I would first of all like to thank you for the invitation to speak on this topic tonight and for the opportunity to share a platform with Ruth Dudley Edwards.
In the middle of the last century there was a concerted effort throughout much of Europe to move from history as almost folklore to a much more rigorous approach. This was when the practice of history as we now know it was born – emphasising the need for a rigorous use of primary sources and working against the entirely destructive approach of applying the values of today to events in former times. Ruth’s father, Robin Dudley-Edwards can be seen as the joint founder of modern Irish historiography and she herself has made a significant contribution – not the least for her willingness to open up closed areas for argument.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that I agree with Ruth on much, but it is still a pleasure to share a platform with her.
If there’s one thing a state should never do is to be complacent about its national story and to promote the idea that there is only one legitimate way to look at the past. It is important to say up front that it is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about the place of 1916 in our narrative of both the past and the present – it is perfectly legitimate for a person to be both proud of being Irish and to suggest that we should find our inspiration elsewhere.
However, I believe passionately that this is wrong and that the 1916 rising is not only an event that we should celebrate; it is part of a tradition of Irish republicanism which has as much to offer us today as it ever has. It is important as part of the shared experience which binds us as a nation. It places at the core of the foundation of this state an event which inspired a generation to achieve great things. And it has proven that it can be celebrated by a modern, non-sectarian and outward-looking society.
1916 is the undeniable start of a series of events which led to independence for this democratic republican state. We are entitled to celebrate that fact. Every society since time began has sought to commemorate its founding events. Some have done so in a way that led to a rising of extreme nationalism. However, nationalism has shown many times that it is entirely consistent with liberal democracy.
Heroes and heroic events can play a very positive role in national identity. The abuse of them by extremists does not negate this. When France was riven by political division in the late nineteenth century the most prominent sociologist of the time Ernest Renan looked for common threads that kept a society together even in the most difficult disputes. He rejected race and religion as defining a nation but said of the heroic past “it is the social capital on which the idea of a nation is founded”. He defined nationalism as “having done great things together and wishing to do more.”
I believe most people would agree that France is a liberal democracy and has been one for quite some time. I’ve never been to a match against a French side where the Irish didn’t love hearing the Marseillaise. The words of the chorus translated say “To arms citizens. Form your battalions. March. March. Let impure blood water our fields.” The second verse says to France’s enemies that its soldiers “are coming to cut the throats of your sons and consorts.”
There is absolutely nothing inconsistent between valuing a democracy and celebrating violent events which helped create the democracy.
Debates about 1916 during the period of the campaign of the Provisional movement were rarely positive experiences. What you often had was a debate dominated by two extremes who both used 1916 purely for their contemporary political ends.
The worst abuse came, and still comes, from the Provisional movement which propagated the idea of the ‘unbroken chain’ between 1916 and their illegitimate campaign. If you look at the merchandise and publications of Provisional Sinn Fein, an organisation that has many broken chains between it and the organisation founded by Arthur Griffith, you see again and again them comparing themselves to the men and women of 1916.
On the other extreme of anti-nationalist writing you also found an acceptance of the ‘unbroken chain’ argument. For them everyone who had ever used force in the name of Irish republicanism was the same. 1916 was presented as a sectarian event which continued to cause immense harm.
Both sides were profoundly wrong – and between these extremes lay the moderate majority of constitutional republicans who had no problem whatsoever reconciling their pride in 1916 with a commitment to pursuing nationalist and republican aims peacefully.
What the Provisionals and the anti-nationalists both failed to acknowledge was how 1916 wasn’t part of some unchanging, conservative movement – it opened up new possibilities. There is not the slightest basis for suggesting that those who fought in 1916 would have rejected alternative means of achieving their aims just as the rest of the country did. The overwhelming majority of combatants helped lead the dominant strain of Irish republicanism in the decades after the creation of this state. Look at the case of Seán Lemass. He fought in the GPO as a 16 year old and then participated in both the war of independence and civil war. Yet as a politician, he did more to encourage and outward-looking and cross-community spirit during his time as Taoiseach than any other figure in our recent history.
The fact is that constitutional republicanism has had the loyalty of the majority of the Irish people for many years – and the fact that it draws as one of its founding events a violent rebellion is no contradiction.
Before the very recent past how many states were ever formed other than through a revolution or war? It is one of the great achievements of recent decades that there have been many examples of peaceful state formation – but in history, and in the first half of the twentieth century in particular, there are almost no examples.
The idea that a democratic state should avoid celebrating a violent beginning is almost ridiculous and it is an argument which is almost unknown rest of the world.
I would go further and say that the Easter Rising and the people who led it are to be admired. It is possible to look back from the perspective of today and find many traits and actions which seem absurd or even unacceptable. To do this is to commit the grave error of projecting back our values onto a previous era.
The motivation behind the rising was not a bloodlust but a sense that this was the only conceivable route forward for the separatist cause. Most of its key leaders and participants were people who had many things to live for, but they were idealists and they felt that the course of history showed the only route to genuine national self-determination was to fight for it.
Their views were fully vindicated in the first democratic test of their position – and there is no doubt that the majority of Irish people supported the struggle for independence. It was a struggle which was, for the most part, carried out in the face of great odds and some restraint. There are examples of sectarian behaviour, but they are an exception rather than the rule and it was a war supported by the bulk of people.
Past celebrations of 1916, particularly the 50th anniversary, were often too religious and too formal. It was presented as an event to be admired but little effort was made to understand it or find its contemporary relevance.
In the absence of formal state commemorations the people themselves showed a consistent and strong attachment to 1916. After nearly 40 years’ of a break, a military parade was held in 2006 which brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Dublin. What was most impressive was how it was such a good humoured family day. It was people celebrating the event which led to the creation of their state. There was no sectarianism and no negative atmosphere at all.
The Irish people have become fully open to understanding the different traditions on this island. It is over ten years since our head of state commenced annual commemorations of the Orange Order – an organisation which was founded as a violent sectarian organisation – but which is made up of Irish men and women and has a place in modern Ireland.
We have also shown how we can commemorate those who died wearing British uniforms in different wars – and we welcomed the British head of state in a warm and generous way. In fact, during that visit she herself honoured those who fought in 1916.
Embracing 1916 as an event to be proud of and celebrate goes hand in hand with a generous, non-sectarian and democratic Irish republicanism which is, and I believe will remain, the core belief of the majority of people living on this island.