Thursday 23 January 2020

John Horgan: 'Disputes over how to commemorate the fight for our independence nothing new'

Parades and politics: Finance Minister Jack Lynch rejected the Taoiseach’s idea of doubling 1916 military pensions at the time of the 50th anniversary celebrations
Parades and politics: Finance Minister Jack Lynch rejected the Taoiseach’s idea of doubling 1916 military pensions at the time of the 50th anniversary celebrations

John Horgan

The current controversy about whether or not - and, if so, how - the history of British policing on this island might most appropriately be commemorated today is a useful reminder of how problematic the commemoration of 1916 itself was just over half a century ago.

No 'Decade of Commemorations' then - but the issues involved were, in some quarters, at least as sensitive as those currently involving the RIC and its role in pre-independent Ireland.

The acting chairman of the government committee set up in 1965 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising the following year was minister Jim Gibbons, who was later to come to unwelcome prominence (at least from his own point of view) at the time of the arms crisis.

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It is probably safe to assume that by putting him in charge of the government's commemoration committee, then-Taoiseach Seán Lemass signalled his belief that here, at least, was a safe pair of hands.

The two principal files in the National Archives covering that commemoration (D/T 97/6/159 and 161) are eloquent about the sensitivity of the discussions that were then taking place at the highest level.

Lemass wrote to Gibbons on December 18, 1965, about a meeting he had just had with Archbishop Simms, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, and marked his cards in no uncertain manner.

"Dr Simms," he told Gibbons, "called on me to discuss certain problems which arise from the reluctance of certain Six-County bishops to participate in the religious ceremonies which are contemplated. "The net point is that in any publicity regarding Church of Ireland functions, it will be correct to say that 'the Church of Ireland will arrange religious services' but not that 'the bench of bishops of the Church of Ireland' have decided on these services".

He also advised Gibbons to clear the wording of any announcement with Dr Simms before it was released to the press.

Lemass was hyper-conscious of the need to avoid party controversy. He ordered at one stage that no photograph of himself should appear in an official programme in case anyone might think that party advantage might be involved. He also personally drafted a statement which suggested "the introduction into the ceremonies of dissension of any kind would be deplorable and unforgivable".

"Our friends throughout the world, no less than our people at home, would be dismayed by anything which detracted from the dignity and harmony of the ceremonies."

The Taoiseach and other members of the government were, in addition, extremely anxious about the activities of Republicans who were planning to commemorate the Rising by organising a special 'Freedom Train' to Belfast. A news cutting in the file has the name of Republican Cathal Goulding - who was announced as one of the proposed speakers for the Belfast event - heavily underlined.

The issue arose dramatically when Frank Lemass, Seán Lemass's brother and general manager of CIÉ, wrote to Erskine Childers, then transport minister, in February 1966.

He asked whether the government "would have any views" on the application, from Coiste Cuimneachain Seachtain na Caisce of 30 Gardiner Place (the then headquarters of Sinn Féin), for running what they described as 'Freedom Trains' from Belfast.

Childers also got a letter from his Taoiseach advising him that the Garda authorities were of the opinion "that if such a train is provided there is a strong likelihood of trouble in Belfast and of serious danger to the rolling stock along the railway line in the Six Counties".

"I think you should so inform CIÉ," Lemass replied, "and if, in the circumstances, they decide not to provide the train, request them to do so without giving this as the reason, or indicating that they have sought the government's advice in the matter."

Lemass's advice was taken. CIÉ announced later that it would be unable to run the train because of "a shortage of rolling stock".

The Taoiseach did not, however, always have matters his own way. He wrote to his finance minister, Jack Lynch, on February 14, 1966, suggesting that a suitable way to commemorate the occasion would be to double the 1916 military service pensions.

Lynch wrote back on February 14, opposing the idea because "if 1916 pensions were further increased, and nothing were given to those with active service in later years, it is inevitable that there would be resentment and possible charges of making invidious distinctions".

"The repercussions," he warned, "would be endless."

Irish Independent

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