Anniversary could be used to claim that 1916 Irish rebellion is ‘unfinished business’
It was the first major armed uprising against the British empire in the 20th century and is being marked 100 years later in Ireland as the turning point for Irish freedom from London rule.
But the centenary of the rebellion in Dublin has raised fears that celebrating the exploits of the lightly armed rebels who took on the British army could destabilise the still fragile peaceful political settlement in Northern Ireland, with dissident republicans claiming they are the true inheritors of Easter Week 1916.
The 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising will climax in a grand parade past the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, involving thousands of troops as well as 4,000 descendants of the armed idealists whose rebellion inspired the Bolsheviks a year later in their own Russian revolution.
The 1916 rebellion, organised by a band of poets, Irish language enthusiasts, former British soldiers and a revolutionary Marxist, captured international headlines when it took place while Britain’s armed forces, including tens of thousands of Irishmen, were still mired in the first world war.
A century later, Irish soldiers have already been dispatched across the republic to deliver the green, white and gold tricolour to every primary and special school in the state. And on Easter Sunday, Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, will lay a wreath at the GPO where the rebel leader, Patrick Pearse, read a proclamation declaring Ireland’s independence. There will also be a 21-gun fusillade and the Irish prime minister will take the salute as the Irish Defence Forces march past the podium.
But Ireland’s culture minister, Heather Humphreys, has insisted that the Irish government will not allow the centenary of the 1916 rebellion to be exploited by hardline republicans to justify terror attacks in Northern Ireland today. Unionists and some historians have expressed concern that the centenary may be used by anti-peace process republicans to claim the 1916 rebellion is “unfinished business”.
Humphreys has emphasised that the Irish government has worked to address unionist sensitivities. Most unionists look back at the Easter Rising as a stab in the back, given that Britain was embroiled in the first world war and the rebels were backed by the Germans.
Humphreys told the Observer: “As someone who grew up and still lives beside the border, I am very aware of the sensitivities that still exist. Through Ireland 2016 [the centenary programme] we are extending an invitation to all of the people on this island to join with us as we remember the events of 100 years ago. I have personally met with members of the unionist community to talk to them about the programme and to ensure that there is a full understanding of the government’s approach to the commemorations.”
She pointed out that the centenary commemorations began on New Year’s Day with a concert by the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland at a Peace Proms at the National Convention Centre in Dublin to emphasise cross-community and cross-border co-operation.
Humphreys said the Irish government recognised that 1916 was not just about the Easter Rising, but also landmarks such as the Battle of the Somme in July – an event sacred to unionists, given the large number of casualties suffered by the 36th Ulster Division.
“The three words I use to describe the tone of the commemorations are respectful, inclusive and appropriate. I believe it is up to the state to set that tone, and that the programme is rooted in solemn and formal commemorative events. It is also important to remember that 2016 will mean different things to different people. In recognition of the significance of the Battle of the Somme, for instance, the government has developed the Battle of the Somme Commemorative Programme 2016 to commemorate this fateful period of history,” Humphreys said.When the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising took place in 1966, Northern Ireland was only three years away from the start of the Troubles and a 28-year conflict that claimed almost 4,000 lives.
The Nobel peace prize winner and former first minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, who wrote a pamphlet in the 1980s justifying the British military’s decision to execute Pearse and other rebel leaders, said the sight of armed men in the guerrilla-style uniforms of the old IRA marching down O’Connell Street in their thousands “spooked sections of the unionist community” in the late 1960s.
“It’s worth recalling that before Easter 1966, the Rev Ian Paisley could only muster protests against everything from tricolours flying in Belfast to ecumenical conferences that ran into the hundreds,” he said. “On Easter Sunday 1966 Paisley organised a counter-demonstration against the 50th anniversary of the Rising and this time 5,000 people turned up. It was Paisley’s first major protest and from then on he built his power base.
“Without the jingoism of Easter 1966, Paisley might have been relegated to the sidelines and, as I have always argued, without the rise of Paisley and his opposition to reforms inside Northern Ireland there would have been no Troubles. The 50th anniversary provided a major step up for Paisley and Paisleyism.”
As with most major political issues or historical events, plans to commemorate Easter 2016 have produced splits in how Ireland remembers and interprets the revolt. Sinn Féin has decided to organise its own series of events independent of the government’s official programme. The party is behind a major exhibition about the Easter Rising in a former cinema north of O’Connell Street. Dissident republicans, meanwhile, have coalesced under the proliferating 1916 Societies, which observers of republicanism believe is a nascent political movement for all those opposed to peace and power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
A former Provisional IRA prisoner and head of its Derry Brigade during the Troubles, Danny McBrearty, a member of the Derry 1916 Society, said the societies have created a new all-Ireland network of republicans who regard the Good Friday agreement as a sellout.
“The 1916 Societies is an Irish separatist organisation that emerged in 2009. Since then it has spread quietly but rapidly, establishing a presence throughout Ireland,” he said. “In East Tyrone it is supported by the vast majority of the families of the IRA ‘roll of honour’. Elsewhere, as local Societies multiply, they are becoming the ‘go-to’ organisation for families of fallen IRA volunteers seeking to commemorate their loved ones.”
Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said he thought that the mainstream commemoration programme had probably got the balance right. He believes the best way to mark the event is to explore the complexities of the time rather than simplistic jingoism. “The way they [the Irish government] have included the tradition of John Redmond and the ‘Home Rule’ Irish party demonstrates that they have tried to be fair in this centenary. There is also acknowledgement that the rising and the subsequent war was not just the Irish versus the Brits, but an internal Irish civil war.”
Ireland did not achieve its independence in 1916. The executions of the rebel leaders, the imposition of conscription and British military actions – including the deployment of the semi-irregular Black and Tans – pushed the majority of the population in the 26 counties of what is now the Irish Republic into the arms of the IRA and Sinn Féin. Yet when the war of independence ended, Ireland was partitioned, the province of Northern Ireland established and an even more bloody civil war was fought between the majority of those who backed that Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the diehards who opposed it.
The commemorations will take place on Easter Sunday only a few weeks after the general election. If the pollsters are correct, Enda Kenny, the current taoiseach, will take the salute as thousands of troops file past the GPO. Kenny is the leader of Fine Gael, the party directly descended from Michael Collins and his faction of the IRA, which accepted the 1921 treaty and which, ironically, for decades since, has been accused by generations of republicans of betraying the legacy of 1916.
THE ROAD TO IRISH INDEPENDENCE
1914 Outbreak of first world war delays the implementation of Home Rule legislation.
1915 Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood forms and takes control of planning the Easter Rising.
24 April 1916 The rising begins on Easter Monday. Irish Republicans fight British forces over six days in an attempt to end British rule, but are forced to surrender.
3-12 May 1916 Leaders of the rising are executed by firing squad.
1919 The nationalist movement, Sinn Féin, sets up Dáil Éireann, which proclaims Irish independence.
1920 Government of Ireland Act creates two governments, in Belfast and Dublin.
6 December 1921 The Free State, independent and self-governing, is established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.
1922 The treaty is ratified but civil war breaks out between anti-treaty forces and the new Irish government. It lasts until 1923.
1932 Éamon de Valera the only surviving leader of the rising, and his new party, Fianna Fáil, enters government.
1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish constitution, is enacted and proclaims Ireland as a sovereign state.