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The killing of our fellow Irishmen achieved nothing but a legacy of long-lasting bitterness

I'm not sure Eamon Gilmore would welcome support from this quarter; but nonetheless, I think he is right. January 21 should be our National Independence Day. On that date in 1919, an independent democratic Ireland truly could be said to have come into existence, with the meeting of those few TDs in the Mansion House.

Their limited number truly reflected the division within the Irish sovereignty movement, for others were on the run or in jail. For the most part, these absentees were wedded to violence as a means of achieving independence. Now, our history is as our history is: we can reinterpret it, but we cannot change it. For myself, I am more than happy to be in the minority which deplores the use of violence, then and thereafter, for I can see that killing our fellow Irishmen achieved nothing but a legacy of bitterness that lasted decades. So when Fianna Fail came back into power in 1977, Deputy Eileen Lemass noted that that year was an auspicious tribute to the 77 men executed by the Free State in 1922: and knowing what we know today, the celebration of any acts of violence by implication must celebrate their consequence, including civil war and firing squads.

The gathering in the Mansion House is therefore central to the creation of a peaceful democracy in Ireland. This was the only way. The alternative method was being enacted simultaneously in the ambush at Soloheadbeg, in Tipperary. Dan Breen, one of the architects of that evil event, explained why: "the Volunteers were in great danger of becoming a political adjunct to the Sinn Fein organisation." And of course, the last thing that men of violence wanted was to be answerable to democratically elected politicians.

Soloheadbeg grievously contaminated the democratic credentials of the first Dail in the eyes of the outside world, even though most of the TDs present were disgusted by it, and called it what it was: murder. And Dan Breen's appetites were truly revealed in his own account of the ambush of the policemen guarding the gelignite consignment that day. "Our only regret was that the final escort was to consist of two Peelers instead of six. If there had to be dead Peelers at all, six would have created a better impression than a mere two."

And no doubt, creating impressions with the terminated lives of their fellow Irishmen in some weird way was consonant with the Proclamation's assertion that the Republic "guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights, and equal opportunities to all its citizens" (including, it seems, the liberty, the right and the opportunity to be shot dead by those whose interpretation of the Proclamation differs somewhat from yours).

Those two men were both Irish Catholics. Constable James McDonnell, aged 57, from Belmullet, was a harmless village policeman, a father of five whose little joke with the local children was to ask them how to spell "rhododendron", and when they got it wrong, he would teach them the correct way. Patrick O'Connell, 36, from Cork, was single. His death was to give the village of Coachford the unique distinction of being home-place both of the first policeman to be assassinated in the War of Independence, and just two years later, of the first woman-hostage to be murdered by the IRA, Mrs Mary Lindsay.

The route offered by Dail Eireann was the alternative to these unspeakable deeds; and it is why one should feel some relief that Sinn Fein actually laid claim to the Mansion House for the 90th anniversary on Wednesday. For this is an affirmation that the mandate which their predecessors got in 1918 -- though at 48pc of the votes cast, it was not nearly as overwhelming as Sinn Fein apologists have since maintained -- was for a political process, not a paramilitary one. Quite simply, no one had campaigned in that election for a war: indeed, de Valera at times in the campaign specifically excluded the prospect of violence. Yet an unvoted-for war, with Irishmen being the primary victims of IRA actions, was what Ireland then proceeded to get.

Thousands of lives were lost in the ensuing decades of violence, and Dan Breen's account of Soloheadbeg became the inspiration for generations of IRA men. (His memoir, 'My Fight for Irish Freedom', a ghastly essay in homicidal braggadocio, initially published in 1924, and again in 1964, only became a serial best-seller after 1970).

So, it is long overdue that we placed the Mansion House meeting of 90 years ago, back where it belongs: as the foundation stone of Irish democracy, to which all can look back with pride. For no one died there, and no one sought to kill: the TDs simply gathered with dignity to assert the sovereign rights of the Irish people over their land and their destiny. That, rather than Easter Sunday 1916, when murder was the first item on the agenda, is the day that Irish nationalists and republicans should now be celebrating. Moreover, January 21 is also the feast of St Agnes, the introit of whose Mass declares: "Blessed are they who pass through life's journey unstained, following the law of the Lord."

Possible the Mansion House way; impossible the Easter Rising way.

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kmyers@independent.ie


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