John Bruton: His full speech denouncing the Easter Rising

Many civilians died because the Rising was in a built-up area (above Sackville St, now O'Connell St)

Many civilians died because the Rising was in a built-up area (above Sackville St, now O'Connell St)

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Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 11am on Monday 28th March, in Iveagh House Dublin as part of the RTE “Reflecting the Rising” series. The speech is 3,500 words long. A 1,000 word story summary of the speech is here


Former Taoiseach John Bruton

Former Taoiseach John Bruton

President John Kennedy once said that a “nation reveals itself “ by the events and people it chooses to commemorate.

This state is a rule of law based, parliamentary democracy, which has integrated itself with its European neighbours by peaceful negotiation and compromise, which is militarily neutral, and where its military power is subordinate at all times to the civil power.

If we decide that we will choose from our history a “foundation event”, and choose as that foundation event the 1916 Rebellion and Proclamation, does that accurately reflect, or reveal, who we really are in 2016?

That is the argument I would like to explore today.

I believe our democratic state of today in fact came into being as the result of a process, not of one event.


The Rebellion of 1916 was launched on a platform that left no room for compromise.

The Proclamation, which our schoolchildren are now being asked to regard as the founding stone of our democracy, left no room at all for democratic negotiation.

Therein lay the seeds of Civil War because, in politics as in life, compromise and negotiation are essential to a civilized life.

Rather than the Republic being proclaimed, on the steps of the GPO, in the name of a living Irish people, whose opinions had been taken into consideration, it was proclaimed in the name of

“God and the dead generations”.

Neither God, nor the dead generations could be consulted about what they really meant.

The rights of the proclaimed Republic were not conditional on consent, but were “sovereign and indefeasible”.

By definition, the Irish people would thus have no right to compromise the “sovereign and indefeasible” rights of the Nation, which was treated, in the chosen wording of the Proclamation, as something separate from the people.


The fact of fierce resistance in North East Ulster, even to Home Rule Administration, let alone to a Republic, governing North East Ulster from Dublin, was fully known to the signatories of the Proclamation

But in what they wrote in their Proclamation, this political reality was swept aside, as if it did not matter at all. This was politically irresponsible and showed no understanding of Irish history.

The only oblique reference to the Ulster problem in the Proclamation was a promise to cherish all the”children” of the nation equally, and to be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government”.

It is worth reflecting on the assumptions being made here. Ulster Unionists were “children”, and normally children were in that era expected to be obedient, whatever they might think themselves.

The wish of Ulster Unionists not to be governed from Dublin, was assumed by the Proclamation’s signatories, not to have been a conclusion that they had come to freely themselves, but only the result of “careful fostering” by “an alien government”.

At the very least, this did not show very much respect for the seriousness, or the reasoning powers, of those who had signed the Ulster Covenant, only five years previously.


The Proclamation acknowledged the support received from “gallant allies” in Europe, namely the German, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. It was not neutral in the war. It took the German side.

The Proclamation thus sits oddly beside the present Irish policy of inflexible military neutrality, one that requires a UN Security Council resolution, for Ireland even to allow it forces to go overseas defend another EU country that might be attacked.


It is important also to stress that the 1916 Rebellion was not launched just to fight FOR, or to obtain, an Irish Republic.

The Republic was proclaimed already to exist, once declared outside the GPO, and to exist as a “Sovereign Independent State”, of 32 counties. No room for compromise there.

Such a state does not even now exist. Yet its existence was declared to “indefeasible” in the words of the Proclamation. A recipe for endless conflict.

It is on the strength of, and in pursuit, that unfortunately absolute and unqualified claim, that people continue to be killed, including Adrian Ismay a couple of weeks ago.

Those who declaim the Proclamation, as many have been doing at pageants in recent weeks, should think about what its words mean, and about what they led to.

That is aptly described in a 1924 quotation, from a member of the IRB Supreme Council at the time of the Rebellion , about the what 1916 led to, until 1923 in this part of Ireland, but for much longer in the other part.

PS O Hegarty said: “We turned the whole thoughts and passions of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas. We derided the Moral Law and said there was no law but the law of force....Every devilish thing we did against the British went it’s full circle and then boomeranged and smote us tenfold”

That is what the decision to initiate military action in 1916 led to, in the opinion of one of those who took it. He faced up to the consequences of that decision, while his memory was still fresh. He knew what he was talking about.

As well as reading the Proclamation, Irish schoolchildren, 100 years later, should be invited to read PS O Hegarty’s words.


And it needs to be said that it was not just “the British” who were killed as a result of the decision to start a Rebellion in a heavily populated, built up, area in 1916.

For every Volunteer killed (including those executed afterwards), three Dublin civilians died as a result of the fighting the Volunteers’ leaders had initiated.

The first casualty to die, on Easter Monday, was James O Brien, an unarmed DMP policeman from Limerick, shot in the face at the gate of Dublin Castle.

Another early unarmed DMP casualty of the Volunteers was Michael Lahiff, a 28 year old Irish speaker, from the West of Ireland, shot in cold blood on St Stephens Green.

