A version of this article will appear in tomorrow's editition of the University Observer.
This Easter the government have decided to commemorate the 1916 rising with a military parade for the first time in 40 years. It’s the wrong decision, being made for the wrong reasons. It bears all the signs of a Fianna Fail party struggling to come to terms with the threat posed to it by Sinn Fein, and in doing so abusing their position of power in government to impose a one sided reading of history on the Irish people. Anyone who doubts that this is a move spurred on by political motives need only look to where this new commemoration was announced; the Fianna Fail Árd Fheis. Party conferences are always designed in such a way as to garner as much attention and good publicity to the party as is possible for the year going forward. As such an announcement of the commemoration at the Árd Fheis can only be seen to be Fianna Fail putting themselves to the fore, and trying to use their position in government to associate themselves primarily with the legacy of 1916.
The problem with such a celebration is that it creates a hierarchy of historical remembrance. It is the government singling out one event, to the detriment of others and saying that this is the most important action in Irish History. Although there is no doubt that the actions of 1916, and the resulting executions, set in momentum the series of events that led to a (divided) Irish independence, there are others serious historical moments that cannot be remembered and celebrated if the government choose to honour 1916 in this way. In Ireland there are two opposing historical traditions that both sought to garner freedom for the Irish people. These are constitutional nationalism, and physical force nationalism. There is an exclusivity of commemoration pertaining to these movements. Although they shared a similar aim, they were diametrically opposed in method. We have been told in the lead up to the 1916 commemoration that all will be remembered, but this is a deceit.
Any attempt to argue that a commonality of end goal between the two, means that we can celebrate both, misses the historical reality of the situation. The methods that they chose to use were everything in dividing them. To say that we can celebrate both would be much like somebody in 60 years time honouring both the IRA, and the wider populous of Ireland who favoured reunification and a united Ireland during the troubles. Yes, the aim was a common one; a united Ireland, but the means used to try and bring this about are the important real world factor that clearly divided the wider populous from the actions of a few.
It is not, nor will it never be, possible to have an equal celebration of the others who died during the period of the 1916 rising, if the main focus of the celebration is the 1916 rising, and the reading of the proclamation. There is an intellectual deceit in saying that commemorating them at the same time ends a ‘commemorative apartheid‘, an opinion expressed recently by Liz Mc Manus. In fact it serves to emphasise the divisions that there are historically between the different sections of Irish History. By seeking to remember those who died in the Somme and those who fought constitutionally for Ireland under the banner of a 1916 commemoration, the government are clearly placing them as subservient events to the rising. That is a disservice to the Irish people; no government should seek to commemorate an event that will lead to a specific reading of history where it would be better to allow people to reach their own conclusions. The irony of having the 1916 commemoration march down O'Connell Street should not go un-noted. The rising cannot ever be commemorated (a word which associates itself not just with remembrance, but also with celebration) alongside the constitutional movement, and those who also fought and died for Ireland in their tens of thousands at the Somme. They are mutually exclusive historical entities, and celebrating one can only ever be done to the detriment of the other, unless one seeks to re-write history.
As an example of this, 1916 was a betrayal of those who fought and died in their tens of thousands in the Somme. The ‘Gallant allies in Europe’ alluded to in the proclamation were the Germans. At the time of the rising 300,000 young Irish men were fighting in the British army at the request of their freely elected leaders, Redmond at the fore. The fact that the leaders of 1916 attempted to get weapons from the Germans is now generally overlooked. However there is a clear argument to say that this betrayal means that one should not look favourably on the 1916 rising. That is a decision that should be left open to each individual to make, and a government organised commemoration of the rising naturally propagates one side of the argument, instead of facilitating debate. To say that we should commemorate both is an even greater mistake, you simply cannot marry to two in any way.
Some of the arguments surrounding the parade are that it is reclaiming nationalism, and making people revise their opinions on the situation. However this really will not be the case, the army march is something that people will see, as an endorsement of 1916 in its totality. In seeing that Sinn Fein and the IRA have for years used 1916 for their own ends, we need to look hard at why that is the case. There is certainly a strong argument to be made that they use it, not in a distorted way, but in one that was entirely consistent with the aims of the 1916 leaders. The basic premise of the 1916 action was that a small group of leaders are vindicated in taking a violent action, and then retrospectively allowing people to make of that what they will. This was exactly the logic of the IRA before they disarmed, and to say that they were distorting the legacy of 1916 is actually facetious. 1916’s legacy supports a small group of individuals taking an action that they feel to be in the national interest regardless of whether they have support at the time. That’s a very dangerous legacy for a government to associate itself with.