First published in the Western People on Monday.
John Burton’s advocacy of John Redmond is part of the wider campaign to water down any commemoration of the 1916 Rising. This watering-down campaign has not been announced as policy, as there are concerns that such watering down would go down badly with the people. As such, the campaign has been a little more subtle.
There was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, which received blanket media coverage. There was President Higgins’s return visit to the United Kingdom, which was covered no less.
There has been this spurious “Decade of Commemoration,” where successive governments have tried to lessen the impact of the 100th Anniversary of the Rising by saying the Rising was just one of a number of things that happened at that time.
As a strategy, this is in the same league as a callow youth’s plan to sneak a copy of some naughty magazine in between a National Geographic and this week’s Western as he approaches a till manned by a live, actual female.
No-one is fooled. The people don’t care. We had a year-long commemoration of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin last year, and this year’s love-bombing of the 100th anniversary of the start of the “Great” War. Both were met by the same shrug as the checkout girl’s, who has zero interest in the callow youth’s taste in periodicals. The nation doesn’t care about a decade of commemoration, but there seems to be a big green X marking the spot for either April 24th or Easter Monday of 2016 somewhere at the back of our minds.
That the Rising still means so much to people is surprising, and certainly not in line with how successive governments have been viewing the situation. It only became obvious after the Presidential visit to the United Kingdom when, in a flush of enthusiasm, an invitation was extended for some members of the British royal family to come over and be part of the fun.
The nation reacted with horror and the proposal hasn’t been heard of since.
The reason that Irish governments have been very wary of the 1916 Anniversary is that the Rising was legitimised after the fact. Padraig Pearse and the other rebel leaders had no mandate to do what they did. They couldn’t declare a republic in 1916 because they didn’t represent anybody but themselves in 1916.
The 1916 mandate was backdated by the first Dáil in 1919, and since it all turned out grand in the end, nobody but an anti-national spoilsport would go questioning the morality of the whole thing. For the first fifty years after independence, everyone wore the white cockade.
And then, on January 4th, 1969, a march in support of a crazy notion of one-man, one-vote in Northern Ireland was ambushed on its way into Derry, to the supreme indifference of the watching policemen as a fusillade of stones, iron bars and nail-studded sticks rained down on the marchers.
One thing led to another and by the 1970s getting tanked up and singing Seán South of Garryowen south of the border didn’t seem like harmless fun anymore. Nobody wanted to mention the war.
That war-that-wasn’t took thirty years and over three thousand lives until a serendipitous accident saw political leaders in Ireland, Britain and the USA come to power, leaders who were willing take chances and bend rules for peace.
There are those who are sickened by retired terrorists swaggering around the corridors of power instead of doing stir in some suitable jail, but that is the price of peace. People have to turn a blind eye to things in the name of the greater good.
Until a bull charges into a china shop as John Bruton did when he condemned the 1916 leaders in a speech delivered at the Irish Royal Academy on the day of the Scottish Referendum.
For Bruton, the Irishmen who fought for Britain in the “Great” War were patriots, whereas those who rebelled in 1916 were not fighting a just war. But Bruton makes a logical error here. He presents reaction to the 1916 Rising as an either/or scenario.
If you are against the 1916 Rising, you must be in favour of Redmond, and you must therefore do your duty by the Empire. Meaning, in this case, head for the Somme two months after the Rising and get mown down by the German machine-guns in your thousands and thousands.
There was a slogan that was common in Ireland during those troubled times one hundred years ago – “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.” In his speech at the Royal Irish Academy, Bruton has eliminated that third way as an option at the time, and has presented war as inevitable. The only question was whether you marched under the tricolour or the Union Jack, but march and kill or be killed you surely would.
And that’s a very inappropriate road for Bruton to have gone down. Just how inappropriate was spotted immediately by the current Minister for Agriculture (and favourite to become the next leader of Fine Gael), Simon Coveney. On the morning of Bruton’s speech, Minister Coveney tweeted “For the record: I believe much of John Bruton’s commentary on 1916 is simply wrong and does not represent the views of Fine Gael supporters.” Duly noted, Minister.
It may be that Bruton doesn’t realise that he polarised the choice, and it was just unfortunate wording on his part. Or it may be that he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, and believes that, in times of peace and (returned?) prosperity, the nation will follow the good man Redmond ahead of gunmen like Breen, Barry and O’Malley.
But nationalism works at a level beyond the senses. When it boils down to flags, the Irish nation, for all the faults of the state, will rally under only one, and it won’t be the one still flying over Edinburgh. That is the nature of the patriot game.