The “what ifs? ” of our past play a part in dealing with it today

The row over former taioseach John Bruton’s regret that the Easter Rising ever happened goes on. Will historian Diarmaid Ferriter have the very last word? In his latest sally in the Irish Times, Ferriter attacks the exaggerated use of the counterfactual, the “what if” school of history. His argument to  Bruton is basically simple –look, the Rising had the obvious effect of radicalising nationalist Ireland. It happened, get over it, stop regretting it.  In an important sense Ferriter the historian is obviously right. There was no clear offer of Home Rule from 1910. The British prevaricated, over partition, over the integrity of Empire and finally over the War.  But surely it was coming one way or another, with all those men marching around with real and dummy guns. But politicians deal in myths and dreams, which are a potent part of the story as it happened, and as we receive it today.  The good historian which Ferriter undoubtedly is, does not have the monopoly of interpretation.

Let’s try again. The historian Niall Ferguson has used the  anniversary of the start of the First World War to make the case that Britain should not have entered a purely continental  quarrel in 1914. His aim is to point out that at the time, other choices were available even if they were rejected. The choices are as much part history as the events which happened.  In many cases those rejected  choices retained half life in the debates and arguments which followed. There were other choices at Easter 1916. As we know, the Rising nearly didn’t happen.

This controversy is important because how we view the past affects how we behave today. The Irish mainstream is revisiting its myths in order to live more at ease with its own divided past and with Unionism and Britain.  Southern consensus over the use of physical force against the State had only a short life of about five years until the British quit and was shattered by the civil war in respect of the 26 Counties. It lingered towards the North in the implications of the 1937 Constitution and was laid to rest only in the outcomes of the GFA. So the current context for this argument is fairly new.

Bruton is not alone in wanting to check the rise of Sinn Fein both as a contemporary party and in  their bid to pose as the guardian of the foundation myth, that violence was necessary  and justified to win Irish freedom. His case is part of the process of opening up to different cholces for the future:  indefinite acceptance of partition (or Northern self-determination) or a step to a united Ireland by consent; it  works either way.  All nations have their myths.  Modern France has little to do with the march of workers from Marseilles in an early, forgotten episode of the French Revolution.  How many Americans have ever heard of the War of 1812 when the Star Spangled Banner was held aloft?

I see that Peter Taylor has revisited his Troubles contacts for what promises to be an absorbing film tonight. It will ask the essential question behind the counterfactual dispute: Does Violence Pay? Jim Prior, old soldier and former secretary of state apparently says yes. He’s obviously right in respect of bringing the republican movement to political prominence.  But did it take the IRA campaign finally to force Unionism to do serious business with Nationalism as a whole? I can only offer a two- pronged answer. Yes sadly, once the fighting had begun and violence had its own momentum.  But No, had serious violence never happened. Reform might have needed the odd push and demo but it was on its way.  All it needed was a modicum of generosity from unionism. – and foresight, which is the essence of the benign counterfactual.

Imagine just for a moment  the election result of 1919 without the launch of the “war of independence,”   and an Irish Parliament with admittedly feeble powers. How could Westminster have refused a demand for more powers?  Think about it.  Therein lies part of the fascination of  “what if”?  The other intriguing issue is to try to identify the trigger points where violence becomes the option for people quite like you and me.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London