16 December 2005

1966-2006: Ireland - 50 years after the Rising

An Phoblacht

BY Matt Treacy

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Click to view - Establishment lip service — Unionist exaggeration

2006 marks marks the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. The run up to this anniversary has seen the 26-County Government, spurred on by the re-popularising of republicanism in general, and rising support for Sinn Féin in particular, announce the reinstatement of the state commemoration of the Rising.

The year 1966 marked the 50th anniversary of the Rising. It was an era in which the southern political establishment still paid lip service to the ideals of 1916 and engaged in much verbalised republicanism. It was four years since the formal ending of the IRA's Border Campaign and three years before the outbreak of renewed conflict in the Six Counties with the suppression of the Civil Right Movement.

Here, An Phoblacht columnist Matt Treacy looks back at 1966 examining the attitudes of the political establishments North and South and within the Republican Movement.

1966 was a year when the 26-County state seemed to be confidently facing into a future of prosperity and international respect. The economy was opening up to foreign investment and the Fianna Fáil Government was talking about new houses and jobs and rising expectations. At Easter the state would commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

Easter Week began with De Valera reviewing a Defence Forces parade at the GPO on Easter Sunday, 10 April. Six hundred veterans of the Rising also took part. That night RTE television broadcast Cuimhnicheán -- an hour-long film celebrating the events of the Rising. The Garden of Remembrance was formally opened on Easter Monday and on 12 April, Tomás Mac Anna directed a pageant in Croke Park involving thousands of schoolchildren. There were also dozens of events organised in other parts of the state.

While the state paid lip service to the continued objective of securing national unity, in reality the 1966 events were seen as a way of legitimising and consolidating itself. Republicans, of course, took issue with this, and the Movement's commemoration's were of a different nature and led to conflict with both the Southern and Northern states.

In the 26 Counties, as in the two previous years, the Garda was directed to prevent the sale of Easter Lilies and this led to clashes with republicans. The incidents were of a relatively minor nature but did lead to a number of people being charged with assault on Gardaí in the course of their seizing collection boxes. The most serious incident took place at Midleton, County Cork on 11 April when an off-duty Garda was attacked in apparent reprisal for his taking part in the seizure of Lilies the previous day. Two men were later charged.

A number of groups also organised violent actions but these did not have the sanction of the IRA. Indeed there was concern among members of the leadership written by Joe Dolan and popularised that year by the Dubliners put it, others took a dim view. A week after the event an article in the University College Dublin magazine Campus saw it as perhaps only a portent of things to come. The piece was entitled 'Extremism' and was written by Michael O'Dea: " Although many of the trappings of the IRA and its preposterous newspaper seem laughable and even quaint, we shall ignore at our peril the threat that this body poses to law and order in Northern Ireland and in the Republic... It looks as if many more bombs, North and South, will shatter the silence of the night before the year is out." An editorial in Hibernia in November 1965 had expressed similar fears that the anniversary would provide the occasion for an "IRA renaissance".

The largest republican commemoration took place in Dublin on Easter Sunday and was subject to sustained attack by the Gardaí. In his address at Glasnevin, Sinn Féin President Tómas Mac Giolla described Seán Lemass's meeting with Six County Premier Terence O'Neill in January as a "total surrender" and as recognition of British rule in Ireland. Attempts were made by the Gardaí, under the command of Chief Superintendent Michael Fitzpatrick, to seize the flag of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. This was unsuccessful and the subsequent violence led the Labour Party to condemn the Gardaí who it claimed acted "without any provocation from members of the procession".

Around 5,000 people took part in the commemoration that had proceeded from St Stephen's Green to Glasnevin Cemetery. Séamus Costello, who was IRA acting Chief of Staff while Cathal Goulding was being held on an arms charge, was Chief Marshal. Addressing the Colour Party he said: "Now here is the order — this flag is getting to Glasnevin Cemetery. I don't care how it is getting there, but there it is getting." The Gardaí made several attempts to seize a flag that bore the inscription 'Oglaigh na hÉireann — Cathlan Atha Cliath' but were thwarted. Séamus Fagan of Windmill Park, Crumlin, Laurence Malone of Donnycarney Road, Patrick Steenson of Leinster Avenue, Leo Scullion of Annamoe Drive, James Murphy of Ringsend, Patrick Haughey of Belgrave Square, Anthony Murray of Mellowes Road Finglas, and William Boylan of Edenmore Grove, Raheny were sentenced to terms of two or three months for their part in the clashes.

A publication issued by the Republican Movement to mark the anniversary, entitled The Separatist, was banned under the Offences against the State Act. The publication was clearly an IRA initiative but it spoke of the Movement in the third person as though the authors were examining it from the outside. The introductory article noted Sinn Féin's commitment to abstaining from parliament but that the party was increasingly involved in social issues. "At the moment the Movement seeks to weld all labour and nationalist elements under the banner of freedom and equality."

