The challenge of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’

Four years into the ‘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 1916 is central for very many Irish people, is vital that we take a wider view of the decade of centenaries, focused on the present, and by including other social and political events on the island from the decade from 1912 – not least women’s suffrage, the formation of the trade union movement, the eclipse of the democratic Irish parliamentary tradition and the carnage of the first world war.

Personally I see little to celebrate about the decade, especially for those of the political tradition to which I belong – peaceful, democratic Northern nationalists on the centre left – but there are very valuable lessons to be learned by succeeding generations and we would waste this year if we focused just on the past. I preface this by saying that I am a proud social democrat and proudly Irish nationalist and republican, but if we are honest, this 10 year period of our shared history left tens of thousands dead on this island, many traumatised, social and economic ruin, the island partitioned, and the gun firmly inserted into Irish Politics.

As with very much in Irish politics and life, there are several competing narratives and considerable potential for discord. To remember ethically it is important that we acknowledge a range of viewpoints, and that we understand that how we as a society approach these centenaries will in many way shapes how we collectively mark upcoming 50th anniversaries of events, in lived memory for many — like the formation of the Civil Rights movement and various atrocities in the troubles. As a society we need to challenge the view that violence was inevitable or justifiable and ensure that we do not wander down the cul-de-sac of marking this period in a one dimensional, jingoistic manner.

I have no hesitation in 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. There would never have been a case for a 1916 rising if successive British governments had shown even a scintilla of decency and statesmanship in giving Ireland its clearly expressed wish of Home Rule, but democratic avenues were blocked, in ways they have not been since.

It is those ideals and motivations, and not more sinister notions of necessary ‘blood sacrifice’, that I will commemorate. We can also acknowledge a relatively fair and courageous 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 – we can be glad that its leaders had the decency, courage and insight to stop after a week, precisely because they could not justify 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 war, 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 virus of the use of violence for political ends was introduced into the body politic here with gunrunning by Carson, Craig and the UVF and the 1912 Ulster Covenant which threatened a violent response to a decision of the UK parliament. It continued throughout the decade and century and dogs our politics still, with many parties adopting a ‘sometimes but not right now’ approach to political violence. How can we uncritically celebrate these events and eulogise those who perpetuated war and be surprised when flag protesters smash windows to make their point; surprised when militant republicans still think blast bombs are going to unite Ireland. It is still part of the mission of those in my political tradition to consign to history the acceptability of the use of violence for political ends in Ireland.

It is equally important that we recognise the heroic price paid by many thousands of men from this island who died needlessly in the selfish, imperialist first world war – truly, lions led by donkeys. A life lost at Gallipoli – Irish, Britain or Turkish – is as great a tragedy to their families as a life lost in the GPO. I will attend events marking this centenary as I attend November remembrance each year, while standing apart from the militarism and glorification of war that still characterise many such events.

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. The events plumb many of the major issues that still drive disagreement and insecurity in Ireland and it is important that we collectively chart a sensible and sensitive course through commemorations. While we may be locked emotionally and politically into the past, we can gladly acknowledged that the island is moved on and 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 of the rising, to revise history to defend the indefensible.

Neither should we design a superficial, transactional, ‘you attend one of ours and we’ll attend one of yours’ version of shared history. As we do with Remembrance, our focus should be not on the glorification of violence but on shared tragedy, on common memory and learning from the past. 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 what the men of 1916 did in supplying the title deeds of the Irish Free State.