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Gene Kerrigan: 'Let's remember the past, not whitewash it'

It's not 'mature' to pretend that no one ever made a bad choice - just as Varadkar makes bad choices today, writes Gene Kerrigan

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Tom Halliday's cartoon

Tom Halliday's cartoon

Tom Halliday's cartoon

Well, that was a bit embarrassing, last week, as people queued up to explain the word commemoration to Charlie Flanagan.

If Leo Varadkar, as leader of Fine Gael, still wants to commemorate the RIC, fair play to him. If he feels a need to show some love to the Black and Tans, General Sir John Maxwell, Queen Victoria or Oliver Cromwell, that's just fine with me.

As long as I don't have to attend the ceremony, or pay for it.

Let Fine Gael pay for its own stunts.

Mr Varadkar, however, is also Taoiseach. And he has certain duties.

One of which is to preside over a commemoration of the creation of this State.

Mr Varadkar seems to have a problem with the concept of commemoration.

In the period 1916-1923, there was an armed uprising and a War of Independence - which was not surprising, given the cruel, incompetent and uncaring governance of Ireland through the 19th Century and into the 20th.

And a brief, savage Civil War.

It's natural, a hundred years on, that the State should commemorate the events that led to its creation. We are commemorating the decision to create a separate State, and the people who achieved that.

We're not celebrating the British politicians who opposed it, nor their soldiers (who included both my grandfathers, deeply respected, for what that's worth), nor the Irish police they used to subvert the independence movement.

We should acknowledge all these people's actions, and respect decisions made in good faith, and the sense of duty those people felt.

But a commemoration of the founding of the State is about the people and the acts that founded it.

Today, we see a United Kingdom dominated by English nationalism; we look at how the current English nationalist government recently treated the Scots - as a nuisance, not as partners. And how they treated the DUP and the people they represent - as paddies and pawns, not as fellow unionists.

And we remember the consistency of the contempt with which English nationalists treated the people of this country, all the way from the Famine to Brexit.

With the centenary of the birth of the State, we're not flag-waving, finding heroes to cheer or villains to blame. We're celebrating a good decision and the people who made it.

Fine Gael, for its own reasons, decided we should commemorate the centenary by having some sort of emotional catharsis.

As Charlie Flanagan put it: "I didn't want families of RIC members who have waited, you know, up to and including 100 years to have their ancestors and family members honoured."

It's all, he said, about "reconciliation".

This is nonsense.

There was a fork in the road and a conflict of opinion on which path to take. Fine Gael proposes that we "honour" everyone, whatever their role, join hands and dance in a circle. Everyone was equally right.

No, they weren't.

Today, for instance, everyone isn't equally right about the housing crisis. Many see a broken market, an accommodation emergency. Conservative politicians, though, demand we keep repeating failed free market policies, because they're ideologically pure.

Decisions mattered in 1916 and onward, as they matter now. And everyone wasn't right.

Mr Varadkar struck a pose last week - a speciality of his. He's mature, the rest of us are wild people. He told us we should "be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past".

Well, look at how Mr Varadkar's Fine Gael treats its own past.

The party was born of three strains, in 1933 - the old Sinn Fein strain (which revered 1916), and the Redmondite strain (which wanted the rebels shot), and a fascist strain, led by General Eoin O'Duffy.

O'Duffy wasn't a closet fascist, he was proud of it. As Europe headed towards devastating war, and the obliteration of Jews, O'Duffy organised an Irish fascist outfit to mimic Mussolini and Hitler, complete with uniforms and fascist salutes.

The new Fine Gael party chose O'Duffy the fascist as its leader.

Today, the Fine Gael website has a display of its party leaders from the 1930s to today. The party also made a video of its history. From both of these, O'Duffy and his fascist forces have been quietly excised.

In history, Fine Gael came together from disparate forces, at a dangerous time, led by a fascist.

In legend, a mature party bravely held the pass against the barbarians.

Fine Gael has long since abandoned fascism, it is today a Christian Democrat, right-wing party, with a socially liberal strain, stemming from the Garret FitzGerald era.

But, while posturing as a mature party, it is possessed by image, so it must suppress aspects of its own past.

When it came to a commemoration of real political choices, with real consequences, Mr Varadkar baulked. He thought it would be more mature to get us to hold hands and reassure everyone that no one in their family ever made a bad choice.

Four years ago I had a book published, which looked at the rank and file rebels of 1916. As Mr Varadkar blundered through his latest screw-up, I was thinking of three of them - first, Vincent Poole, of the Citizen Army.

Vincent was an obstreperous little man, fond of a jar, with a quick temper. He worked in the Dublin sewers.

He'd been in the British army and when it came to defending the rebel positions in O'Connell Street he was deadly with a rifle.

Captured, he was initially sentenced to death, and had a bit of a rough time. He fought in the War of Independence.

When it was all over, and some were using IRA contacts to make lucrative careers, Vincent's only option was going back to work in the Dublin sewers, at £1 a week.

Joe Good and John O'Connor were Londoners, of Irish descent. O'Connor's cockney accent was so strong he became known as "Blimey" O'Connor.

The two young men were electricians - firm friends who came over to do their bit. And they were in the thick of the fighting, as the British artillery destroyed the centre of Dublin and slaughtered the civilians living in the crowded inner city tenements.

Having repeatedly put their lives on the line for what they believed was the welfare of the people of this country, Good and O'Connor went separate ways on the Treaty. Joe supported the Treaty, Blimey opposed it.

Again, they made their decisions based on what each thought best for the people of the country.

Blimey spent 23 days on hunger strike.

Joe came close to being murdered when he was captured by anti-Treaty forces; he was saved because he was recognised as a 1916 man.

After the Civil War, the two electricians lived and worked in Ireland for the rest of their lives.

And they remained firm friends until 1962, when Blimey was on holiday in Co Kerry and he got word that Joe died. He drove immediately to Dublin, to ensure Joe got a military funeral.

When we commemorate the founding of the State, these people and their varied comrades are those we are celebrating. Flawed people, fallible, heroic, human.

There are people who say that Mr Varadkar used the RIC ploy as a distraction, and they may be right. With an election pending, there are those who think he was hoping to bind tighter the Fine Gael base, and they may be right.

It's unfortunate that the commemoration of people such as Vincent Poole, Joe Good and John "Blimey" O'Connor is in his hands.

Sunday Independent


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History: British soldiers watch a member of the Black and Tans reload his .45 revolver after the burning of the Custom House in Dublin in 1921. Photo: Walshe/Getty Images