Ruth Dudley Edwards: It was naive of Dublin to expect unionists to honour Easter Rising

Dignitaries including Martin McGuinness, middle of front row, and ex Irish presidents Mary Robinson, left of him, and Mary McAleese, far left, as a military vehicle passes in the Easter Rising commemorations in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dignitaries including Martin McGuinness, middle of front row, and ex Irish presidents Mary Robinson, left of him, and Mary McAleese, far left, as a military vehicle passes in the Easter Rising commemorations in Dublin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Should unionist politicians have attended the commemorations of what they call the 1916 rebellion and nationalists call the rising?

I think the Irish government’s invitation was well-intentioned but naive. How could they have expected unionists to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with nationalists honouring what Arlene Foster described as “an attack on democracy”?

Sackville Street in Dublin pictured after the 1916 Easter Rising.

Sackville Street in Dublin pictured after the 1916 Easter Rising.

The initial responses seemed ungracious, though, so I was delighted that Mrs Foster remedied that by going to a Dublin debate on the event organised by the Church of Ireland, where she sat with Enda Kenny.

I was even more pleased that when at the end of March she took issue with what I thought an ill-judged speech by President Michael D. Higgins eulogising the rising leaders, she showed a grasp of the subject.

It was also excellent that the UUP organised a seminar in Dublin attended by Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister, that looked at the insurrection from a unionist perspective.

When I launched in London my book The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic, I asked David Trimble and the Irish Ambassador to speak, which they did knowledgeably. Obviously, they had different takes on the strange group who made the rising happen, but there was mutual respect.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards

My passion is for the replacement of myths by truth. In 1977, I published a biography of Patrick Pearse, the front man of the Seven, which produced a storm of controversy that surprised me. To keepers of the Republican flame, I was attacking a sacred icon by showing Pearse to be a flawed human being. That’s when I learned that the word “revisionist” was an insult.

These days I wear it as a badge of honour: of course historians should revise their opinions depending on the evidence they uncover.

I live in London and went on to write widely on non-Irish subjects, but my island kept pulling me back. The Faithful Tribe, my book on the loyal institutions, was an attempt to discover what lay behind the forbidding image of what I soon realised were a demonised people. Similarly, much of my journalism is an attempt to show up those I consider malign, which included the Reverend Ian Paisley and loyalist “brigadiers” as well as the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership.

I am proud of my father, Robert Dudley Edwards, born in 1910 and brought up Catholic in Dublin during violent and complicated times: his father was an English pacifist Methodist-turned-Quaker, while after 1916, his suffragette mother became a life-long enthusiast for republican violence.

As a Ph.D. student in London in the 1930s, he met Theodore Moody from Belfast, brought up by Plymouth Brethren and later a Quaker. These two young patriots, who became professors in University College Dublin and Trinity respectively, planned and created an academic revolution that would train generations of Irish historians from both traditions to write the history of all the people of Ireland and challenge the myths that separated nationalists and unionists by spreading ignorance and hate.

Ours is a small island, and both traditions have much in their rich histories that goes beyond bigotry, confrontation and violence. We should not be press-ganged into attending commemorations that offend us, but both traditions can only benefit from learning the facts and the historical point of view of the other side.

Decent politicians have plenty to gain and nothing to lose from getting to grips with the complexity of our shared history.

• ‘The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic’ is published by Oneworld Publications, £18.99

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