LOYALIST thinker Davy Adams takes Irish President Mary McAleese to task for her recent eulogy to the rebels of the 1916 Rising. Adams writes: “I agree with President McAleese that today’s Republic of Ireland is a modern, prosperous, democracy with, as she put it, a widely shared political philosophy of equality, social inclusion, human rights and anti-confessionalism. I disagree profoundly, however, with her on how it arrived at that point.”
The President would have us believe that the liberal democracy of today flowed from the 1916 Proclamation. The truth is that prosperity flowed directly from Ireland’s membership of the European Union, and liberal democracy from the implosion of an institution given so much rope in the form of unelected and unaccountable power and influence, that eventually it hanged itself.
The 1916 leaders could not possibly have foreseen the first, or even begun to imagine the second, much less plan for either.
Last Friday, the President did not present a differing “analysis and interpretation” of recent Irish history but, rather, a history almost totally divorced from fact. Far worse, there was nothing in what she had to say about the “idealistic and heroic founding fathers and mothers” that could not equally be said in defence of the Provisional IRA and its actions (or, for that matter, its would-be successors in the Continuity and Real IRAs).
After all, they too were a tiny elite of extreme nationalists who took it upon themselves to drive out the British at the point of a gun.
They too, claimed to be wedded to the principles of equality and civil and religious liberty for all, while prosecuting a murderous campaign against their Protestant neighbours.
If we follow President McAleese’s uncritical analysis and reasoning to its logical conclusion, in intellectual terms, all that separated the modern IRA from the rebels of 1916 was the passage of time. To heap retrospective adulation upon the leaders of the 1916 Rising while denying it to the Provisionals, is to differentiate only on the grounds of the relative success of one and complete failure of the other.
Surely, it is not beyond the President and others to find a way of celebrating independence without glorifying the manner in which it was achieved. Until then, nationalism will continue handing a blank cheque to successive generations of “freedom fighters”.
While it would be interesting to find out if Davy applies the same logic to the glorification of aspects of loyalist history (comments welcome, Mr Adams!), the purpose of the President’s speech – to help smooth the way for the Taoiseach’s plans to celebrate the Rising – appears to have widened the political gap between unionists and the President, who has made past efforts to ‘build bridges’ with unionism.
With elections looming, the Easter commemoration is obviously an attempt by Fianna Fail to reclaim 1916 from Sinn Fein. What Fianna Fail is doing is hardly ideologically driven; just another “cute” move. But it’s harder to define how romanticising the past in a narrow nationalistic basis is more acceptable than the celebration of more recent terrorism.
Far too often, you hear people here say that if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we’re doomed to repeat them. But if your history ends in a cosy view of 1916 or 1690, everything after that can be justified, as if the ideals and principles of those heroes then are somehow as applicable now as they ever were. I think it’s fair to say that in Irish politics (north and south) there has always been a need for historical authority. It is most clear in the various offshoots of the wider republican movement that lay claim to the legacy of the rebels, but is very evident within unionism too (the Somme, the Boyne etc).
By uncritically laying claim to blood sacrifice, both unionism and republicanism elevate the values of small groups in history that had very different motivations from today’s revisionists. I don’t think many people would seriously judge historical figures based purely on contemporary values, yet we use their actions to justify current political events. Those who can control the past, know they have a pretty big say in the present.
But could King Billy or Pádraic Pearse even have imagined today’s global political landscape? And is it possible to celebrate key historical victories without mytholgising how they were achieved?
Anyway, if President McAleese shortly finds herself inviting the Queen over for tea, let’s hope Willie Frazer doesn’t get an appetite for protesting in Dublin in the meantime. With the issue of Joint Authority being discussed as a fall-back option, the “historic” symbolism will no doubt be interpreted in a variety of ways!