Friday 17 January 2020

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Mask slips to reveal a toxic vision of Irish unity'

If remembering the War of Independence can unleash this tribal fury, just wait for the centenary of the Civil War, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Commemoration: President Mary McAleese and Britain's Queen Elizabeth at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance in 2011. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Commemoration: President Mary McAleese and Britain's Queen Elizabeth at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance in 2011. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

So now Mary Lou McDonald thinks that the country should be open to the idea of celebrating the Twelfth of July as a way of making Irish unity so attractive to unionists that they all start wondering why they ever wanted to be British in the first place.

Obviously, it's a stupid idea. I don't want to celebrate the Twelfth. I have nothing against Protestants or unionists at all, and will defend the Orangemen's right to march, within reasonable bounds; but the Twelfth is not a holiday or tradition that means anything to me, never did, never will. Even raising the idea that the Twelfth should be a national holiday is just another sign of the aching desperation for a Border poll to cash in on the rising tide of nationalism.

That the Sinn Fein leader did so at the same time as condemning the planned one-off commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police, by tearing into the Taoiseach for, as she put it histrionically, "lionising those who brutally ... upheld British rule", only makes it more farcical.

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Basically, what she's saying is that we should continue to demonise Irishmen who were on the "wrong" side of history by fighting the rebels during the War of Independence, while simultaneously being open to the idea of celebrating a skirmish over the British throne during a 17th Century religious war. That, not to put too fine a point on it, is nuts.

As it happens, the Orange Order has already said it is not interested, and why would it be? It rightly see it as an attempt to drag it into endorsing the narrative that a united Ireland is inevitable and everyone should just get used to it and start preparing.

Floating some nonsense about the Twelfth was never about getting unionist consent, though. It was about asserting that Irish republicanism is inclusive, unthreatening, non-sectarian - even as that message was being undermined by the one about the RIC and DMP.

The argument against commemorating Irish people who were on the side of the British in the pre-independence period is the same one which was deployed by some unionists in 2011 when Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at Dublin's Garden of Remembrance in memory of those who fought for Irish independence. British critics said there were, among those she was commemorating, "some really nasty people".

Nine years after mocking those people for not getting the nuances of history, nationalist Ireland has now turned into them, only in reverse, and on a grander scale. Unionists said there were "some" bad people in the fight for Irish independence. Nationalists have talked about the RIC and the DMP as if they were irredeemable to a man, ignoring President McAleese's hope in 2011 that, while "the harsh facts cannot be altered, nor loss nor grief erased, with time and generosity... perspectives can soften and open up space for new accommodations".

The Minister for Justice said he was surprised at the vitriol, but he shouldn't have been. First of all, it's hardly news that history is contentious. Secondly, what isn't contentious these days? It's impossible to start a discussion of any subject without risking an outbreak of hysteria, especially online where much of the heat of this latest row was generated. We were probably a little naive, even smug, to think that Ireland could escape forever the worldwide surge of populism, or not to be forewarned that, if it did break out here too, it would take a tribal form.

Justice minister Charlie Flanagan has now deferred the planned ceremony, and said that he will consult "with the all-party consultative group on commemoration and with other stakeholders"; but who are the other stakeholders in this case? Everybody who has a direct interest in this is dead, more or less. Irish people now are themselves the only stakeholders, and, since it's clearly not possible to have a discussion about that period in a calm and measured way, then in practice, a ceremony is surely never going to happen.

It will be quietly replaced instead by some sententious academic conference at which the usual suspects have dry panel discussions, and some nice wine and cheese afterwards, before the whole thing is filed away with relief under Bad Ideas Best Forgotten.

It may have been excessively optimistic of the Government to think this wouldn't blow up in its face, but the proponents don't appear to have had any badness in them when they made the original plans. That's not something which can be said about those who criticised the idea most strongly, who managed to get out the fake news that the event was to be a celebration of the Black and Tans, before the less sensationalist truth, that it was meant as a modest ceremony of commemoration of fellow Irishmen at a time when Ireland was still part of the Empire, got its boots on.

In the current climate of toxic nationalism, it is easy to whip up such passions out of nothing. Partly, understandably, the anti-British sentiment is to do with Brexit; but there are limits to how long you can keep blaming Brexit, before admitting that, if something nasty has been unleashed, that's only because it was there, simmering away, the whole time. It didn't even take much to bring it to the surface.

In 2016, there were official acknowledgements of pro-British personnel who died during the Rising and it created none of this cacophony of phoney outrage.

The greatest damage that this orgy of emotional incontinence has done is not, whatever the Taoiseach insists, to make a united Ireland less likely - that will always come down to a crude sectarian head count in the end - but that it has exposed what many nationalists' vision of a united Ireland still looks like. That's one in which Come Out Ye Black And Tans sits at the top of the charts, and those who backed British rule are considered mortal enemies even 100 years later.

Longer, in fact. In his regular blog, Gerry Adams even managed to raise the spectre of the RIC's presence at evictions during the Famine.

This is the same Gerry Adams who has attended commemorations for IRA martyr Sean South, whose own biographer states that he was an actual fascist, who blamed Jews and Freemasons for corrupting Ireland and wanted a totalitarian Catholic state.

Asked about men like Sean South, nationalists will surely reply that it's complicated. Well, precisely. No man is ever one thing - unless, that is, he was a member of the RIC, in which case he must be treated even a century on as a virtual demon in human flesh.

This same conversation used to be had about Irish soldiers who deserted from the army and fought in British uniforms during the Second World War. On their return, they were blacklisted, refused employment, and faced all manner of hostility and discrimination. They only got a full state pardon and apology in 2013 when most were dead.

The shame that their family members were made to feel is now being wished on those who acknowledge that there was some anti-independence feeling in Ireland in the past, and that it should be possible to find room for that without trying to take away the Irishness of those who held it.

Charlie Flanagan tried to unpick some of those undertones in a measured, nuanced statement in which he warned against imposing a "hierarchy of Irishness", but too late.

People ought to be worried about this, because however badly it was handled by the Government, there are far more difficult days ahead, as the so-called Decade of Centenaries edges towards the centenary of the Civil War. There won't be a simple villain to hiss at during that, as there was in 2016, when past differences over the rights and wrongs of the Rising could be brushed over with a one-dimensional fairy tale.

Far more Irish died killing each other in the Civil War than ever died at the hands of the RIC, or even the Black and Tans, and the atrocities which took place cannot be sugar- coated so easily. Get through that unscathed, and there's still the centenary of partition to come. Minister Flanagan's desire for an "open-minded, non-partisan, factual approach to our history" will be lucky to survive what's left of the Decade of Centenaries without sustaining even more dangerous damage. Strap in. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

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