Some awkward questions on the Easter Proclamation
Let the 'children of the nation' ask the adults why it was okay for a tiny and unelected minority to use arms then but not now, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
All Ireland seems to be hosting history fight clubs these days. Within just the last three weeks, I've been on panels discussing with lively audiences the Great Famine in Newry, the Proclamation in Portlaoise and Patrick Pearse ("proto-fascist eccentric or visionary?") in Tallaght.
May I refer the people who were annoyed because I suggested that the British government were incompetent rather than genocidal to the work of reputable historians like Professors Christine Kenealy, Cormac O'Grada or my friend Liam Kennedy, who addresses this and many other contentious issues in his forthcoming book Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, The Irish?
In Portlaoise, I described the Proclamation as profoundly partitionist. In Tallaght, a member of the audience asked what unionists could have been expected to think about it?
They would have seen it as just as uncompromising as their own 1912 Ulster Covenant, with the difference that the covenanters wanted to defend the status quo and hadn't been looking for help from an enemy who threatened the whole future of the United Kingdom.
They would have realised the contradiction that the Proclamation claimed to be written on behalf of "the people of Ireland", yet referred to an exclusively revolutionary nationalist tradition that, unlike the Covenant (which, with the separate women's declaration, was signed by almost half a million), it was profoundly undemocratic and that it implied contempt for their views by saying they had been "fostered" by the very British government that was trying to foist Home Rule on them.
If they realised that the promise of "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" was aimed at them, they would have snorted contemptuously.
How many millions of Irish people have revered the Covenant or the Proclamation without ever having read them closely or critically? Yet, as Kennedy points out in his book, these short iconic texts "mark turning points in the evolution of unionist and nationalist politics, they each complicated Britain-Ireland and North-South relations, they each pointed directly towards the partition of the island, and… are each devious, manipulative documents…replete with contradictions, evasions and silences".
Well, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, North and South, we are all supposed to be thinking about the Proclamation now.
Last March, he retreated hastily from a government commitment to redraft it and handed the job over to unfortunate Irish schoolchildren, whose efforts are expected to be "based on the original".
Here, for the children or Ireland, are a few questions you might ask your teachers when you're seeking to understand the document that you're supposed to be bringing up to date.
Why did only seven people sign it? Had anyone elected them?
Is it OK to start a revolution just because you want to?
The Covenant was for people opposed to Home Rule and the Proclamation was for an Irish Republic, so how come they both think God is on their side? Is God a Catholic or a Protestant?
The Seven say Ireland's "children" are being summoned "to her flag" in the name of "the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood".
Can dead people tell you what to do? Which ones? Didn't Daniel O'Connell say that a single drop of blood was too much to pay for liberty?
Didn't the IRB Constitution say there shouldn't be any war against Britain without the support of the majority of the Irish people? Does that mean that as well as being a secret revolutionary organisation within the Irish Volunteers, the signatories were a secret revolutionary organisation within the IRB? Why was that okay?
Are the various IRAs the same kind of thing as the IRB? Why was it right if they're wrong?
Weren't the Proclamation's "exiled children in America" just emigrants? If it was okay for them to give money to the IRB, why was it wrong of Irish-Americans to finance the IRA? And the Real IRA who blew up Omagh?
Who were the "gallant allies in Europe"? But weren't tens of thousands of Irishmen fighting against the Germans?
And hadn't the Germans done nasty things like several times massacring lots of unarmed Belgians when they were cross?
If they had won, mightn't they have been worse than the British?
Why did the signatories have "full confidence in victory" when the Germans hadn't turned up and hardly any Volunteers had?
Why don't you want any more questions?
We haven't even reached the end of paragraph two.
Ruth Dudley Edwards's The Seven: the Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic will be published in March.