News Eoghan Harris

Friday 29 August 2014

Easter 2016 celebration is a grenade that must be handled with care

Eoghan Harris

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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1916 Easter Rising anniversary last year. Julien Behal/PA Wire
1916 Easter Rising anniversary last year. Julien Behal/PA Wire
Last week, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter came out strongly against plans to invite members of the Royal Family to the 2016 celebrations
Last week, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter came out strongly against plans to invite members of the Royal Family to the 2016 celebrations
'Where most people see an Easter egg, I see a Mills hand grenade'. Illustration by Jim Cogan

FOR the past year, I have been filled with foreboding about a nationalist fallout from the 2016 centenary celebrations. Where most people see an Easter egg, I see a Mills hand grenade. And with good reason.

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The celebrations of 1898 brought my grandfather into the IRB. The 1966 half- centenary prepared the Republic for the Provisional IRA. So unless we disarm the dark side of the 2016 grenade, we could be heading for another Hurt Locker.

Last week, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter came out strongly against plans to invite members of the Royal Family to the 2016 celebrations. He has been supported by John A Murphy and Billy Kelleher of Fianna Fail has also queried the visit. As the backlash gathers momentum, let's take a look at Professor Ferriter's two main objections.

First, he warns against confusing history with politics. As reported in the press, he said the emphasis on good relations between Britain and Ireland had led to a "noble aspiration to please everybody and include everybody, which will not do justice to the historic divisions that were there that we need to understand".

So far, so clear. Professor Ferriter is arguing – and many academic historians would support him – that the study of history should not be at the service of political projects. However, I have two problems with the notion that history and politics can be so clinically separated.

My first problem is that history has always been written through the prisms of current concerns. There is no fixed and final version of history held in the National Library. Irish historians are no more immune to current political forces than any other group.

My second problem is that some Irish historians seem to want it both ways. One moment they are arguing that academic history should be set apart from politics. The next moment they are taking personal stands on public and political issues. This can be confusing.

But it is Professor Ferriter's second point that bothers me most. According to the Irish Times report, "He believed the presence of the royal family might give succour to those who believed the Rising was unnecessary, as the British government had committed to the introduction of Home Rule once the war was over."

Having set out his stall – that the Easter Rising was necessary and that without it Home Rule was not likely – he goes on to say: "There was no evidence that Britain was prepared to settle its Irish question until it was forced to do it. We don't need to abandon our critical faculties because of the warm haze after the Queen's visit."

Here, it seems to me, Professor Ferriter is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand he is arguing for the integrity of academic history based on evidence. On the other hand he is making predictions. But once he leaves the past for prediction, surely everybody else is entitled to call on past evidence to support their soothsaying too?

For example, I think the evidence suggests that our chances of getting Home Rule from a peaceful campaign of civil disobedience in the period 1919-1921 were pretty high. The evidence for this is the extraordinary success of the peaceful anti-conscription movement of 1918, which mobilised the whole country.

How could the British government have coped with a peaceful mass campaign of civil disobedience? Dail Eireann would have deliberated in defiance, republican courts would have functioned, the trade union movement would have paralysed troop movements. All with the sympathetic support of the powerful Irish-American lobby and most of the world's press.

Common sense suggests the British government would have given into such an O'Connellite campaign. Sooner rather than later, possibly following some hunger strikes as traumatic as that of Terence MacSwiney, the British would have conceded a form of Free State. We would have been spared the blood and bitterness of the War of Independence and the Civil War.

But back to the present. Academic historians may advise on the celebrations of 2016, but they should not have the last word. The Government has a higher obligation: to promote peace. And it rightly believes a royal visit would add a wider pluralist dimension to our domestic celebrations of the centenary.

That said, do I see any reason to reject a royal visit? Yes, there is one tempting reason. But it has nothing to do with rejecting the royals and everything to do rejecting our elites and their culture of self-entitlement.

Last week, I read Eamon McCann's anti-royalist polemic in the Irish Times with a mixture of relish and regret. I could not disagree with his dig about "the Irish elite celebrating their acceptance into a layer of society they have long wanted to be part of". But he might have added that many of them, until recently, were the most rabid nationalists.

Watching the broadcast from Windsor Castle, I spotted a few former nationalists who in the past had roundly abused my "West Brit" articles. So I found it somewhat nauseating to watch them swelling with the social cachet of sitting so close to the British royals. But I am still willing to hold my nose for the sake of peace.

As an Irish patriot, I must put up with the sickening spectacle of former naff nationalists dipping and bobbing to the royals. However, I will console myself by adapting the line from Sean O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman: "Harris, no man can do enough for Ireland."

But back to history. Given that Professor Ferriter, supported by heavyweights like Ronan Fanning and Charles Townshend, believes that 1916 was necessary, does that close down the debate? Are there any non-academic historians offering another analysis? The answer is yes.

Padraig Yeates, author of A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921, provides a powerful critique of the conventional nationalist narrative of the period 1913-21 in an essay titled Commemorating What? And Why? in the current edition of that excellent online magazine, the Dublin Review of Books (www. drb.ie).

Yeates writes from a social-democratic perspective. His essay concerns the cost of militarism and how it masked the struggle for social justice. In the course of his analysis, he asks two questions: the first concerns commemorations. "So, if you are standing, as I am, in a place where you feel a deep antipathy towards the status quo, what do you want to commemorate?"

His second question is equally edged. "Who were the chief beneficiaries of the gains made by militant nationalists in 1921-1922?" His reply is uncompromising and, to my mind, unanswerable.

"The answer is, of course, members of the new political elite. Their successors within the political establishment now want, very understandably, to bask in the reflected glory of their forbears."

In this short space I can only give you a flavour of Yeates's absorbing essay. But you can gather something of its unflinching honesty from his hard and controversial conclusion: "I think the answer to the question whether the struggle for independence was worth it is a resounding No."

Sunday Independent

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