Can we ever lay 1916 to rest?

Official Ireland’s well known discomfort over how to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising  has just been exposed over the prefiguring event, the funeral the previous year of the physical force Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.  With the failure to consign this heritage to the past in advance,  it seems  possible that there will be a full blown struggle over the ownership and character of the republican tradition in an election year.  If not, it will not be for Sinn Fein’s want of trying.

Ireland’s perceived dilemmas have been aired in the pages of the Irish Times for the past year, with no end in sight. The funeral passed into legend because of the presence of (I think all) the signatories of the following year’s proclamation of the republic on the steps of the GPO, and the stirring speech of Padraig Pearse which probably sealed his leadership and his fate.

The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Official Ireland – the president, the taosieach, the  diplomatic corps,- the works – turned up at Glasnevin cemetery for the full dress state event. The notable absentee was Sinn Fein who staged their own elaborately heritage-dressed ceremony, with the added attraction of an oration by Gerry Adams ,wearing Pearse’s remodelled mantle.   

“Today almost a century later we have many, like O’Donovan Rossa, who spent years as political prisoners, or were on the run or were forced into exile. We remember also all those who suffered and died in the most recent conflict, including our patriot dead, some of whom are laid to rest in this cemetery.

“We have with us also many younger people who, thankfully, have not known directly the terrible reality of armed conflict in our country.

“Let us be very clear that the Peace Process and the political progress we have achieved were made possible because of the sacrifices of countless republicans over the generations. It is hugely positive and progressive that we today can pursue the complete unity and freedom of the Irish people, by peaceful means. And we are pursuing that cause.

“Today is a reminder, as the events of the Centenary of the Easter Rising in the coming months will be reminders, that the business of Pádraig Mac Piarais and James Connolly and Constance Markievicz and Bobby Sands and Máiréad Farrell is unfinished business.

“Some people in high places do not like to be reminded of that unfinished business. Mar a dúirt an Phiarsaigh: The fools. The fools. The fools.

You get the picture. Adams is here proclaiming  an active  fundamentalism that grates with modern Irish nationalism never mind unionism. But he would  say that Pearse was in a similar position in 1915-16, would he not?  Is he showing his age or does  he really  believe it plays?  Closer and ( I hope) dispassionate  observers will have opinions.

If official Ireland was affronted at his presumption, it kept its counsel.  It was left to Dr Marie Coleman  a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s to  point out the inconsistency of commemoration of this past with present aims. She sits on the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council/Heritage Lottery Fund Roundtable on marking anniversaries.

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising.

If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

If we are to take State-sponsored commemoration more as a reflection of a government’s immediate political concerns and aims than a mature reflection on the past, one would wonder what the recent O’Donovan Rossa commemoration events tell us about the current Government’s policy regarding Anglo-Irish relations in general and Northern Ireland in particular? Seen in the light of Sinn Féin’s alternative commemoration, the shadow of the forthcoming general election loomed large over the whole event.

Kevin Myers in the Sunday Times (£) took the familiar polemical line against the physical  force tradition which O’ Donovan  personified  and today’s Sinn Fein defends as an historic necessity,  just like the Rising.

On July 27, we also missed the 25th anniversary of the murder by the IRA of Sister Catherine Dunne, of Middletown Convent in Armagh. An accident, we were told. I’m sure O’Donovan Rossa would have understood. Patrick Pearse certainly would: “At the beginning we may kill the wrong people,” he mused. And not just at the beginning, it seems.

Sister Catherine was not the only Middletown woman to be murdered by the IRA. Shortly before we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Clerkenwell bombing we might also mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of single mother Margaret Hearst, a clerk at the UDR headquarters, who was shot dead by the IRA in her mobile home. One of the IRA bullets hit the bed of her three- year-old daughter. In a month’s time, we shall also be able to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Margaret’s father’s death. Ross Hearst was abducted and murdered while coming from church, allegedly because he was an “informer”. Yes, a lot a Protestant like him would have known about the IRA.

In contrast with Patrick Flood; 25 years ago Flood, an IRA man, was shot after seven weeks in IRA custody in south Armagh. Seven weeks — think about it. And then finished off by the nutting squad, possibly under Freddie Scappaticci, who, really, everyone can be proud of, because he was also a British agent.

Yes, I have very deliberately discriminated in my choice of victims, for they were all killed by the heirs of the tradition of O’Donovan Rossa, whom this state so honoured with a colour party from the Defence Forces last weekend.

The revisionist political line for the modern republic is laid out with more than usual frankness by the retired diplomat Dr Niall Holohan who has served  with the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Council and the North/South Ministerial Council.

One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that a heavy responsibility for the democratic failures and the intermittent strife on the island over the past 100 years must rest on the shoulders of those who instigated and launched the 1916 rebellion – partition and its associated ills being arguably the worst effect. Indeed there is now a wide acceptance that the political division of the island has been a significant contributory factor to the sectarianism and social repression that plagued our society for so long.

It is perhaps apt at this point to draw a comparison between the political evolution of Scotland and Ireland. While there are clearly many differences between Scottish and Irish nationalism, it is evident from the recent referendum and general election in Scotland that nationalist tendencies in these islands cannot be stifled even by lengthy delays, unprecedented prosperity or external threats. Just as is likely to be the case in Scotland before too long, I have no doubt independence would have eventually been achieved in Ireland – although precisely when and in what form it is impossible to say. Arguably, however, Ireland might be a better place today if it had taken Scotland’s less direct route to independence.

This is not to suggest the Easter Rising was insignificant or that its leaders were not motivated by the highest ideals or the desire to achieve the greatest good for the Irish people. Sadly, however, it also added to the deep divisions between nationalists and unionists which – at least in the case of Northern Ireland – remain unresolved.

The problem with the Holohan analysis is that it is essentially as nostalgic as Sinn Fein’s although on the side of peaceful evolution.  Nationalism fudges the issue of the GFA  as “ an accommodation not a settlement,” in Pat Doherty MP’s vivid phase. Peaceful unity requires nationalism to win the numbers’ game and that is an issue no one wants to discuss openly. It would be as well to begin. The  constitutional status quo seems to attract a bigger majority than the dwindling ranks of professing unionists, probably along the lines of ” we’re not going to go through all that again.” But no one can be sure it will survive continuing Assembly stasis  and the charge of “Tory austerity.”

The North is still a place apart although very different today from the era of the  post-1920 partition, perhaps even consensually apart while  it explores a new relationship. The past does not help us much here except  to deliver salutary warnings. The Northern conflict was a long and intimate one, the South’s was essentially a brief campaign to  remove  a thin unionist and British carapace by majority will after the votes were cast.  Apart from the odd upsurge over 1916, the South may yet wrap the past up in the balm of polite patriotism laced with indifference.  But a lurking danger  remains in the North, which is that  the longer partition persists albeit under GFA conditions, the more attractive will again become the physical force tradition in the minds of yet another militant minority.  Our common problem is to find the compelling counterattraction to the weight of history beyond mere exhaustion.  Might it emerge as 2016 unfolds?


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