Suzanne Breen: Sinn Féin selective on the spirit of 1916
Sinn Féin will be all over this weekend’s Easter Rising centenary commemorations like a rash. But an interview Gerry Adams gave to Suzanne Breen on the 75th anniversary in 1991 makes uncomfortable reading now for the party’s president
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
The message on the lamp-posts of west Belfast is loud and clear. Beneath portraits of the 1916 leaders sit posters declaring: “If you really want an Irish Republic, Vote for Sinn Féin”. The party sees itself – and is seen by its unionist opponents – as the legitimate inheritors of the tradition of the men and women of Easter week.
But while Sinn Féin may be all over the centenary celebrations like a rash, scratch the surface and the Easter Rising isn’t necessarily comfortable terrain for the party at all.
Because those who stood on the steps of the GPO declaring a republic were out-and-out militarists and revolutionaries, whose words stand in stark contrast to the substantially more measured and moderate policies that Sinn Fein pursues today.
I conducted a lengthy, one-to-one interview with Gerry Adams on the 75th anniversary of the Rising in 1991. The IRA campaign was in full swing and the Sinn Féin president was making no apologies for it. “Compromise” was a dirty word for him and he used the 1916 leaders to endorse his party’s unyielding republicanism.
Pointing to the Proclamation on the wall of the Sinn Féin press centre, Adams declared: “Would any of the men who signed that document have signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Would Tom Clarke have extradited Dessie Ellis?
“No way would those people be involved in talks about talks, rolling devolution, Atkins’ round-table conferences and the whole litany of Sunningdale-Darlington.” I didn’t share his political views, but it was hard to disagree with his logic.
But here are the relevant questions for Adams now. Would the men who signed the Proclamation have signed the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements? Would Tom Clarke have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the PSNI Chief Constable and denounced those who shot dead British soldiers as “traitors to the island of Ireland”?
Would Patrick Pearse have been content – even if it was presented as a tactic – to hold ministerial office in Stormont and, to use republican terminology, “administer British rule”. No matter how much I try, I just can’t see it.
And let’s consider James Connolly. He talked about “setting fire to the funeral pyre of capitalism”. How does that sit with Sinn Féin’s membership of a business-friendly administration, which is lowering corporation tax? Can we see Connolly jetting off to meet and greet corporate America?
Connolly spent several years in the US, but he kept company with those in the extreme political margins – anarchists and socialists. He certainly wasn’t hanging around the White House hoping to be invited into a lavish reception.
Then there is Connolly’s views on the Royal Family. He had “more respect and honour for the raggediest child of the poorest labourer than for any descendant of the long array of murderers, adulterers and madmen who have sat upon the throne of England”.
It is impossible to envisage him enjoying the hospitality at a Royal banquet in Windsor Castle, as our deputy First Minister did.
The compromises that Sinn Féin has made are to be welcomed wholeheartedly by all who believe in a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.
Although the pace of progress hasn’t been fast enough for some, there can be no doubt that Sinn Féin has generously jettisoned its ideological baggage in a way that many would never have believed possible. It is for that very reason that 1916 isn’t the easy fit it once was.
On the 75th anniversary of the Rising, the Armalite was seen to have primacy over the ballot box for Sinn Féin. In his interview, Adams was contemptuous of those concerned with the strictures of parliamentary democracy. He invoked the tradition of the Easter Rising.
“They had no mandate, those people!” he laughed. “Pearse never stood for an election in his life.”
Again, you don’t have to share his dismissal of constitutionalism to accept the coherency of his argument. Connolly stood in Dublin municipal elections in 1902 and secured 431 votes in 1902, and 243 votes the following year.
Today, Sinn Féin’s strategy is entirely different to that of the 1916 leaders. It focuses exclusively on electoralism — success at the polls.
At Easter commemorations across Ireland over coming days, the party will pick and choose what parts of the Rising it highlights. I suspect there will be a major focus on the saleable bits of the Proclamation, such as “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”, vague sentiments that all shades of political opinion can sign up to.
But what of the more challenging parts of the 1916 tradition? Here is Patrick Pearse on his strategy to achieve a republic: “I do not know how nationhood is achieved except by armed men. Ireland unarmed will attain just as much freedom as is convenient for England to give her. Ireland armed will attain ultimately just as much freedom as she wants.”
Those words will be quietly ignored by Sinn Féin this weekend — and understandably so. To repeat them would be to play right into the hands of dissident republicans. And therein lies the problem for Adams.
Pearse, MacDiarmada, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett, Clarke and MacDonagh were like those who remain wedded to violent republicanism today – self-styled, unelected leaders, who believed they were right and the rest of the Irish people, their minds rotted by “British propaganda”, were wrong.
They were the few who took it upon themselves to judge what was best for the many.
Those who planted a bomb under Adrian Ismay’s van, those who killed Constable Stephen Carroll, those who gunned down young sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey as they collected pizzas outside Massereene Army base, aren’t sullying the tradition of 1916, they just persist in repeating it.
Back in 1991, Gerry Adams acknowledged the historical continuity between the present and past generation of physical force republicans.
“If you in any way try to justify 1916, then you can’t say it was okay in Dublin 75 years ago, it was okay for your grandad, but it’s not okay in Belfast or Derry or South Armagh today,” he told me. “If you say today that the IRA is wrong, then they were wrong then as well.”
Precisely. It is time for some intellectual honesty about the Easter Rising. It is a complete cop-out to portray its leaders as saints and those who follow the same beliefs today as some sort of Frankenstein creation.
But few in Irish nationalism have the guts to say that.