Friday 24 January 2020

Fionnán Sheahan: 'Lack of consultation on commemorations shows lessons of past have been forgotten'

Building relations: Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese lay wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin during the monarch’s visit in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Building relations: Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese lay wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin during the monarch’s visit in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Fionnán Sheahan

Fionnán Sheahan

Bar erecting a statue of Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda, it's hard to see how Fine Gael could have got itself in a worse bind over the commemorations of the birth of the nation.

All the goodwill gained from the well-received events around the 1916 Easter Rising centenary has been wasted. The now-abandoned 'Black and Tans' State ceremony for the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police failed to follow the previous tried and trusted formula.

The consultation, communication and common-sense approach of then arts minister Heather Humphreys with the Ireland 2016 programme has been unforgivably ditched by ministers who think they know better.

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Daft ideas have been floated before as the Government balanced sensitivities with forgiveness.

In the wake of Queen Elizabeth's visit in 2011, a wider relationship with the royal family was envisaged, including an invite to the 1916 centenary events.

The queen laid a wreath for those who died fighting for Independence at the Garden of Remembrance so all was seemingly forgiven.

In a speech to the British Irish Association in Cambridge in 2014, then Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore floated the notion: "I would hope that we can host representatives of the royal family and the British government, along with the leaders of unionism, in Dublin... in remembering the Easter Rising."

On mature reflection, it was deemed to be a step too far. It was later decided such a visit could prove to be a major distraction from the events.

The fudge was to just invite ambassadors based in Ireland, rather than neighbouring heads of state, thereby ruling out any involvement by the British monarchy.

A similar issue arose around military involvement in the 1916 parade.

Two years before the 2016 events, an idea was mooted to invite EU countries to send a small military detachment to march on Easter Sunday.

The well-meaning proposal, aimed at showing our place at the heart of Europe, came up at the All-Party Consultation Group on Commemorations, which advises the Government on marking events leading up to Independence.

The obvious point was made that the EU included the UK.

The penny dropped.

The horrific notion of the British army marching past the GPO was rapidly ditched.

"It was a bad idea. It wasn't the worst idea I heard. There was worse," an attendee at the meeting said.

No harm done. The incident showed the value of bouncing ideas around and teasing things out.

Some other ideas just didn't come to fruition for whatever reason.

There was a lot of talk, with ministerial support from Humphreys, of a statue representing the women of 1916. It was dropped.

Extravagant ideas were floated about permanent reminders of the centenary, but didn't come to pass.

As a way to leave a continuing legacy from the commemorations, the Ireland 2016 events flowed into Creative Ireland, a series of events to celebrate the country's culture with an emphasis on young people.

When a senior minister began looking ahead and waxing lyrical about a Civil War monument at the tail end of 2016, he was politely silenced and told that would all be dealt with at a later stage. The moral of the story was to think ideas through before proceeding.

Then arts minister Ms Humphreys was put in charge of the 1916 events.

A Presbyterian from Ulster, whose father was a member of the Orange Order and whose grandfather signed the Ulster Covenant opposing Home Rule in 1912, seemed a curious choice for the role.

She turned out to be an inspired pick as she made a virtue of her background, saying she was a proud republican who respected the differing traditions on this island.

Cabinet ministers scoffed at continually hearing Ms Humphreys saying the 2016 events would be "inclusive".

They're not so dismissive now.

There were 86 public meetings across the country, testing the mood, followed by thousands of hours of discussion and analysis.

The policy of extensive deliberation with all parties and stakeholders has been replaced by the substantially less engaged approach of current Arts Minister Josepha Madigan.

Members of the All-Party Committee now complain about a lack of consultation and being treated as a box-ticking exercise on the War of Independence.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has contrasted the 36 meetings with TDs representing all parties that Ms Humphreys held with the six meetings chaired by Ms Madigan.

Some 10 days ago, Ms Madigan was proclaiming herself as "the minister responsible for leading the Decade of Centenaries programme".

Yet she was nowhere to be seen last week as the proverbial hit the fan and fingers of blame were firmly pointed at Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan going on a solo run.

The RIC-DMP flare up is an astonishing own goal as it was so obviously a hugely contentious issue that needed to be handled with care.

Concerns about the "appropriateness" of commemorating the force were raised at the All-Party Consultation Group as far back as 2013.

Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly diplomatically said some commemorations "may not be appropriate for official endorsement" and cited the annual RIC event as an example.

Then arts minister Jimmy Deenihan agreed but said the State could not prevent events being held by organisations outside of its control.

A Government official said there were "difficulties" associated with the RIC commemoration and "a need for caution in endorsing such events".

Mr Flanagan took a less subtle view, stamping the RIC-DMP event with the official State harp.

The failure to seek the views of others who might have spotted the trouble ahead resulted in the farce.

When you're in power for a decade, you start to believe in your own superiority.

The lessons of the past are forgotten.

Irish Independent

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