A Blow for Democracy

90 years after it occurred, Liam O Ruairc defends the legacy of the Easter Rising against revisionist historians attacking the struggle for self-determination.

The Easter Rising of April 24 1916 was not simply a pivotal event in Irish history. It signalled the beginning of a revolutionary wave in Europe that reached its highest point in Russia in 1917 - Lenin wrote that “the tragedy of the Irish” was that “they rose too soon”, before the revolution had matured in other countries. Today, the democratic legacy of the rising is under attack. Liam O Ruairc surveys the debate

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s opinion piece in The Observer will give British readers a taste of the sort of arguments that one can find in the Irish media on the 1916 Easter Rising on its 90th anniversary (‘The evil legacy of the Easter Rising’ April 9 2006). Reactions have been cautious at best and hostile at worst: that the rising was a criminal, undemocratic, sectarian act, led by fanatical madmen who had no ‘mandate’ from the people, caused untold carnage and misery in the heart of Dublin and was roundly denounced by all sides at the time. Far from being celebrated, such an event should be denounced.

For Wheatcroft, the Easter Rising was “a bloody rebellion against parliamentary democracy” because it occurred in a democratic state and the insurgents had no electoral mandate. The rebels thought this was an irrelevance as the Act of Union had been contrived without a democratic mandate and the British presence in Ireland persisted without a democratic mandate (Vincent Brown, ‘The 1916 Easter Rising was a success’ Village February 16). Leaving aside how far democracy existed under the Union, a clear majority had voted for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the previous election. However, it was then obvious that the democratically endorsed Home Rule Bill of 1914 was going to be frustrated by Loyalist, British army and Tory opposition.

What was the import of arms to Larne and the Curragh mutiny, aided and abetted by the Tory opposition, if not an undermining of democracy? More generally, what characterises critics of the 1916 Rising is their inability to understand the colonial nature of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. British rule in Ireland was entirely a product of conquest. All Irish political discourse was maintained in the context of the threat of superior force by an imperial power. This was vividly illustrated only three years later when the democratic will of the first Dáil was met by state terrorism.

Some of the critics of 1916 deny that Ireland was then a colony or that the rising can be understood through the prism of anti-colonialism. They argue that it was an eastern European or Balkan ethno-national style problem. As to the inappropriateness of an anti colonial struggle between 1916 and 1923, Nicholas Mansergh, a leading Irish and commonwealth historian stated in 1965: “The contribution of Ireland was successively to weaken the will and undermine belief in empire. Beyond a certain point, it was not worth it. Stanley Baldwin summed it up when he said there must not be another Ireland in India” (quoted in Martin Mansergh, letter to Village October 15 2005).

What gave 1916 and its proclamation a global significance was that it represented the revolutionary assertion of a national sovereignty in the context of the imperialised world. Subjugated peoples everywhere found inspiration in the Easter Rising; Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, for example. “Its imaginative power hastened the end of the imperial and colonial ages and, critically, its wider context
as both cultural and political revolution created a template that changed the world.” (Tom McGurk, ‘The Easter Rising: the shots that changed the world forever’ Sunday Business Post March 12).

The Easter Rising was globally recognised as a blow for democracy; nothing similar can be said of any ‘deeply divided’ societies’ ethno-national conflicts.

Critics say that celebrating the rising ‘glorifies violence’ and that the democratic credentials of the insurgents were suspect as the majority of
voters supported the Home Rule party.

It is undeniable that violence was central to the emergence of modern Ireland, but the same could be said of most countries that have emerged since the French Revolution. It is true that the insurgents of 1916 did not seek an electoral mandate before the rising, but neither did the French revolutionaries in 1789, 1830, 1848 or 1871. Neither did Garibaldi or Algerian and Vietnamese revolutionaries.

It was the Tories and the Unionists who first abandoned constitutional procedures and introduced the gun into Irish politics. It was Bonar Law, the Tory prime minister, who stated that “there are things stronger than parliamentary majorities”. Had this not happened, it is doubtful whether the rising would have taken place.

Instead of focussing on the suspect democratic credentials of the insurgents, it is reasonable to concentrate on the deliberate infringement of democratic rights by Tories and Unionists. If critics are so concerned about commemorations associated with unnecessary violence, they should begin by opposing the carnival of militarism and glorification of British terrorism that is Remembrance Sunday. In a typical 10 minutes on the western front, the numbers of people slaughtered in the interests of British imperialism was greater than the total numbers who died during the Easter Rising.

While the rising was very much a reaction against World War I and militarism, the poppy is a celebration of it.

Other critics have argued that the rising was unnecessary. It is suggested that constitutional nationalists could have achieved just as much without recourse to insurrection as Home Rule was inevitable. A Home Rule bill was enacted on September 18 1914 (implementation was delayed until after the war), the empire was being dismantled. So the Easter Rising was superfluous to history.

In fact, the modest measure of Home Rule enacted by the House of Commons was rendered meaningless by a combination of the armed revolt by Ulster Unionists, the mutiny against parliament by the British army, the rejection of the legislation by the unelected House of Lords and by the British Conservative and Unionist party. So, after nearly three decades of debate and three Home Rule bills, and even with Home Rule formally on the statute book, it was still not going to happen.

More importantly, the rebels of 1916 did not rise in order to hasten Home Rule. Home Rule and an Irish Republic were not simply two totally different concepts, they were actually diametrically opposed to each other. Home Rule would have granted Ireland a ‘caretaker’ parliament in Dublin, but the proclamation set its sights on the higher goal of unimpeded Irish sovereignty - the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies.

A Home Rule parliament was simply a devolutionary device to corral the growing demands for Irish self-determination into a legislature whose ultimate control lay with the crown and the Commons. If the notion of an Irish Republic was freehold, then Home Rule would give the sovereign Irish people no more than tenancy status in their own country (Tom McGurk ibid).

