Sorry Séamus, but there can be no such thing as retrospective democracy.

Séamus Mallon has a speech transcript in the Sindo today. In it he takes his usual stance on the counterproductive futility of armed republicanism. But one fundamental contradiction sticks out like a sore thumb. Early on he says:

In that spirit let me say I applaud current efforts to make 1916 commemorations truly inclusive. In the event, the men and women of 1916 received a retrospective democratic endorsement which more recent violence including against this State has never obtained.

But further on he sings a different song:

Yes, maybe the IRA in its various forms was not defeated by any external agency such as the British Army or An Garda Siochana. But it was defeated by its own internal contradictions and demons. In fact defeat came with the first bullet fired without democratic mandate. It came with the first bomb primed without moral justification.

But surely the first bullet fired on Easter Monday 1916 was also fired without a democratic mandate? Sorry Séamus, but you can’t have it both ways. Either democratic legitimacy has to be established in advance of action, or it does not. Either both the 1916 revolution and the 1969 uprising were undemocratic, or both were legitimate. The fact that the 1918 general election returned many of the leaders of the 1916 rising to represent the will of the people in 1918 does nothing to help us navigate the moral minefield of two years earlier. The 1916 leaders could not have known at the time that they would eventually command the support of the electorate. Events that were yet to unfold cannot be used to justify actions that were taken as a high stakes gamble with the possibility of glorious bloody failure viewed as a selling point. No doubt the leaders of the IRA in 1969 believed that they would similarly be justified by history. 

The only meaningful difference is that the 1916 leaders were lucky. 

The legitimacy of the Free State and its successor republic cannot derive from the actions of a self selected elite, no matter what elections they may have won after the fact. At the time, they had little to no electoral support. At the time, they did not know the things we take for granted now as established history. If our moral and legal principles are to mean anything as guides to action, they must be calculable in real time. Once history plays out and you eventually discover whether you were on the “right” side or not it is too late. 

The legitimacy of any government can only come from the freely expressed consent of the people. The Republic of Ireland is legitimate because its people have voted time and again to establish and maintain it, starting with the 1918 general election, where the ideals of the rising were belatedly put before the public. It is true that the 1916 rising was the catalyst for change, but too often mechanical cause is confused with moral or legal justification. Maybe the Free State or something like it would have come into being without the rising. Maybe it would have turned out better, maybe it would have turned out worse. But none of this amounts to democratic legitimacy, which must be held to a higher standard than “sure didn’t it turn out alright in the end”. Similarly, the fact that the winners of the 1918 election claimed retrospective legitimacy for the rising did not automatically make it so. An election win merely decides who gets to run the country for a while within a greater moral or legal framework. It does not give the winners the right to define legitimacy to suit themselves. 

And as we have subsequently seen, the actions of the 1916 leaders in government served as a template to generations of dissidents, starting with Fianna Fáil and continuing through to the present day. Each has, at least for a while, tried to deny the moral weight of democratic opinion by claiming to be a vanguard that will eventually win over the people and thereby forgive, even justify any intervening sins. And each claims an unbroken trail of legitimacy back to that fateful day in 1916.

The pernicious idea of retrospective legitimacy only encourages extremists to act first and ask forgiveness later. “History will surely prove us right” has been used to justify too many atrocities. It is time for constitutional politicians of all stripes to put this dangerous myth down.

Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.

Twitter: @andrewgdotcom