Sunday 26 January 2020

President fails to deal with Pearse's lack of mandate

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Three state actors, the Defence Forces, RTE and the Presidency, bore the primary responsibility for answering the two questions I posed in my column of February 1, 2015, a full year before.

"How do we honour the men and women of 1916 in 2016? How do we prevent the Recurring IRA from using the centenary as propaganda?"

Last weekend, both the Defence Forces and RTE rose to the challenge. But I cannot say the same about the performance of President Michael D Higgins.

Let me take these points in turn, starting with the Defence Forces in whose central role I took a proprietorial interest.

That's because back in February 2015 I answered my own two questions with the following flat statement.

"I am forced to the paradoxical conclusion that the military card is the strongest card to play."

Accordingly, my column was headed, 'Defence Forces should have a dominant role in 2016'.

And I meant dominant. "If the State is going to stake its claim to 1916 it should go for it with gusto and mark every major military aspect of the Rising."

Then and now my position came under fire from pacifists and fellow revisionists who felt that giving the Army a major role would glorify the gun.

My reasoning ran as follows. Easter 1916 has moved from history to myth in the public mind.

Accordingly, nothing would prevent the Irish people from celebrating the centenary of Easter 1916.

Furthermore, back in February 2015, while the Government dithered about the role of the Army, Sinn Fein had begun to play toy soldiers around the GPO.

Accordingly, I believed the correct course was to take up two apparently contradictory positions, and reconcile them.

First, that the Defence Forces should occupy the entire military space so as to squeeze out any "military" antics by Sinn Fein activists.

Second, that the President and all public figures should put a permanent question mark over the 1916 leaders' lack of a democratic mandate .

In retrospect, it seems to me the Army and RTE rose splendidly to the challenge of the centenary, but the President did not. Let me take their performances in turn.

First, as I had predicted, the Army filled the psychic frame so fully that Sinn Fein was almost forgotten.

Last Sunday, Gerry Adams had to scuttle back to his base in Belfast while Martin McGuinness watched the parade at the GPO.

As the serried ranks marched past in perfect formation, it was clear there is only one Oglaigh na hEireann on this island.

Second, RTE surpassed itself with superb coverage of the ceremonies, as well as polished documentaries like Fire in the Blood , The Enemy Files and Bob Geldof's stunning Fanatic Heart.

RTE's Reflecting the Rising also provided a range of events that allowed critical voices to be heard clearly and with respect.

A minor reservation. I thought it ridiculous to compare Centenary with Riverdance and felt the latter lacked a saving touch of Sean O'Casey humour.

Far sharper was Joe Duffy's hilarious Liveline from "Sackville Street". I sent links to friends all over the world and received enthusiastic emails.

Duffy is the real star of the centenary. Children of the Rising shifted our attention from armed heroics to child victims. A classic of good authority.

Good authority was what I missed most in the many speeches of the third actor, the President of Ireland.

Although full of fine phrases, there was no specific sentence telling a hard truth to his own tribe.

Nothing to compare with David Trimble saying simply that the North was a cold house for Catholics.

Again, in his meandering Easter Sunday interview with RTE, the President fudged his reply to the fundamental question about 1916.

Sharon Ni Bheolain: "Neither Connolly, nor any of the other signatories or leaders, had a mandate."

President Higgins: "The issue of the mandate needs to be handled with great care. I've heard people dismissed - I say whether you agree with the event of not - the personal integrity, dignity and I think heroism of those who believed in what they were doing . . . somehow or another dismissed as, look, they hadn't been successful in the local elections."

Eventually, after some digression, he finally returned to Sharon Ni Bheolain's original and crucial question abut the absence of any mandate for the bloodshed of 1916.

But even then his reply seemed so preoccupied by how his Presidency linked to 1916 and the status of his UK visit, that he failed to offer any clear guidance.

President Higgins: "The question must be put back; do you believe if no event had taken place in Dublin in 1916 that I would be speaking as President of an independent country, that I would have visited next door as an equal, as a head of state? I believe not."

The following day, Easter Monday, in a speech at the Mansion House, instead of putting a question mark over Pearse's mandate he preferred to put it over the role of John Redmond and British imperialism.

The President's sniping at "imperialism" was clearly an attempt to balance criticism of Pearse by a handful of revisionists.

But it actually only forces the following conclusion: if Redmond can be charged with supporting British imperialism, then Pearse is equally guilty of supporting German imperialism.

And if we're going down that road, Redmond picked a better imperialism, as witness the Royal Navy's struggle against slavery.

In contrast, the Kaiser's empire butchered 6,000 Belgian civilians, was the first to bomb cities, and the first to use gas in battle.

Furthermore there was nothing in the speech for those from Arlene Foster's tradition who - as did tens of thousands in the South - believed that the Kaiser's brutal empire had to be fought to a finish.

The President thus missed the chance to continue the work begun at Messines in 1998 by Mary McAleese.

Last Tuesday, he lost another chance to act with good authority when laying a wreath at the statue of James Connolly. By then he must surely have heard how The O'Rahilly had refused to carry out an order from James Connolly to shoot a member of the DMP who was their helpless prisoner.

This was the perfect moment for the President to give the Rising generation a reality check against the romanticism of the Recurring IRA.

He should have told us flatly that Connolly was behaving in defiance of all decent conventions of war at the time. Alas, he did not.

Looking back over the President's weekend speeches, I cannot find even one specific example of the "ethical memory" he so regularly extols but so seldom exemplifies.

For example, I can find no speech expressing empathy with the moral reasons why tens of thousands responded to Redmond's call to fight for Catholic Belgium against its brutal oppressor.

Above all, I cannot find a single speech by President Higgins that categorically criticised the 1916 leaders' lack of a democratic mandate in a manner that would help a Rising generation reject the specious claims of the Recurring IRA.

Sunday Independent

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