By Timothy J. White and Denis Marnane
Assessing a significant anniversary of an important historical event such as commemorating 1916 is like a juggler keeping three balls in the air. There is the event itself, very likely not something about which there is consensus in terms of interpretation; there is the period of time between then and now in which the event is remembered, in this instance a century; and finally there is the present with its competing agendas for commemoration. These three: history, memory, and commemoration individually are complicated and problematic; together they create confusion and dissension. Those responsible for organizing the 100th anniversary of 1916 need to balance the desire to celebrate Ireland’s hard-won freedom with the need to not re-ignite the conflicts of the past. This balance must recognize how the politics of commemoration in Northern Ireland continues to exacerbate a sectarian divide rather than ameliorate it.
The Easter Rising of 1916 is the pivotal event in the creation of the modern Irish state. Its centenary is very important for Irish political parties and citizens, who identify with this effort to remove British rule over Ireland. The Easter Rising was based on a declaration of an Irish Republic made by a small number of men who organized and fought in 1916; for those who died and those who lived to fight another day, this Republic meant 32 counties. The 1916 Proclamation, while looking to the future, was burdened, not just by geography, but by the weight of history or, more exactly, a particular view of history. Those ‘dead generations’, who presided over the ‘six times during the past three hundred years’ when violence was used in an effort to win independence, were presumably still present in 1916 and would continue to haunt most of the next hundred years.
In the months leading to the centenary of the Rising, all interested political parties are manoeuvring for advantage. Modern Sinn Féin appears to be increasing in popularity and having a share of power in Northern Ireland, desires comparable influence in the South. They can claim a link to the party that Griffith founded that most explicitly was organized to achieve independence even if it had no direct connection to the Rising of 1916. The success of Sinn Féin in the elections after the Rising provides a basis for their claim to be the party most associated with the Rising.
Fianna Fáil is as pragmatic as ever. Their long dominance in Irish partisan politics was built on a republican ideology and Fianna Fáil utilized and tried to capture the Rising for its partisan benefit for much of its history. No doubt, in 2016, the party, with their founder Eamon de Valera as icon, wishes to advance its current rehabilitation and is seeking to link itself to those who fought for Irish freedom in 1916. Nevertheless, the party will be remembered also for the economic failures that ceded Irish sovereignty to the troika and brought austerity to Ireland, not exactly the autonomy with frugality associated with De Valera’s republican ideology.
Fine Gael, part of the same Sinn Féin ‘family’ as the other two parties already mentioned, is in a more complicated position. It is stronger politically than historically it has been but must temper the enthusiasm of the ‘republicans’ and insist that it also has a share in the narrative of state foundation and patriotism. Fine Gael, nevertheless, has historically been more reluctant to identify with the violence associated with 1916 and the republican and anti-British values which inspired the Rising. The party also has to take responsibility for implementing austerity, especially water charges, which has undermined its support since coming into government.
The Labour Party, historically outside the Sinn Féin or nationalist family of parties and with its own origin story, has James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army to make its case for inclusion. The challenge for Labour is that by sharing in implementing austerity for the past few years it is difficult to shed these policies for the earlier policies associated with Connolly and others who advocated a socialist republic.
Despite the efforts of parties to make the centenary fit their contemporary interests, the Easter Rising has to be understood in the context of movements that began decades earlier, including the quest for Home Rule. By the early twentieth century, geographical reality and a sectarian headcount forced unionists to concentrate their opposition to Home Rule by holding on to as much of Ulster as possible. Partition was the result. All nationalist leaders, whether Pearse, Redmond, or De Valera, have under-estimated – in fact hardly estimated at all – the strength of unionist opposition to their aspirations. Partition still exists and is now underpinned by a wide nationalist-unionist consensus. The Irish nationalist movement has failed to persuade unionists into the fold, and this is at the heart of Irish politics over the past century.