Monday 31 May 2010

The battle for 1916

In Ireland anniversaries matter, and in the republican calendar none matter more than 1916. As this blog pointed out in November 2009, the country faces a decade of centenaries, with 2016 being a particularly important one. The southern establishment seems to have decided that it needs to reclaim 'ownership' of the key dates in the struggle for partial independence.

Part of the reason why the southern ('official republican') establishment wanted to reclaim the past was to stop the more shadowy dissident republican groups claiming it.

Today the Irish Times has published a letter from Des Dalton, President of Republican Sinn Féin, in which he stakes his party's claim to 1916:
"Madam, – Speaking in UCD on May 20th, the head of the 26-county administration Brian Cowen accused Irish republicans of seeking to “hijack” the centenary of the 1916 Rising (Home News, May 20th). It is an accusation that does not stand up; republicans cannot hijack something they have never abandoned. Irish republicans will commemorate the centenary of 1916 as well as the anniversaries of the other landmark events in Irish revolutionary history, just as we have in the past.

Each year Irish republicans both in Ireland and abroad have commemorated 1916 without fail. The 26-county state on the other hand has alternated between ignoring the anniversary and banning commemoration of it. 1916 commemorations throughout the 26 counties were banned by the Dublin administration in 1937. In 1976 republicans were prosecuted – including Fiona Plunkett sister of Joseph Mary Plunkett – and some jailed for their participation in a banned commemoration at the GPO. Each year republicans face the prospect of prosecution for selling Easter lilys.

For 40 years the 26-county administration ignored the anniversary of 1916, but since 2006 it has opportunistically seized on it in order to sell the big lie that history has come to an end and British rule in Ireland is now accepted.

1916 remains unfinished business while Britain holds any part of Ireland.

The message of 1916 could not be clearer; “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. – Yours, etc,"
The next few years will be crucial for dissident republicanism. If it fails to exploit the past – and usurp ownership of it – it will become increasingly irrelevant. But faced with the 'big guns' of the southern establishment and the two main northern nationalist parties, they will struggle to be heard. The southern state will hold increasingly confident celebrations, helped by academia, the media and its monopoly of diplomacy – and the dissidents will look pathetic in comparison.

The single best hope for the dissidents is that some of Ireland's contrarians will provide them with space. Already the 'contrarian-in-chief', Kevin Myers (ex-Irish Times, now Irish Independent columnist) has signalled loudly that he will use his undeniably powerful writing skills to counter the celebration of the Easter Rising, the war of Independence, and anything else that nationalism holds dear. By doing so, of course, he will spark a reaction that will play right into the hands of the dissidents.

The other main contrarians on the island are, of course, the unionists – in so far as they systematically act and speak counter to the prevailing nationalist discourse. However, the unionist position is old, predictable and discounted by most people on the nationalist side of the fence. So when Nelson McCausland uses his position as Minister of Culture to try to pour cold water on the commemorations, nobody will be surprised or even very interested.

The battle for 1916 will be fought within the nationalist family, and so far it is shaping up to be extremely one-sided. As Republican Sinn Féin (and it's comrades-in-arms, the Continuity IRA) appear to be suffering from internal tensions (as reported in the Irish News, for which no link is available, but which is quoted on the Slugger O'Toole blog), there may not even be a coherent 'dissident republican' organisation left by 2016. This would be no great loss.

1916 was history, and its context was widely different from today's. Nationalist Ireland should remember 1916 with pride and with interest, but should not try to map its context onto that of 2016. Instead it should gather the memories of the Home Rule struggle, the Rising, the War of Independence, the civil war, and so on, and commemorate them as past events, while dealing in a 21st century manner with the issues of the 21st century. One of the essential requirements, of course, is that groups like Republican Sinn Féin, which seek to refight the battles of the past, must be marginalised. In that respect, the decision of the southern state to reclaim its past is the right one.


hoboroad said...

bangordub said...

Mr Myers is a slightly embarrasing lad who is a bit of a joke really.
I'd hardly take the trouble to commment on him if I were you.
Incidentally, have you heard anything about FF organising in North Down? Rumours are flying about but no substance yet

Horseman said...


I agree with you on Myers. I gave up trying to argue against him years ago, when he was running the Irishman's Diary into the ground. It got so bad at one point that half of the letters page was taken up with people furious at what he had written the previous day. And he just sat up there in the top right hand corner smugly smiling. Eventually Madame Editor realised he was doing more harm than good to her paper and she kicked him out.

Nonetheless, he still has a following, and fellow-travellers. He would be a mouth-piece behind which would lurk the crypto-unionists of, eg, the Reform Movement and others.

FF in North Down? I haven't heard a word. It would be unexpected, given the almost-complete lack of a natural constituency for them there. They could swallow the SDLP there and still be in single figures! But I wonder will FF make some kind of a move before next year's elections? Maybe they're waiting to see how the O'Loan issue plays out.

bangordub said...

Only rumours yet, but if true it suggests a long term policy, the long game, if you will. My source is admittedly southern based, not local.
As for the bould Kevin, less said the better. Although In fairness to the Irish Times, I complained to them about local availability some time ago and recieved a personal call from a senior individual and a marked improvement in availability.
The intersting thing, I think, is that a realignment is taking place both within Unionism and Nationalism. I believe this is a response to the demographic changes playing out electorally.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on this if you agree?

picador said...

Des Dalton's letter is surely related to the current split in RSF / CIRA. Another Des (Long) wanted to be President of the Irish Republic but instead Dalton took over from Ruairí Ó Brádaigh.

kensei said...

On the SF poll, I note a conspicious abscence on Slugger since the last one led with SF 4 points down.

Anyhoo, that shows the folly of relying on a single poll. SF get about 7ish percent in the Republic. Anything in the range of about 5-10 in a poll is therefore expected. If they were consistently at the lower or higher end you might speculate. But SF basically are heading nowhere in the South.