Monday 16 September 2019

Why I politely declined my invitation to the 1916 Easter Rising commemorations

Michael Collins with Joe O’Reilly arriving for the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection
Michael Collins with Joe O’Reilly arriving for the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

One of the perks for the privilege of being a former TD is that you receive formal embossed invitations to national civic events like tomorrow's 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemoration.

I rang the protocol section of the Department of the Taoiseach to politely decline. I've no criticism of the State's organisation of ceremonies and wish no disrespect to the hundreds of family descendants who'll forever treasure this historic occasion.

My sentiments are rooted in what I might term a conscientious apathy.

My first dilemma came from embracing the unambiguous hero worship of physical force republicanism. Patrick Pearse's words, deeds and blood sacrifice provided inspiration for generations of Irish revolutionaries. To this day this philosophy of justifying violence persists. The latest victim being a 52-year-old Belfast prison officer, Adrian Ismay, who ultimately died from a car bomb planted by the New IRA. Other non-dissident republicans are content to vindicate all killings up to the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

The bloody events of 1916 legitimised the armed insurrection. The line between freedom fighters and terrorists is thin. Veterans of the War of Independence are revered; yet when guns were turned away from the Brits and towards fellow rebels in the Civil War, a more à la carte approach to bombings, murder and criminality appears to have been applied. Civilian casualties, including children, are constant collateral damage, whether in Dublin, or even, as saw this week, with Isil in Paris or Brussels.

Read more: The ideals of the Rising can still be achieved

The Boland's Garrison, including Eamon De Valera, during the 50th anniversary commemorations in 1966.
The Boland's Garrison, including Eamon De Valera, during the 50th anniversary commemorations in 1966.

Back in 1978, as a teenager, I was fascinated with politics. I wanted to join a political party, but had no family affiliation, nor even a traditional allegiance. I tell the yarn nowadays: "I knew I wasn't a socialist - so that ruled out the Labour Party (although it wouldn't nowadays!). No one belonging to me was inside the GPO in 1916, so that ruled out Fianna Fáil. Hence, I enlisted into Fine Gael by default, looking it up in the Yellow Pages." Many members of Fine Gael considered themselves to be proud Republicans affiliated to Michael Collins.

Since I left politics, my affection and respect for individual, diehard Fianna Fáilers has grown and deepened. Innate suspicion, induced through years of professional politicking, has been discarded as so much nonsense. Some of the most loyal, kind and decent people I know are self-avowed Soldiers of Destiny. By far the most destructive period in Irish history was the Civil War. Toxic bitterness over The Treaty survives as evidenced by the modern day distrust between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It's petty, mutually damaging and corrosive.

Another problem I have with Pearse was a narrow view of Irishness that aligns national identity with two distinguishing traits. The Irish language and the Roman Catholic Church were the twin pillars of his activism as headmaster of the Irish speaking St Enda's school. He was a driving force in the Gaelic League. His devotion to religion, mirrored the ethos of the times. St Patrick's Day in 1916 was marked predominantly by sobriety and attendance at mass. 2016 public attitudes could not be more different, with less than 10pc of the population speaking Irish daily or attending church weekly.

Fair play to RTÉ television for its excellent and varied historical archive programmes for the centenary. Everyone's appreciation of context and content of the Rising has been enhanced. Those who castigate historical "revisionism" do have a point: you cannot sanitise elements of British repression, murderous brutality - 3,500 people were arrested, and 16 were executed - all aspects of contemporary negative media coverage. It cannot be all dismissed as anti-imperialist/pro-German adventurism.

Read more: 1916 events: Dublin Bus at capacity - and extra train services planned

Debates on Great War attitudes and the limitations of Redmond's parliamentary approach can be distracting. Simply put, the violent rebellion and its consequences were seminal moments in Ireland's history of self-determination.

Where I become ambivalent is in applying the legacy of 1916 to today's Ireland. The Proclamation is regarded as the central philosophical touchstone of the Rising. Its words are used today for an idealism that we must all aspire to. In actuality, "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" has not proven possible in societies wedded to either capitalism or communism. Indeed, the consequences of inequality abound: the percentages of families involved in criminality from disadvantaged areas, relative to affluent classes with further education, are self-evident and repeated through generations. Opportunity isn't equal. The "right of the people of Ireland to ownership of Ireland" is equally incongruous today, as foreign vulture funds set about obtaining vacant possession of thousands of homes to sell at a profit. The lofty goals of the Proclamation are subject to realities of market forces within a free market economy, as well as submerged shared sovereignty in context of the European Union as adopted by repeated referendums.

A respectful remembrance is being achieved this month. But emotional nostalgia needs to be tempered with contemporary reality checks. Some politicians' words have lapsed into hypocrisy and humbug, when we would be better served with honesty. Residues of past republicanism are preventing the formation of a stable government between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Vital and urgent priorities in housing and healthcare remain in limbo while politicos play party games instead of moving forwards.

Who knows whether British rule in Ireland was ever sustainable in any circumstances in the 20th century, irrespective of the Easter Rising? Leeds was never as British as Limerick - neither is Londonderry or Derry. Our shared history on both islands is irrevocable. Over six years between 1916 to 1922 more than 6,000 deaths occurred. History is authored by the triumphant.

Our future as an all-island unitary state may involve further British-Irish treaties; partition was arguably an unintended consequence of 1916. Who fears to speak of 2016? The work of modernising Ireland, socially and economically, was never more urgent. School students and future generations must write their own proclamations unfettered.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the re-enactment of the 1916 Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse races tomorrow, thanks to the Ward Union Hunt, when a horse called All Sorts won. Enjoy the celebrations, exhibitions and commemorations, but let's not live in a time warp of venerating a romanticised and outdated rhetoric. Nelson Mandela's greatest achievement was not being a prisoner to history, but breaking free from prejudice and sectarianism; he embraced inclusion and pluralism. It's time to bring down the curtain on post-colonial complexes.

Irish Independent

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