Taoiseach Bertie Ahern faces criticism in the Irish Times today – from two different angles. Ronnie Kasrils, the South African Government Minister for intelligence, and South African Communist Party member, who is visiting Northern Ireland as a guest of Sinn Féin, is reported to be shocked that the Taoiseach has been talking about reclaiming republicanism from those who have “debased” and “abused” it. While Fintan O’Toole argues that “The only way to reclaim republicanism, for Fianna Fáil and for everyone else, is to give it meaning by taking liberty, equality and solidarity seriously.”As Susan McKay reports, ANC Executive member and South African Communist Party member, and current SA minister for intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, had this to say –
“I could never accept that Sinn Féin has debased republicanism,” said Mr Kasrils. “They carried the flag of republicanism in the most difficult of times. We respect the Irish Government, but I would say that is sour grapes, and a sign they are feeling the pressure, with the growing popularity of Sinn Féin. The Irish struggle is a particularly heroic one.”
He’s also a fan of the much vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Process, for understandable reasons –
Mr Kasrils, a former deputy minister for defence, is on the ANC’s executive, and is a member of the South African Communist Party. He said he was proud of his “military service”.
He believed in the need for a process of truth and reconciliation as had occurred in South Africa. He had taken part in the process. “We detonated a car bomb in front of the headquarters of the air force in Pretoria – 30 people died and 300 were injured. As part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I met an air force officer who was blinded during that attack.
“It was the most moving experience for me. He came to see why we had done it, and he has now dedicated himself to spreading understanding about the conflict and its resolution.”
Meanwhile Fintan O’Toole takes a look at the various attempts by the Irish Government to commemorate 1916, and, in addition, points out that Sinn Féin’s more recent focus on anniversaries has much more to do with the present and the future than the past –
At Bodenstown, the comrades were told that “We also need to start preparing to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.” The party’s agenda in all of this is admirably explicit.
It is not about the past, but about the present and the future. It recognises, implicitly at least, that the IRA’s atrocities tarnished the glamour of traditional armed nationalism, especially in the Republic. The car bombs, assassinations and disappearances disappearances undermined the claim to continuity with the noble past.
By reclaiming that past, Sinn Féin is, in Conor Murphy’s words, “re-popularising the republican struggle.” Next year, with its co-incidence of the 90th anniversary of the rising with the 25th anniversary of the hunger strikes, offers a perfect opportunity to link two sets of martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the continuing cause, to merge Patrick Pearse and Bobby Sands into a single, resonant image of past sacrifice that demands future fulfilment.
In contrast the Irish Government’s attempts at anniversaries have been undermined by the public’s luke-warm reaction to the absence of, what Fintan O’Toole describes as, the death-cult –
This is, as we know, potent stuff, and constitutional politicians have long been unsure about how to deal with it.
The Free State government tried to make the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty into an annual Independence Day, but heroic compromises don’t have the same charisma as heroic violence, and the experiment was dropped after a single effort in 1924.
The National Day of Commemoration, which strives to honour the complexity of 20th century Irish history by commemorating all the Irish dead in all wars, was instituted in 1985 but has never caught the public imagination, probably for the same reason. The 1798 bicentenary in 1998 explicitly sought to shift attention “from the military aspects of 1798 . . . Towards the principles of democracy and pluralism which the United Irishman advocated.” Again, the aim was worthy, but it was hard not to feel that drawing attention away from the military aspects of one of the bloodiest episodes in modern history was rather missing the point. As for 1916, the State dealt with it by not dealing with it at all. After 1970, when the apparently harmless rhetoric of the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1966 had taken on a grisly reality on the streets of Belfast and Derry, the Easter parade, in which the army marched past the GPO, was stopped. The 75th anniversary in 1991 was marked by a hideously embarrassed semi-revival of the tradition in which a desperately uncomfortable President Robinson laid a wreath and everyone scarpered before the populace had its nationalist passions inflamed.
Having failed to come up with a form of commemoration that is both sufficiently emotive to matter and sufficiently balanced to be healthy – perhaps an impossible task – the Government has now panicked and decided to pretend that the Northern Ireland conflict never happened. We are to return to the assumptions of 1966 – that you can hold up as role models to the young an armed, unelected elite which seeks to impose its will by force of arms, without suffering any consequences. We will play the game of military glamour and win it by insisting that the men and women of the Defence Forces trump the men and women of the IRA.
He argues that, while it may be a worthy attempt by Fianna Fáil, it’s a PR battle that faces some obvious obstacles –
Ask yourself this. Who is Kevin Joyce? Who is Bobby Sands? Both died in the same year on what each regarded as Irish military service.
Kevin Joyce’s body is still somewhere in the Lebanon. Which is the more potent figure in Irish popular memory? If republicanism is understood as a death-cult, Sinn Féin’s claims to control it will always beat the Government’s.
The only way to reclaim republicanism, for Fianna Fáil and for everyone else, is to give it meaning by taking liberty, equality and solidarity seriously.