government will see it as its prerogative to invite to state functions whoever it wishes, but why have an "authentic" advisory group if it will only be consulted after decisions have been made? Is the Government just using the existence of the group to provide academic cover for its political agenda? It is not the business of historians to promote the Government's political agendas. Is Enda Kenny aware of what this advisory group decided early on in its deliberations in relation to its function?

It was agreed: "The advisory group is conscious of the sensitivity surrounding some events in each jurisdiction and will, where possible, liaise with appropriate groups in formulating its advice to government on such events but it needs to be stressed that our focus is the decade 1912-22 and we do not have as our brief making a contribution to the ongoing peace process. There should be no attempt to contrive an historical or retrospective consensus about the contemporary impact and legacy of divisive events."

A royal presence in Dublin in 2016 would be such a contrivance. The centenary of the 1916 Rising offers an opportunity to emphasise the fundamental difference between a republic and a monarchy and why Irish republicans a century ago did what they did.

That does not have to involve ignoring those who served in crown forces; we are long past the stage of just a single, heroic nationalist narrative of Irish history, and the State is fully committed to remembering the Irish who died in World War I.

But it should not now be the case that there be a distraction from trying to also understand the motivations and experiences of Irish republicans of 100 years ago. Too much focus on what Britain and Ireland shared might prevent an appreciation of what divided them, and we should not allow reflection on those differences to be sidestepped or bullied out of existence.

None of these assertions are a criticism of the very welcome improvement in Anglo-Irish relations, the importance of the peace process, and the numerous courageous compromises it has involved.

But it is surely legitimate to suggest that a distinction be made between history and current politics in 2016, and historical understanding and context might be best served by keeping the focus on the origins, development and nature of the Irish republic rather than the peace process politics of every commemoration shared.

Having royals at the table of all the State's commemorations will begin to look like the State desires some kind of British approval which smacks of a post-colonial inferiority complex.

When he took over as this State's first Minister for External Affairs in 1922, Desmond FitzGerald said simply: "Britain is our most important external affair." That was because of what Britain and Ireland had in common but also because of what fundamentally divided them, and the focus in 2016 should be on the latter, not for the purposes of being provocative or insensitive but in order to do justice to the motivations and legacy of the generation of 1916 republicans.

That process generated much pride, but also a civil war, largely owing to an oath of allegiance to the British crown that the royals in Dublin in 2016 will represent, and which was insisted on by King George V's government under threat of war at the end of the Treaty negotiations in December 1921.

DIARMAID FERRITER IS PROFESSOR OF MODERN IRISH HISTORY AT UCD

Irish Independent

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