Michael Cavanagh, a Dublin carter, who tried to retrieve his cart from a Volunteer barricade, was executed by the Volunteers.

These were not “Brits”.

They were Irishmen.

They were the first to die.

Their pictures adorn no public building, this Easter in Dublin, but they should.

The prominent display of the pictures of these men, 100 years after they were killed, would have reminded future generations of the real cost of 1916. Unfortunately that opportunity has now been lost. It seems that , even after 100 years, to have done that would have been too much of a challenge to ancient myths, too much of a challenge to our ability to reimagine things.

O Brien, Lahiff and Cavanagh are still being treated by official Ireland as mere “collateral damage”, as they were treated by the people who killed them.

One must indeed ask the question of whether killing unarmed people is ever justified in war.


One must also ask the question whether this particular war was justified.

When it comes to taking life, moral questions always arise. Such questions should be at the centre of any commemoration, especially one we have decided to hold on the same day as the great Christian feast of Easter.

Was the decision to take up arms in 1916 in accordance with “the Moral Law” in O Hegarty’s simple and clear words?

It is especially important to ask that question now, because the Irish State has chosen to place such a huge emphasis, on implanting the 1916 Rebellion as the supposed foundation event of our democracy, in the uncritical minds of today’s schoolchildren.

Given that one of the purposes of education is to pass on a moral sense to the next generation, it is vitally important that the morality of the decision, to initiate killing and dying in 1916, be examined by, and for, these schoolchildren. That is a responsibility of the Irish State, and if it fails to discharge it, it is failing the next generation.

Let me cite an example of the sort of moral blindness that pervades the current commemoration of 1916.

I read a history professor, in a Sunday newspaper recently,2 say that to have expected those who started the rebellion to have sat down beforehand and examined “whether what they were planning met the criteria for a just war, makes no historical sense”.

Really! “Makes no historical sense”?

That is like saying that moral considerations ought have no weight, in the taking other people’s lives.

Of course the leaders who initiated the Rebellion should have examined whether the course they were embarking upon conformed to morality. I am sure some of them actually did so

To say that it “makes no historical sense” (whatever that means!) to use moral considerations, in judging the past, is dangerous nonsense.

We study history partly to learn lessons that are valuable to us in the that, drawing on past experience, we can better weigh up, in the most informed way possible, in light of evidence from the past, what is right and what is wrong for the future.

It is that moral sense, in my view, that makes us human. It is the mark of a civilised man or woman.

The decision of the IRB, Irish Volunteer, and Citizen Army leaders to initiate military action in 1916, was a FREELY TAKEN decision, it was not taken in self defence, so MUST be examined against the criteria for a just war

These criteria for a just war include the following.


“Only a competent authority, or popular representatives, has the right to start a war or insurrection”.

Interestingly the IRB’s own constitution of 1873 made exactly this point.

It said

“The IRB shall await the decision of the Irish Nation as expressed by the majority of the Irish people as the fit hour of inaugurating a war against England.”

By no stretch of the imagination could that criterion be said to have been met, before the killing was started on Easter Monday.


Furthermore, as far as the Irish Volunteers were concerned, the rebellion was initiated in direct contravention of the orders of their military commander, Eoin McNeill.

This is a serious issue for today, given the prominent involvement of the Irish Army in this centenary commemoration .

An orderly state, and the proper civilian control of the army serving such a state, is vital to civilization. The maintenance of an orderly state requires scrupulous respect for military discipline, and careful respect for the chain of command, when it comes to the taking of life. Both were seemingly ignored when violence was initiated in Dublin 100 years ago

The contravention of military orders of Eoin McNeill in 1916 should not be celebrated, without serious and well explained reservations.


Another criterion for a just war is

“War requires a just cause: armed aggression or governmental policies (eg genocide) threatening the civilian population”

Ireland was not being attacked in 1916. In fact the Volunteers were allowed by the authorities to drill freely, something that would not be allowed nowadays.

Governmental policies, in the previous years, had, i in many respects, been particularly beneficial to Ireland

Old Age pensions and social insurance, from which Ireland was a net financial beneficiary, had been introduced.

The landlord system had been completely overturned.

All that had been achieved by democratic methods.

Furthermore, the principle of legislative independence for Ireland had already won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law, and signature by the King, of the Home Rule Bill.

All that happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there would have been no going back on Home Rule.

The point of principle was already won, without a shot being fired.


Another criterion for a just war, is that war should be a last resort, not a first recourse. All other methods of redressing grievances ought to have been first exhausted.

Given that the principle of Irish legislative independence had already been conceded, in a Bill passed into law only a year and a half previously, it is hard to argue that starting a rebellion in 1916, and the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921, were, either of them, a “last resort”. In fact much of what was being sought had already been conceded, in principle and in law. Home Rule was law and there was no going back on it.

