The Irish government’s decision to commemorate the RIC in a major state ceremony is the right one precisely because it is as controversial as it is fundamental. There is no point in filling an entire decade with an orgy of self congratulation. The modern Irish state was born in insurgency and revolution is always controversial. But it is s also a reminder of that the state born out of revolution was part of a much longer continuum that is not about revolution only. And as Varadkar and Flanagan have pointed out, there is an important distinction to be made between commemorating rather than celebrating people and an institution that was fundamental to Irish life for over a century and is therefore unignorable. A mature state does not airbrush out its former self. Plenty in Ireland respect the memory of the routine peacetime functions of the RIC before their role as instruments of state repression dominated and they became ” legitimate targets. ” In some respects insurgency took on civil war characteristics as early as 1916 and certainly from January 1919. It is entirely possible to recognise the RIC’s place in Irish life while also believing that by late 1920 the British presence in most of Ireland had finally forfeited all legitimacy because of state sponsored reprisals. But it remains a monstrous hypocrisy for supporters of revolution to hold the state to account by its own laws while claiming exemption from those same laws for themselves and their own cruelties.
In this commemoration we get a glimpse of what a fully reconciled Ireland suffused with mutual respect might look like. As their contribution, a virtuous circle would be created if unionists accepted a well defined Irish Language Act precisely because nationalists and not only nationalists want it. Convert the political weapon to a civilised cause by embracing it. Personally I would favour the option of basic Irish in all primary schools as part of our indivisible non compulsory culture, with opportunities for development later. My granddaughter in New Zealand sings Maori songs and writes stories in Maori even though Maoris are only 15% of the population. And she takes voluntary Mandarin classes too – all part of enjoying a civilised country’s distinctive diversity while at the same time acknowledging uncomfortable facts about the state’s origins.
All this is elementary civic good behaviour which too many of the politically committed have yet to learn.
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