Pearse found wanting in Bruton review
John Bruton's was right to say that Pearse's ideas have had a damaging effect on the Irish psyche, says John-Paul McCarthy
Former Taoiseach John Bruton let Patrick Pearse and co have both barrels at an event at the Irish Embassy in London this week. In reminding his audience of Pearse's increasingly disordered and manic attitude towards violence, Mr. Bruton also emphasised Pearse's role in the Northern Ireland conflict.
No fair reader of Pearse's own writing in Irish and English could dispute the charge of mania. Those who see the malign hand of what used to be called politically inspired revisionism in the second charge, would do well to dig out Danny Morrison's fascinating pamphlet, The Good Old IRA (1985). Pearse's influence is obvious and pervasive as early as the opening lines of this effort: "The IRA, 16 years into this phase of the struggle, states confidently that it will conclude the national struggle." The grammar here was one of phases, continuity and completion, and it was sufficiently coherent in its own terms to wave away nearly two decades of lectures about the way the northerners had "misinterpreted" the foundational documents of the Republic itself. For all the evasions and cynicism of the Provisional propaganda operation, its interpretation of the revolutionary tradition was never so wildly implausible as to be vulnerable to mere academic admonishment.
Now, regardless of the potency of the Bruton critique, we have to recognise that it is becoming an antique one at this stage. Younger citizens who are struggling to understand all this yearn for a more profound analysis. In order to understand the scale of Pearse's irrelevance to them, it is useful to look ahead rather than backwards. With an eye on the two biggest problems that face us today, let us try to put Pearse through his paces.
Our first problem, of course, concerns the problem of banking debt and our relatively puny place within a large, quasi-federal continental confederation. We have little, if anything, to learn in this context from someone who struggled to articulate a relatively arch theory of "the sovereign people" that was out of date even when he wrote it.
Nationalist Ireland must face up to the fact that we probably have far more to learn on the European front from Mrs Thatcher than from Pearse. After all, we have to do something similar to what she did at Fontainebleau in 1984, when she secured a dramatic correction in the EU's budgetary process. (Charles Moore explains in his classic recent biography that, by 1979, Britain was the seventh wealthiest member of Europe, yet the second largest contributor to the continental fisc).
The Pearsean approach to vexing European matters probably reached its meridian point in Brian Walsh's concurring opinion in Crotty v An Taoiseach in 1987, where he stated: "Sovereignty in this context is the unfettered right to decide: to say yes or no." That tone of voice is futile when directed to the Bundesbank or the EU Commission.
How does Pearse acquit himself then in the second area, namely the likelihood of increased polarization and antagonism in Northern Ireland itself?
Should Sinn Fein round out their capitulation to the 1920-1 settlement and take some part in the next Irish Government, we will be looking at border polls, increased pressure for a return to the intergovernmental approach that climaxed in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and quite possibly some ugly scenes in the North-South Ministerial Council. This sleepy conclave requires unanimity by law before it can do anything, but a Sinn Fein minister for foreign affairs could easily make some noise there by bombarding the unionist members with inane initiative after initiative, all the while forcing them to publicly veto things.
Far from being any particular help here, Pearse's writings actually mandate behaviour of this kind. As a proponent of the most paranoid attitude towards unionists, they being products of "carefully fostered" external manipulation in this idiom, Sinn Fein diplomats would find much that bore scrutiny in Pearse's corpus.
At a more general level again though, Mr Bruton was right to emphasise Pearse's damaging impact on our psyche. The dire assertiveness of his prose cannot really conceal the fact that he was someone who showed a failure at some deep level of the personality. He was the loudest critic of possible partition who failed to grasp Renan's insistence that unity presupposed "the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down."
Even those gripped by a modest lack of optimism about human nature must surely worry about the quality of a culture that puts so much faith in someone who had so little real faith in them.