Centenary will breathe life into old Rising myths
Commemoration of 1916 tends to ignore the complexity of Irish history
THE year 2016 has come early. Barely has the 'decade of commemoration' begun to focus on the events of 1914 when Easter 1916 is suddenly in the frame.
Prompted by the possibility of a royal presence at the centenary commemorations of the Rising, the guardians of the shrine of orthodoxy have sprung into defensive action.
The old Maoist Chinese leadership used to warn against "reversing correct verdicts". Professor Diarmaid Ferriter recently warned that the presence of royals at the sacred rites might "give succour to those who believed the Rising was unnecessary".
Judging by some of the contributions to RTE's A Sovereign People, much of the retrospective justification for the Rising is going to rest on an incorrect representation of Home Rule, the Irish Parliamentary Party and its leader John Redmond. Even the 'Orange card', not heard of for some time, is being given a fresh airing.
It seems that commemoration may breathe new life into old myths, in the process burying the complexities revealed by Irish history writing of the past 40 years.
According to Prof Ferriter, there is no evidence that Britain was prepared to settle its Irish question until it was forced to do it". Actually, the onus is on him to supply the evidence that it was not so prepared. The known facts point the other way.
The Liberal government, in alliance with the Irish Party, believed they had already settled their Irish question, insofar as nationalist Ireland was concerned, on September 18, 1914. That day, King George signed the Home Rule Act into law. Two things stood in the way of its immediate implementation.
One was the onset of the Great War, which made it necessary to suspend the Act's operation for a minimum of 12 months and until no later than the war's end. The second was Ulster. On this, there was all-round agreement that its majority unionist areas would have to be excluded from the Act's remit.
But there was no agreement as to either the territorial extent or the permanence of such exclusion. The hoped-for agreement was to be embodied in a separate Amending Act. Ulster unionist leaders and their Tory allies had indicated they would not stand in the way of self-government for nationalist Ireland.
Whether the war had ended earlier or later, the unfinished business of Ulster would have remained as the sole obstacle to be overcome.
Twenty months into the war, the Rising prompted a new urgency about the implementation of the Home Rule Act. Lloyd George was deputed by Prime Minister Asquith to bring it into immediate operation, subject to getting an agreement between Redmond and Carson on arrangements for unionist Ulster.
In March 1917, Lloyd George, now prime minister, again offered immediate implementation of Home Rule for nationalist Ireland, with the proviso that he was not prepared to coerce unionist Ulster. Redmond and his party, damaged by earlier concessions on partition, could not touch the proposal.
The acceptable alternative was the Irish Convention, a chance for representatives of Ireland's communities to negotiate an all-island settlement. Lloyd George pledged not to interfere but to legislate for any agreed outcome.
However, by this time nationalist Ireland had chosen to see the British refusal to coerce Ulster as a denial and betrayal of Home Rule per se. This was the measure of its shock at the dawning realisation that self-government could come about only with some form of partition – what Conor Cruise O'Brien, in Memoir, called "the tragic and unexpected flaw that became apparent at the very moment of the seeming triumph of the Home Rule cause".
In summary, Home Rule in 1916 was no mere promise but the law of the land – awaiting implementation.
Any discussion of the necessity of the Rising that leaves Ulster and partition out ignores a very large elephant in the room. The absence of an Irish settlement was not the result of the British needing to be "forced" but of an Irish failure to reconcile two opposing sets of ethno-national aspirations.
The case that violence was necessary in 1916 to "settle the Irish question" rests on a double denial. It denies (i) that self-government was there for the taking for the nationalist areas of Ireland, (ii) that the only rational purpose of violence could be to pressurise the British to coerce unionist Ulster into acceptance of nationalist rule.
Of course, if Prof Ferriter means, by "settling its Irish question", the agreement of Britain to a fully separate Irish state, he's on firmer ground. But that is to read history backwards, superimposing the aspirations of a later time on the Irish people of 1916. A republic was not what the vast majority of nationalists demanded at the time.
A year after the Easter Rising, Sinn Fein could get only 71 public bodies to send delegates to its April 1917 convention at the Mansion House; 186 declined the invitation. The Rising was not a response to discontent with social conditions, with the Home Rule Act's provisions or with its postponement. Its origin was elsewhere – in the long-standing resolve of a tiny conspiratorial group within the Irish Republican Brotherhood to take advantage of the next war involving Britain to stage a revolt. Fellow-Fenians were not let in on the secret.
Easter 1916 is part of the State's founding myth. As with any myth that achieves popularity and longevity, it deserves respect. But, for the sake of our democracy, that respect is best offered from a healthy intellectual distance.
Dermot Meleady is the author of 'Redmond: The Parnellite' (Cork University Press, 2008) and 'John Redmond: The National Leader' (Merrion, 2013)