25 March 2005

Daily Ireland

The legacy of Easter Week 1916 is still resonating throughout Irish politics

BY Tom McGurk

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**Click thumbnail to view close-up of mural from the collection of CRAZYFENIAN'S Pics of Republican Murals - Belfast

No matter how much lip service they pay to the ideal, Irish national politics has for generations had problems with the various political legacies of 1916.
Political parties North and South have competed to inherit the mantle but it was always a mixed blessing.
Until 1916, nationalist ambitions were grounded in the British political tradition; election to Westminster and the pursuit of Ireland's political aspirations as part of British politics.
1916 challenged that consensus in two fundamental ways. First, it rejected the notion that Irish separatism - that is, Home Rule - was within the gift of the British political establishment.
Second and more critically, it asserted, in the face of colonisation, the right of the Irish to bear arms in their own country.
Where Home Rule was a demand for a more equitable share in colonisation - a native part-ownership of the whole process - 1916 asserted the unalienable right of the Irish people to the sole charge of their own destiny.
Even more critically in terms of the politics of Ireland for the next century, it insisted on the moral right to bear arms in pursuit of Irish separatism, whether or not such an approach had a popular mandate.
Like all revolutionaries everywhere, 1916 laid down that the revolution - usually armed - comes first and then the people will follow.
Ever since, the Irish political establishments, North and South, have had endless trouble in paying lip service to the 1916 legacy and at the same time keeping it at a safe distance. This Easter weekend, for example, the Irish state's commemoration of 1916 will be perfunctory, if at all.
So complex is the Irish political discourse that the competing traditions of armed resistance and constitutional politics are never to be taken too lightly. Add partition to the equation and the historic argument has gone on for nearly a century.
In truth, the Irish people very quickly abandoned the 1916 revolutionary ethos. Despite later protestations, neither the first nor second Dáil affirmed the right of the IRA to fight the war of independence on its behalf. In fact, it was the volunteers who asserted themselves to be the Irish Republican Army and who ever afterwards enjoyed a complex and difficult relationship with the members of the Dáil.
For example, at one stage after the Treaty was signed and the first Cumann Na Gael Government came to the IRA seeking that they swear an oath of allegiance to the Dáil, the IRA refused.
As Ernie O'Malley pointed out in his memoirs: “After all, why did they need that? We had already sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic. And suppose the Dáil settled for less than a Republic?”
O'Malley's memoir vividly illustrated the distinction between revolutionary politics and parliamentary consensus. Even the current consensus that asserts that the Civil War erupted because of the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy contained in the Treaty is disingenuous.
In fact, the crisis arose in the first place because of the dispute between parliamentary authority and revolutionary authority.
To the IRA, by the time the first shots were fired in the Civil War, the Treaty government led by Michael Collins had abandoned the republic. To them Collins was now imposing post-Treaty British policy on Ireland.
Equipped with British artillery, and having recruited a new national army largely composed of ex-World War I Irish veterans and a small part of the original IRA, his fight was to compose 26-county dominion status and not a republic.
That a majority of popular 26-county democratic opinion supported Collins mattered not to those who still asserted “1916” moral superiority.
After the Civil War as Eamon De Valera attempted to convert the defeated republican forces into a political movement, he again came up against the 1916 lesson.
Sinn Féin, the party he led at the time, would not recognise Leinster House and he was forced to form Fianna Fáil. After he took them into the Dáil, he made numerous efforts to unify the republican movement and bring what was left of the IRA into Fianna Fáil. For example, in 1932 he had his number two, Frank Aiken, suggest a merger. The IRA listened but would not come in. Within five years, as they consistently asserted their separate political agenda, he was forced to first jail them and finally ban them.
Effectively from then on the IRA was redundant in the 26 counties as a political force and it wasn't until after World War II that a new generation of the IRA ceased to attack the Southern state and began to concentrate on the North and partition. Their 1950s campaign achieved very little except to leave behind a generation of veterans who emerged with the Provisional IRA in 1969.
Not surprisingly, their attitude to parliamentary politics North and South from 1969 until the Belfast Agreement in 1998 was of the 1916 variety. Despite the fury of the Southern political establishment and the despair of constitutional politics in the North, the IRA bore allegiance only to themselves and the “moral rights” as asserted in the 1916 tradition.
Down to the present day the current crisis in the republican movement is directly descended from the original “revolutionary” as against “popular mandate” dispute. In this contest, the “ballot box and Armalite” slogan is therefore historically fascinating. In short, in almost a hundred years, even allowing for a brief period of crossover during the War of Independence, it has never been tried before.
No wonder that at this particular moment, the current republican movement is experiencing such difficulty. No wonder the Southern political establishment has been so insistent on burying 1916 in a political consensus that ignores so many questions.
However, by contrast, 1916 as a proto-type of anti-colonial assertion of national sovereignty had an extraordinary impact on 20th century world history.
Across the British Empire from India to Africa and then into the Middle East, the lessons of the “foggy dew” spread like a plague on imperial assumptions. The ghosts of Pearse and Connolly became symbolic anti-colonial stereotypes across the globe.
Whatever about Ireland the proclamation went about and the world was never the same again.

Tom McGurk is a writer and broadcaster based in Dublin.

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