12 April 2006

The IRA inheritors of 1916

Guardian - Comment is Free

To understand 1916 is to understand the IRA's armed struggle in the north.

Danny Morrison
April 12, 2006 12:07 PM

You certainly know when you have struck a chord. This week is the run-up to the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and it has sparked a debate on radio and television and in the letters columns of the newspapers in Ireland. I published a feature in today's Daily Ireland and by eleven this morning I had more than the usual number of emails congratulating me or rubbishing my assertions.

What I said was that by any objective standards there was more cause for an armed struggle in the north post-1969 than there was for the 1916 Rising. I wanted to get a dig at the rubbish spoken by those in the south of Ireland, like Willie O'Dea, the defence minister. In today's papers he is quoted as saying that, "Oglaigh na hEireann [that is, the Republic of Ireland's defence forces] are the true successors of the men and women of 1916."

So, the defence forces of the republic - as "the true successors of 1916" - have spent the last 80 years fighting against the British presence in Ireland for Irish independence? I don't think so. The IRA also calls itself "Oglaigh na hEireann" and Irish government ministers take great exception to that. Simply, they refuse to come to terms with the fact that the Irish defence forces AND the IRA are both successors of 1916, reflecting the way Ireland subsequently developed as a result of partition.

If 1916 was about the denial of freedom and British misrule in Ireland, the recent armed struggle in the north was about the denial of the same freedom and a more egregious form of British misrule in the form of partition with its "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people".

In Ireland's major cities in the early part of the twentieth century there was extreme poverty and high unemployment. There had been two deaths in baton charges during the Dublin lock-out in 1913, which preceded and helped define the radical nature of the proclamation. There had been three deaths at the hands of the British army after the Irish Volunteers' Howth gun-running incident in July 1914. By 1916 it was obvious to the prescient that home rule - as proposed in the suspended statute - had been thwarted by the unionist/Conservative threat of violence, but that a dramatic, violent assertion of Irish independence might inspire and embolden the general population (or, at a minimum, strengthen Ireland's demands in post-war negotiations).

But compare the conditions in 1916 to the conditions which northern nationalists suffered: fifty years of humiliation; the physical persecution of any outward expression of their identity; discrimination in housing, employment and investment; its minority position entrenched; a people denied access to government or power to change government; deaths at the hands of the RUC, B-Specials, loyalists and the British army long before the IRA re-organised and launched its armed struggle.

To justify or to sympathise or, at the minimum, to understand, 1916, is to justify, sympathise or understand the IRA's armed struggle in the north. It is inescapable, regardless of what casuistry is employed to argue otherwise.

The founders of Fianna Fail trace their lineage back to those who resisted and fought against the treaty in the civil war, to those who waged guerrilla war for independence, to those who occupied the GPO and declared a republic.

Let's put it in starker terms.

Say Cumainn na nGaedheal, which was formed in 1923 from the pro-treaty element of Sinn Fein and which took power as Free Staters, had remained in power for 50 years with the support of the British government. That during those years it financially, economically and politically discriminated against and gerrymandered those areas which supported Fianna Fail. That the police force, comprised only of its supporters, oppressed Fianna Fail supporters, batoned them off the streets, killed some of them when they demanded their rights and burnt thousands of them out of their homes, before killing more of them at barricades or at street protests. Wouldn't Fianna Fail and its grassroots have a sympathetic view of a physical-force struggle against single-party rule, and the British army coming in to defend that rule? Of course, they would.

And so, republicans welcome the decision by the Dublin government and establishment to celebrate and commemorate the rising.

Yeats worried: "Did that play of mine send out /Certain men the English shot?"

Dublin worries, "Does this commemoration of ours/Justify the men who shot the English?"

The answer is, yes, it does. But no one, not the IRA, not Sinn Fein, not Fianna Fail or any party or organisation owns the rising or its legacy.

Celebrating it, however, triggers certain imperatives, primarily an examination of the malignity of British rule in Ireland, the divisions it caused between brothers and sisters, families, communities, political parties. It should encourage a revision of what really happened to the north and an analysis of the forces at play. It can only lead to conclusions which will not harm but explain the republican movement, its motivation, its history, and how it survived and thrived.

It is a debate which frightens the major political parties in the 26 counties, in the same way as they fear the truth about collusion emerging which would trigger other imperatives - that is, dealing with the reality of British government involvement in bombings and assassinations and probable infiltration of the state itself.

Such discomfiting truths would leave the populace more open to understanding and sympathising with republicans on the issue of the north. Such truths could impact on contemporary politics to the advantage of Sinn Fein. And so such truths must be avoided, must be minimised, hidden, denied or distorted.

Ninety years after the Easter Rising Britain is the ally!

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