Further, the brutal suppression of independence movements in India, Cyprus, the then Rhodesia - the list goes on - hardly indicates that there was a recognition of the need to dismantling the empire. The rising achieved Irish independence much quicker. Had it not been for the rising, Ireland would not have won independence until the end of World War II – if then.

It is sometimes alleged that the rising was a mystical ‘blood sacrifice’. As the noted historian Eoin Neeson recently pointed, the rebellion was never intended to be any such thing, that this idea has been “one of the most effective and enduring examples of black propaganda this country has been subjected to in modern times.”

At the time of the rebellion, Germany was expected to win the European war; certainly its defeat was not anticipated. The general consensus was that the war would be followed by a peace conference at which, the insurrectionists hoped, Ireland would be represented - but only if the country had sent out a strong message to underline that it was determined to achieve independence.

The 1916 leaders hoped they could hold out for three days during Easter week. If it could, this would satisfy the requirement that had been laid down by Germany and allow it - if victorious - to fulfil its promise to give Ireland a hearing as an independent belligerent nation at the post-war peace conference. Hence the reference in the proclamation to the “gallant allies in Europe” (Eoin Neeson, letter Irish Times February 6).

For Wheatcroft, the Easter Rising was “the forerunner” of Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome and Hitler’s 1923 Munich putsch. “Patrick Pearse’s exalted (or insane) words about the tired old earth that needed to be enriched by the spilling of much blood … was the very language of ‘blut und boden’ (blood and soil) that the National Socialists would soon use.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Take this archetypal Pearseian phrase: “The tree of liberty must continually be watered with the blood of martyrs and the blood of tyrants.” In fact, this was written by Thomas Jefferson. So are we to take it that the American war of independence was a forerunner of fascism? Keep in mind that the most strident critics of the so-called 1916 ‘blood sacrifice’ are those who enthusiastically take part in the militaristic ceremonies of empire at the Somme, support ‘Poppy day’ or try to rehabilitate the ‘peaceful’ Redmondism - the recruiting sergeant for the empire’s war against Germany and Turkey in which thousands of Irish men gave their lives.

Those who think that 1916 was a mistake should promote its true alternative: the aforementioned imperialist war-monger John Redmond, who was prepared to organise a ‘blood sacrifice’ of 50,000 Irish people in exchange for an unfulfilled promise of a measure of local government!

According to Wheatcroft “for Ireland to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rebellion is to betray democracy.” He adds: “In 1916, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a democracy with limited representative government and a rule of law.” His assertion that the Rising was not a democratic event should be put in a wider context. While the 1916 proclamation at least accepted ‘the suffrages of all [Ireland’s] men and women’, Westminster was “still refusing to concede women the vote on the basis that to do so would be to give in to terrorism”! All the contemporary Irish MPs were against women’s suffrage! It appears that the rebels may have had a better grasp of some of the fundamentals of democracy than their critics give them credit for.

While it was not perfect, the proclamation remained an important step forward for women’s rights even before the self-proclaimed cradle of modern democracy in Westminster was able to contemplate the step. At a recent conference, president Mary McAleese argued that the rising was not sectarian, contradicting some revisionist claims that republicans intended to set up a catholic-dominated state and persecute their protestant neighbours.

At the same event, Owen McGee threw further light on the matter by explaining how the catholic nationalist followers of political parties, such as Redmond’s, were vigorously opposed to the Irish Republican Brotherhood on the assumption that it was anti-catholic and that it would attempt a separation of church and state such as was being conducted in republican France.

These Irish Parliamentary Party supporters and the like were not too concerned whether their state gained Home Rule under a monarch as long as its catholic character remained intact. It can be seem from this that protestant unionists had less to fear from republican revolutionaries than catholic constitutional nationalists. The 1916 proclamation set out to guarantee religious tolerance and liberty for all the nation’s citizens (Nick Foley ‘1916 versus Whig history’ Irish Political Review February).

While fascist regimes were turning away from democracy, the Easter Rising was aspiring to it.

Given that the official ideology of the southern Irish regime is one of ‘peace and reconciliation’, one would expect that Liz McManus, the Labour Dáil member on the cross-party committee organising the ceremony, would insist that all participants should be remembered. “I put forward the view that we should commemorate the civilians who died and people who were doing their duty in the police and the British army as well”, she suggested. In an example of political revisionism, the Irish government is planning a second state ceremony in July to remember those who perished on the Somme in 1916, fighting alongside the British (Owen Bowcott ‘Dublin still split on Easter Rising’ The Guardian April 10).

The two, however, are incompatible. While the insurgents were fighting for democracy and freedom, those Irish people fighting at the Somme were dying for king and country. They were fighting for the British empire, a 300-year project of world conquest, colonisation, ethnic cleansing and genocide. With their help, the British imperialism gained vast territories in Africa and the Middle East from this Great War and went on to pile horror upon atrocity all the way down to Palestine and Iraq today.

In contrast, a common heritage that could bring unionists and republicans together could be a campaign for monuments to IRA men like Tom Barry and Dan Breen to be erected in the UK. After all, these men were British up to 1922 according to official history and therefore are as much a part of Britain’s past as they are of Ireland.

The objection to this will be its potential to offend the sensibilities of Unionists and of people who have had relations in the security forces. If Unionists and the relatives of people killed fighting Irish independence have a veto in Britain, why should republicans and the relatives of those who died in the independence wars not have the same privilege in Ireland (Nick Foley ibid)?

By confusing the insurgents with those who fought against them and those who died in Dublin and those who died in the imperialist blood-bath of the Somme, the original democratic intent of the 1916 Rising is lost.