The pamphlet included an interview with an IRA Volunteer who declared that before they could face the British in a military campaign they would have to " unite the people in a mass freedom movement". Such a military campaign would, however, assuredly come and the authors were confident that the IRA possessed the capability to ensure that the next time they would be successful. "They are experts in guerrilla warfare and are confident that military action in the future, coupled with economic resistance now, will win them the support of the Irish people."

The Labour TD for Dublin Southwest John O'Connell raised the seizure of The Separatist in Leinster House on 5 May. He wanted to know why copies of the pamphlet had been taken from the Drogheda printers where it was produced. The Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan referred to the criminal proceedings that had been taken and when asked by O'Connell whether he himself had read it, replied that he had and that he was satisfied that it contained "much matter which was a direct incitement of subversive activity". O'Connell had earlier enquired on what grounds the Gardaí had been ordered to seize the flag on Easter Sunday. Lenihan replied that the organisers of the demonstration had been warned in advance that its display would not be tolerated as it represented an illegal organisation. When O'Connell pressed the Minister, Lenihan retorted: "If the Deputy wants to join some of these subversive organisations, let him do so openly."

The Six-County Government was greatly concerned over the threat posed by the IRA in the run-up to the 50th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising. On 9 December, 1965 O'Neill wrote to the British Secretary for State at the Home Office, Frank Soskice to report that " we have been advised by the RUC that preparations are afoot for an early resumption of IRA activities in Northern Ireland". Among the evidence O'Neill referred to were reports that Cathal Goulding and Seán Garland had visited IRA units in the North and that arms had been brought in from the 26 Counties. O'Neill felt that those who had been trained were "impatient for action", and that "in many aspects the present situation is on a par with that which prevailed immediately before the last IRA campaign was mounted in 1956".

There had been a number of incidents including the breaking up of a British Army film show in Belfast in October 1965, and five men in semi-military uniform were arrested close to the home of the British Army GOC, Northern Ireland Command in November. The RUC also claimed that 34 training camps had been held in the 26 Counties in 1965. Lemass told the British that he was aware of IRA activities and was watching them carefully. On the whole he thought that reports of the IRA tended to be exaggerated but this did not mean that he was taking them lightly.

There was a petrol-bomb attack on an RUC Land Rover in Andersonstown on 10 February 1966, for which the IRA denied responsibility. The Belfast Telegraph also claimed that the Gardaí were preparing for an IRA campaign to begin at Easter, based on the intensive recruitment and training programme carried out by the IRA over the previous 12 months. In the course of a series of interviews with the Belfast Telegraph in February, Mac Giolla denied that the IRA had plans for a campaign. Indeed he claimed that the IRA was badly equipped for such a venture.

As Easter approached, the Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister Robert McConnell put it on notice that no infringements of the Public Order Act or the Flags and Emblems Act would be tolerated. Wilson was informed of renewed concerns from Belfast but was assured by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins that his office was in contact with their counterparts in Dublin "who were being very co-operative". On 4 April, Jenkins sent the Prime Minster a lengthy report on the situation and the precautions that were being taken in the run-up to Easter. "Information received both from Scotland Yard and the Northern Ireland Government shows that the threat is a real one. During the last year or so there has been a steady build up of membership of the IRA, and it was estimated at the end of last year that there were some 3,000 trained members or supporters who could be called out in an emergency. Military training has been carried out at camps held secretly in various parts of Ireland, and an adequate supply of arms and ammunition is held". In response, the RUC stepped up protection of personnel and installations and there were plans to reinforce the police with the Army if that was necessary.

Apart from minor incidents Easter 1966 passed off peacefully in so far as the IRA were concerned. Despite this, the Northern Ireland authorities were still planning to take action against republicans apparently on the basis of new intelligence. The excuse used by unionists was plans for an Easter commemoration to be held at the Casement Park GAA grounds and the danger that this would provoke a counter-demonstration by Paisleyites. In consequence, the authorities had introduced a ban on cross-border rail traffic and would be monitoring road movements. They did not, however, believe that they would require military assistance.

Craig defended the actions of the Six-County Government as "necessary precautions to deal with the threatened IRA outbreak". While activity had decreased, he claimed that republicans continued to pose a threat. The Stormont Republican Labour MP Harry Diamond ridiculed this as a "mare's nest" and contrasted the hysteria over the IRA to the actual murders that had been carried out by the UVF. Diamond was referring to the murder by the UVF of John Scullion in Clonard on May 27, and of Peter Ward on 26 June. Gusty Spence and two others were arrested and charged with Ward's murder and the UVF was proscribed.

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Click to view - Easter commemoration 1966

Apart from whatever fears may have surrounded the 50th anniversary there was a suspicion that the Six-County Government had exaggerated the threat to coincide with the Westminster election campaign in which polling took place on 31 March. Republicans only stood in five of the 12 constituencies. Gerry Fitt, standing as a Republican Labour candidate, was given a free run in West Belfast and won the seat with a majority of over 2,000. The republican candidates took 82,089 votes with Tom Mitchell coming closest to being elected in Mid-Ulster with 47.75%. The overall vote in the five constituencies contested was slightly down from 1964 when they had secured 83,534.

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