Let us arise

April 21st, 2006 | by aobaoill |

With the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in the air – last Monday being Easter Monday, while the actual anniversary is 24th April, next Monday – there’s been quite a bit of coverage and debate in the Irish and British media. Much controversy has surrounded the Fianna Fáil government decision to hold a military parade to mark the occasion, widely seen as an attempt to set a Fianna Fáil stamp on the legacy of the Rising, and more specifically counter the Sinn Féin capture of the ‘republican’ legacy and sympathetic voters.
Apart from the petty party politics, there’s some genuine angst and discussion – and sometimes just name-calling – about whether the occasion should be marked at all. The issue, of course, is generallynot so much the Rising itself, as the violence of the last 35+ years in Northern Ireland, and the related conflicted nature of the relationship of the Irish with their own history, with their sense of nationhood, and with those who claim to assert and defend that nationhood on their behalf.
Some background for those who are unfamiliar with the topic: in 1916 Ireland was ruled from the British parliament in Westminster, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The British government had promised the restitution of the Irish parliament, abolished in 1801, by 1914 – a policy known as ‘Home Rule’ and backed by the Irish Parliamentary Party that held most Irish seats at Westminster – but had delayed implementation when the First World War broke out. On Easter Monday, 1916, a military rising, with the aim of establishing a fully independent Irish Republic (as opposed to either Home Rule or Repeal of the Act of Union), was launched when members of the Irish Citizens’ Army (a labour-defense militia) and the Irish Volunteers (a nationalist militia that had been infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary group) took over various buildings in Dublin city centre, most famously the General Post Office.
Militarily the Rising, as at least some of the leaders had expected, was a failure, and the rebels were largely defeated by Thursday, with formal surrender occuring on Saturday. However, the subsequent execution of the leaders of the Rising by the British military resulted in great public sympathy, and is generally credited with the subsequent electoral victories by Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, and subsequently the Irish War of Independence, which led to the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, which morphed over time into the Republic of Ireland we have today.
So why the controversy over commemorating the Rising? For authors such as Wheatcroft who seem to despise anything and everything Irish, it’s in part because it led to the independent Irish state that was, in Wheatcroft’s formulation “the most reactionary corner of Europe” – an impressive claim given that the period he’s looking at, 1922 to the present, included Nazi Germany, fascist Spain and Italy, Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Iron Curtain, etc., etc. But then, since Wheatcroft uses the fact that the same number of men were executed in the Rising (16) as in an early Nazi putsch as a basis for establishing the equivalence of Nazi Germany and the Irish Free State, it’s perhaps too easy to point and laugh.
Wheatcroft does have two interesting arguments. The first is that, since the Rising did not, at the time, have the support of the majority of the population, it was illegitimate, and it is therefore inappropriate to celebrate it. The second is that the Rising, and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic issued by its leaders, has been called upon to justify more recent violence in Northern Ireland. The two arguments are of course related, but it is possible to disentangle them sufficiently to deal with each separately.
First, the legitimacy of the Rising. It’s tempting to simply endorse Fergal Crehan’s dismissal of those who say the Rising shouldn’t have happened: “Unless you have a time machine handy, shut up.” That is not to suppress criticism and analysis, but rather to require that it be properly historically grounded, which for me means an acceptance not only of the conditions that led to the Rising but of the positions that the Rising came to hold in subsequent events. One of those roles relates to the Troubles, of which more later, but in a very real sense the Rising also led to the nation state in which I grew up and of which, notwithstanding frequent disagreements on various aspects of policy, I am proud to be a member.
Wheatcroft argues, correctly, that “in 1916, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a democracy with limited representative government and a rule of law.” But it was also such in 1919, when the majority of Irish representatives to the British parliament instead set up their own parliament, the first Dáil, asserting control over the island of Ireland. Surely, since this was a decision taken autonomously, without the approval of the British parliament this was similarly not just illegal but illegitimate? And no matter what your answer to that, how does one justify the decision by representatives of that self-declared government to reach a compromise with the British government that split the island, leaving in the United Kingdom some people who had supported the creation of that independent state? At each stage the legitimacy of the various players was open to serious challenge, depending on your understanding of how legitimacy comes about and on which (of the incompatible) national myths of nationhood and sovreignity you choose to accept.
The only reasonable response, it seems to me, is to approach the Rising, not through an analysis of its legitimacy in its time, which will always be contingent on the interest group with which one chooses to ally oneself (which will, in turn, be dependent at least in part on the manner you choose to contextualize the event in time and space). Rather, one should examine the impact that the Rising has had subsequently. The two are not, of course, completely distinct, but the latter focuses not on questions of legitimation – should the Rising have happened? – but on the impact that the Rising has actually had. To recognize that the Rising had an impact on the emergence and evolution of the Irish state, and to celebrate some of those impacts, is somewhat different, though I understand how it can be seen to invoke a post hoc legitimation.
It also seems to me that complaints that the government is trying to ‘steal’ 1916 from Sinn Féin and their ilk misses the mark – this is exactly what we should be doing. 1916 has, for good or ill, been constructed as a pivotal moment in our country’s history, an event from which our state emerged. If we abdicate our claim on this issue, the Provisional movement will be left unimpeded in their claim that they are the legitimate heirs of 1916, and that the sovereignty of the Irish people is vested in their murderous structures.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.