In marking Easter 2016 and the wider ‘Decade of Centenaries’, the challenge remains to consign to history the acceptability of violence for political ends, and to embrace the complexity of shared history. Though I can’t uncritically mark it, there is little in common between the six day Rising, and decades of sectarian murder in the North.
Personally I see very little to celebrate about the decade from 1912, especially for those of the political tradition to which I belong – peaceful, Northern nationalists on the centre left. If we are honest, this 10 year period of our shared history left tens of thousands from this island dead here and in Europe, many traumatised, social and economic ruin, the island partitioned, and the gun firmly inserted into Irish Politics.
I am comfortable paying tribute to those involved in the 1916 Easter Rising, who probably knew they had no chance of succeeding but who felt that the very idea of Irishness was close to being subsumed into a hostile Britain. National independence rarely came without bloodshed and there would never have been a case for the Rising if successive British governments had shown decency and statesmanship in giving Ireland its clearly expressed wish of Home Rule, but democratic avenues at that time were repeatedly blocked. I can’t agree with the Alliance Party leader David Ford’s decision not to attend events, and to hand the legacy of the rising to militant republicans, by whom I’m sure most of the 1916 dead would be repulsed. I attend November remembrance each year, while standing apart from the militarism and glorification of war that still characterise many such events. In the same manner as many acknowledge Remembrance, I believe confident Unionists could engage with 1916 commemoration with a focus not on the glorification of violence but on shared tragedy, on common memory and learning from the past.
It is the vision of an equal and outward looking Ireland, and not the more sinister notions of necessary ‘blood sacrifice’, that I will commemorate. We can also acknowledge a relatively fair fight. Despite the deeply, deeply regrettable death toll of Easter 1916 – and it is those hundreds of civilian deaths that prevent me, personally, from wholeheartedly celebrating the Rising – its leaders had the decency and insight to stop after a week, precisely because they could not justify or bear the continuing loss of human life. That’s why democratic Irish nationalism must wrestle back from Provisional republicanism the legacy of the Rising and make crystal clear that decades of brutal, sectarian murder, of indiscriminate bombing, of workmen lined up and shot by religion, of bodies disappeared in bogs, can in no way, shape or form claim to be the manifestation of the ideals of the Rising.
The events 1912-1923 which led to the tragedy of the partition of this island are fundamental to the development of nationalist, unionist, republican and loyalist identities and they plumb many of the major issues that still drive disagreement and insecurity. While we may be locked emotionally and politically into the past, we can gladly acknowledged that the island is changed and can’t fall into the trap laid by others who want to imply that violence is inevitable or justifiable, who want to celebrate the mechanics more than the ideals, to revise history to defend the indefensible.
For probably the first time, the state commemorations will acknowledge all those who died, and the wider context, and this is welcome. It is equally important that we recognise the price paid by many thousands of men from this island who died needlessly in the selfish, imperialist first world war. A life lost at Gallipoli – Irish, Britain or Turkish – is as great a tragedy to their families as a life lost in the GPO. To remember ethically it is important to acknowledge a range of viewpoints, and that we understand that how we as a society approach these centenaries will shape how we collectively mark upcoming 50th anniversaries of events, in lived memory for many, of the Troubles. A great Irishman of another era, Thomas Davis in the nineteenth century, asked Irishmen and Women to educate that they may be free. We have a lot to learn from from what the men of 1916 did in supplying the title deeds of the 26 county Irish free state but from my perspective and politics, we have much more inspiration to take from the overwhelmingly democratically endorsed Good Friday Agreement of 1998.