Claire Hanna: I pay tribute to those who took part in the 1916 Rising but I cannot fully celebrate it

Sackville Street from the Nelson Column after the Rising in Dublin in 1916. Photo: PA/PA Wire
Sackville Street from the Nelson Column after the Rising in Dublin in 1916. Photo: PA/PA Wire

In marking Easter 2016, the challenge remains to consign to history the acceptability of violence for political ends.

I can’t uncritically mark it, but there is little in common between the six day Rising, and decades of sectarian murder in the North.

Claire Hanna, outgoing SDLP MLA and candidate for South Belfast

Claire Hanna, outgoing SDLP MLA and candidate for South Belfast

Personally I see little to celebrate about the decade from 1912, especially for those of the political tradition to which I belong – peaceful, leftist Northern nationalists. If we are honest, this 10 year period of our shared history left tens of thousands dead, many traumatised, economic ruin, the island partitioned, and the gun firmly inserted into Irish Politics.

I am comfortable paying tribute to those involved in the 1916 Easter Rising, who probably knew they had no chance of succeeding but who felt that the very idea of Irishness close to being subsumed into a hostile Britain.

There would never have been a case for the Rising if successive British governments had shown decency and statesmanship in giving Ireland its clearly expressed wish of Home Rule, but democratic avenues had been blocked for four decades. I can’t agree with the Alliance Party leader David Ford’s decision to hand the legacy of the rising to militant republicans, by whom I’m sure most of the 1916 dead would be repulsed.

I attend November Remembrance each year, while standing apart from the militarism and glorification of war that still characterise many such events. In the same manner I believe confident Unionists could engage with 1916 commemoration with a focus on shared tragedy, common memory and learning from the past.

It is the vision of an equal, outward looking Ireland, and not sinister notions of ‘blood sacrifice’, that I commemorate. We can also acknowledge a relatively clean fight. Despite the deeply, deeply regrettable death toll of Easter 1916 – and it is those hundreds of civilian deaths that prevent me, personally, from wholeheartedly celebrating the Rising – its leaders had the decency and insight to stop after a week, precisely because they could not justify the continuing loss of human life.

That’s why democratic Irish nationalism must wrestle from Provisional republicanism the legacy of the Rising and make crystal clear that decades of brutal, sectarian murder, of indiscriminate bombing, of workmen lined up and shot by religion, of bodies disappeared in bogs, can in no way, shape or form claim to be the manifestation of the ideals of the Rising.

The events 1912-1923 which led to the tragedy of the partition of this island are fundamental to the development of nationalist, unionist, republican and loyalist identities and they plumb many of the major issues that still drive disagreement and insecurity.

While we may be locked emotionally and politically into the past, we can gladly acknowledged the island is changed and can’t fall into the trap laid by those who want to imply that violence is inevitable or justifiable, to revise history to defend the indefensible.

For the first time, the state commemorations acknowledged all those who died. It is equally important that we recognise the price paid by many thousands from this island who died needlessly in the selfish, imperialist first world war.

A life lost at Gallipoli – Irish, Britain or Turkish – is as great a tragedy to their families as a life lost in the GPO. We should also understand that how we approach these centenaries will shape how we collectively mark upcoming 50th anniversaries of events, in lived memory for many, of the Troubles.

We have a lot to learn from what the men of 1916 did in supplying the title deeds of the 26 county Irish free state but from my perspective and politics, we have much more inspiration to take from the overwhelmingly democratically endorsed Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Claire Hanna is an outgoing SDLP MLA for South Belfast and candidate in that constituency in the coming election