Last week Gerry Adams launched Sinn Fein’s commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising.
It was a typically ‘ourselves alone’ event, with Adams putting the boot into everyone else: “The reality is that when partition was imposed by London there were activists who rejected it. There were others who reluctantly accepted it as temporary and hoped that the new southern state would act as a stepping-stone to full national freedom. But there were also those who saw it as an end in itself and there are many in the establishment today who share that view. They, like the Taoiseach, believe that our sovereign nation stops at the border. They just don’t get 1916. It is an inconvenient issue that they want to get out of the way.”
For good measure he claimed that this led to institutional abuse, poverty, emigration and inequality in the Irish State, with the former British administration replaced by “new, native political and economic elites … and narrow, mean-minded, conservative, elitist, sectarian regimes established north and south of the border”.
Hmm, you’d wonder why Sinn Fein wants to commemorate the event in the first place if the outcome was as awful as Adams describes it; or wonder why it wants to be part of two governments in an Ireland that will continue to be partitioned for a very, very long time to come?
And, given his own “I was never involved” track record in these things, I’m pretty sure the 1916 version of Adams wouldn’t have been in the Dublin Post Office or anywhere else during that week!
If the Rising was to establish a united, sovereign Ireland, then it failed: and at no point since 1916 has any political movement or paramilitary organisation come close to reversing that failure. The political/institutional relationship between London and Dublin is closer now than it has been for over a century and the polling and broader evidence in NI suggests a vote to break away from the UK is a distant prospect.
What happened during Easter Week in Dublin in 1916 remains unfinished business and that’s why it is so difficult to celebrate, remember, commemorate or revisit. Failure, however heroic it may seem, is very difficult to deal with.
It’s important that we understand why the Rising took place and how the British mishandled the aftermath (which I believe they did): but it’s equally important to understand that rewriting and reinterpreting history is a colossally stupid thing to do, too – which is what Sinn Fein is trying to do.
It seems to me Gerry Adams is trying to claim the “men and women of 1916” as his own people, the sort of people who would have joined and fought with the Provisional IRA in 1969. In other words, he seems determined to link their actions and beliefs to Sinn Fein’s electoral/political/propaganda needs a century later.
Well – and this may surprise some of you – I can understand why the Rising took place when it did and I can even understand why there was some sort of strategic sense behind it. But I can never understand why the Provisionals did what they did from 1969 onwards.
Northern Ireland needed reform and I think that a combination of O’Neill, changing circumstances, the NI Civil Rights Association, the emergence of the SDLP and the intervention of Westminster were all bringing about that change. The dynamics of NI politics were changing and changing for the better.
But the emergence of the Provisionals actually made it impossible to capitalise on those changing dynamics: because by bringing thousands of soldiers on to the streets and targeting the ‘British/unionist’ presence they pushed both sides back into their old camps and made it very difficult for a gentler, rational form of unionism to break away and grow as an electoral force prepared to share with nationalism.
I have accepted and acknowledged for most of my life that unionism was often its own worst enemy. That being the case I can understand why non-unionists (or even those who were just perceived as non-unionists and potential fifth columnists) had huge difficulties with the one party, one ideology state that existed from 1921 – although I can also understand the reasons why the state took that form.
But I also believe that Adams and other key PIRA members need to accept and acknowledge the part they played in worsening relationships at the very moment when transformation seemed possible.
Sinn Fein accuses others of ignoring ‘inconvenient issues’ when it comes to history, yet seem happy to ignore their own role in Northern Ireland. Their tactics failed to deliver their primary goal of reunification. They have been forced to work within an ongoing partitionist settlement. They are making little obvious progress with their outreach and reconciliation process on either side of the border. Everything remains the fault of everybody else and they still expect others to share their secrets while they choose to keep their own.
All of history’s ‘big moments’ are worth a cold, reflective eye; but we should always be wary of those who exploit the past for their own modern needs. 1916 is clearly important to the Sinn Fein of 2016, but that doesn’t mean that ‘the men and women of 1916’ are the property of Sinn Fein.
So maybe, just maybe, Sinn Fein should spend more time examining its present-day self rather than lecturing others on how we choose to remember our collective past?