Whatever path they chose was bloody
The Rising's centenary is uncomfortable for the ideological inheritors of John Redmond
Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30
It isn't really about 1916. Much of the argument you'll hear over the next few months will be dressed up in the regalia of 1916, but the argument is really about politics today. And about the direction we take into the future.
Some of the argument will be posed as a defence of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who died in 1918. But it's really a defence of the politics that underpins today's majority parties - Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
An astonishing amount of what passes for debate about these things derives from 'facts' that simply aren't true.
On one side, we have the nationalist flag-wavers, who see Ireland as a perpetual victim, singled out by the awful Brits for 800 years of abuse. Never, we are asked to believe, has anyone suffered like the Irish suffered; never has anyone had enemies more cruel.
Here, chosen at random, is a sample of that kind of thing: "Forget Stalin. Forget Pol Pot. The British . . . [blah blah] . . . well and truly make and rule an empire. And they did it to us! Forget the later KGB, my friends; the RIC made them look like amateurs!"
Eh, no, old chap.
Stalin gave Hitler a run for his money and Pol Pot was a mass killer sui generis.
In 1916, the British empire ruled a fifth of the world's population. It was an equal-opportunity oppressor. It pragmatically applied only as much cruelty to us as it judged necessary.
On the other side, we have the folk who claim that "the 1916 rising was a mistake". John Redmond, nationalist leader, had achieved a solid promise of Home Rule and - well, let John Bruton, Fine Gael politician and spokesperson for bankers, have the floor.
"If the 1916 leaders had had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided and . . . Ireland could have achieved better results, for all the people of the island, if it had continued to follow the successful, non-violent, parliamentary Home Rule path and had not embarked on the path of physical violence."
Nonsense, all of it.
The beginning of the 20th century was steeped in violence. It was an age of empire, with large forces fighting for market share.
The Irish of 1914 had a choice of violent paths to take.
The unionists recruited huge paramilitary forces, armed them and threatened civil war if the British parliament's decision on Home Rule was implemented.
British army officers announced that they would not enforce the will of parliament on this issue. There were no consequences for any of this treason.
Nationalists such as Pearse, Clarke and MacDermott plotted an insurrection. Their forces were meagre and poorly armed.
John Redmond promised Home Rule. His Parliamentary Party won the allegiance of the majority of nationalists. When the First World War broke out, he put those forces at the disposal of the empire. He was right to do so, says John Bruton, as to do otherwise would have weakened the case for Home Rule, by showing that "a Dublin Government could not be trusted".
So fighting for the British empire was a necessary part of what Mr Bruton calls "the successful, non-violent, parliamentary Home Rule path".
Cynically, John Redmond pushed the usual buttons: "This war is undertaken in defence of the high principles of religion, morality and right."
Redmond was an intelligent man, he knew the war was about colonial ambition and imperial alliances.
A majority of nationalists followed Redmond down that road to militarism. Millions across the world were killed as empires fought. About 200,000 Irish men went into battle - a conservative total for those killed is 27,000, though some say it was around 40,000 (no one bothered counting the bodies).
The average Irish Volunteer was going to end up with a gun in his hand, one way or the other. Many were driven into the British army by poverty, others were recruited by Redmond's rhetoric. The choice was to go into the British army or choose your own cause - that of independence.
When the British extended conscription to Ireland in 1918, there was fierce resistance. Without that resistance, many more Irish men would have died in the trenches.
The resistance emerged from a nationalism that would not have been aroused had the 1916 rising not occurred.
There were terrible losses in Dublin in 1916. However, far, far fewer died in the fight for independence than died in the war to defend the British empire. It was Mr Bruton's "successful non-violent parliamentary Home Rule path" that was steeped in blood.
Our task in assessing 1916 is not to strike pacifist poses but to understand what the choices were for those who created the State.
Democratic structures were relatively new - most nations emerged through violence of one sort or another. That was commonplace for the day. It was truly said that "no single reform, large or small, has ever been obtained by purely constitutional methods . . ."
There was not "any single act of justice or reform which has not been extorted in one way or another from the British parliament by force or fear".
The voice was not that of Pearse or Clarke, it was that of John Redmond.
Pearse's belief in a "blood sacrifice" wasn't romantic or nutty. It was a pragmatic belief that if a small number of patriots rose against the empire, the empire would strike back viciously, its oppression undisguised, and thereby inflame nationalist feelings. His expectation proved to be accurate.
In any circumstance in which a country is ruled by outside forces there will be a political entity that will prosper by mediating between the rulers and the subjects. That was the role Redmond and the Parliamentary Party played. Make concessions to us, which will boost our popularity among the masses, or you risk building support for more radical forces. As it was back then, so it is now.
The outside rulers who exert authority over this country are not the tribunes of any empire. They are: A) the technocrats of the European Central Bank; B) the bankers, who tell the State how they want to be regulated and who take it for granted that the State will pick up the bill when they screw up the financial system.
And C) the anonymous executives of massive corporations, so powerful they negotiate their tax payments and strategic employment plans directly with the State.
We don't have a photo of prime minister Asquith tickling John Redmond's neck, like he was rewarding a dependable pet. But we do have such a picture of a French politician tickling Enda Kenny's neck, while our Taoiseach giggled happily.
The defence of John Redmond is a defence of the political role of the go-between, who prospers politically and personally by mediating between the rulers and the ruled. Fine Gael today plays that role to perfection. Fianna Fail struggles to perform that role and to simultaneously placate those of its supporters who expect more.
Labour has found a role in mediating between the mediating party - be it Fine Gael or Fianna Fail - and the ruled.
The ruling parties are uneasy about 1916. The State produced a 2016 commemoration video that forgot to mention what we're supposed to be commemorating.
A pamphlet was produced and someone noticed that it had a photo of some 1920 IRA gents carrying guns - and that photo was quickly ripped out.
At the same time, the Taoiseach speaks of Michael Collins - a ruthless and very efficient organiser of violence - as his hero. The Minister for Justice paints Collins as a feminist. The mixture of fantasy and denial is fascinating.