For example, Home Rule was accepted even by the Conservatives as a “fundamental fact”, the only issue outstanding being that there be no “forcible coercion of Ulster” to go in under it.3

The only open question was whether, or in what conditions, Home Rule might apply or not to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps to Fermanagh and Tyrone which had narrow nationalist majorities).

I believe the Home Rule government would not have got jurisdiction over all those counties.

But, after all the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period, and the Treaty of 1921, the Free State did not get jurisdiction over those counties either!

Nor after the “Armed Struggle” from 1970 to 1998, does this State have such jurisdiction today. Indeed, under the Good Friday Agreement, we no longer claim it, but respect the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future in that regard.


If we ever do have a United Ireland, it will not be achieved by the methods used in 1916. Our centenary Commemorations should realistically acknowledge that.

But, under Home Rule, if the exclusion of some Ulster counties had once been accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty. That could have been achieved by peaceful negotiation, if it was what the voters of the 26, or 28, counties wanted.

Further, the 4 or 6 counties, if excluded from Home Rule, would have been under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been some continuing southern Irish representation in Westminster too.

This would have meant much better protection for the northern nationalist minority than there were under the Stormont arrangements, that were set up in response to the Armed Struggle initiated in 1916.

Indeed some of the powers withheld from the Home Rule Administration in the first place were only withheld , to reassure Ulster Unionists, because it was originally envisaged, in the Home Rule Bill, that that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

The same principle of legislative independence, conceded to Ireland in September 1914, was conceded b to Canada, Australia and other dominions. We know now that they all proceeded to full sovereignty, without the suffering and bitterness of war.

The path of violence, started upon by Pearse, Clarke and others in 1916,and followed from 1919 to 1923 by their imitators, was traversed at a terrible price .

Given the value Christians place on each human life, those who take life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open. I believe that burden of proof was not discharged.


Some may seek to justify the 1916 Rebellion on the ground that the UVF had threatened violence in 1912/13. That is to claim that two wrongs can make a right, not a view I accept.

Others may justify the 1916 Rebellion because there was a war on anyway, the Great War. Again, this is an argument that two wrongs would or could add up to a right. The Anglo Irish War, started in 1916, was not caused by the Great War. It was a new conflict and, as such, it must be justified or not, on its own merits alone.

I believe it was not necessary, or justified.


Home Rule, already law, could, if it had been allowed to do so and had not been derailed by the 1916 Rebellion and the 1918 Election result , have led this part of Ireland peacefully to the same position of Canada enjoys today, if that was the wish of its people.

I say this for a number of reasons.

Home Rule Parliaments would have elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918.

Sinn Fein might have won significant representation in the Home Rule House of Commons, as would the Irish Labour Party and the group led by Tim Healy. All three groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond Dominion status, the policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election.

It is not credible to say that the UK would have denied, to a Home Rule Ireland, the powers it freely granted to dominions like Canada and Australia, under the Statute of Westminster of 1931, if that is what the Irish people really wanted.

The suffering of the War of Independence was thus not needed to achieve Dominion Status.

In the 1918 Election, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland. So also was the policy of the Asquith Liberals and the Labour Party. The policy of the Lloyd George Liberal/Conservative Coalition Government remained the implementation of Home Rule, on the basis on which it had been passed into law four years earlier.

The policy of Sinn Fein, led by Eamon de Valera, was complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election in this part of Ireland but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, what they ended up with was Dominion status, the very policy of John Dillon, and their other defeated Irish party opponents.

Therein lay the roots of the Civil War from 1922 to 1923.

After all the deaths of the War of Independence, the separatists had to accept, in the Treaty of 1921, the exact policy of their democratically defeated Irish Party opponents of 1918.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.

But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation. The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.


If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if different historical choices had been made.

The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected severe and honest reappraisal, in light of what we can now see might been achieved, without the loss of life .

If we fail to do that, we are passing on to the next generation, through “indoctrination by commemoration” , a dangerous misunderstanding of history.

The focus on the 1916 Rebellion, and particularly on its uncompromisingly worded Proclamation, as representing the core values of our state, is a worry at a time when there is already such a level of disdain for” politicians”, and for the compromises that are a necessary part of democratic politics.


Redmond, Dillon and Devlin, whose achievement of getting Home Rule finally passed on 18 September 1914, a feat that eluded O Connell and Parnell, were “politicians”, who achieved what they did by tough but peaceful parliamentary methods. Two years ago, on 18 September 2014, that achievement by these mere “politicians” was almost ignored by the Irish State.

Like WT Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera after them, those “politicians”, Redmond, Dillon and Devlin, LIVED and worked for Ireland .

But that’s apparently not romantic enough to “re imagined” by our poets and seers.

But THEY got the job done. They got Home Rule passed into law, they won back the land of Ireland for the people who worked it.

In contrast, the 32 county Republic, proclaimed at the GPO in 1916, never came into existence.

This was for reasons that were knowable at the time, namely the implacable resistance of Ulster Unionists. These reasons were unfortunately ignored, because they did not fit into the ideology of the Proclamation, and of those who drafted it.

That needs to be explained to Ireland’s schoolchildren, too.