Last weekend saw events marking 100 years since the Easter rebellion.
As First Minister of Northern Ireland and a leader of unionism, I did not participate. When I became DUP Leader, one of the first questions I was asked was about going to Dublin to mark the event of Easter 1916. I respectfully declined the invitation because those people in 1916 chose violence rather than democracy.
The main focus was on Dublin where the Irish State attempted to rewrite history to present the actions of rebel leaders in the best light for a 21st Century audience. However underneath the veneer of respectability still lie uncomfortable truths. These were carefully avoided unspoken during official events but lurked beneath the surface.
Sinn Fein rightly criticise modern day dissident republican terrorists but they focus on the fact that they have no strategy or public support. My opposition to terrorism is not based on such shaky grounds, but it is nonetheless worth putting the 1916 rebels to such a test.
They too had little public support and their actions went against previously stated principles of the IRB. Instead of support from “the majority of the Irish people” it was an opportunistic uprising which sought to be foisted upon the vast majority of people.
Their strategy was similarly questionable. The Irish Volunteers acted in direct contravention of orders from their military commander. Today, military historians question the strategic choice of buildings chosen by the rebels to occupy.
Whilst the dissidents of 2016 are rightly shunned for their terrorism, there are unavoidable echoes from 1916. Indeed, today’s dissidents and their forerunners have never been slow to point out to the similarities. This is dangerous for the political process.
Of the 485 people who died in the rebellion, more than half were civilians. In many events this was ignored. In Dublin however, there was a sickening re-enactment of James O’Brien’s killing. Mr O’Brien was a Limerick-born member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who was shot whilst guarding the gates of Dublin Castle. The cold-blooded murder of an unarmed policeman became a piece of street theatre. Little thought was given to the victims of such republican murders in more recent decades for whom it was very real.
It is nothing new for the events of 1916 to be used as justification for terrorism, most regularly, and most brutally here in Northern Ireland. Masked men in Dublin sought to justify the INLA’s actions as they marched in Dublin on Easter Sunday, whilst the political representatives of the Continuity IRA organised the event in Lurgan which saw terrorism glorified in Co Armagh and dozens of masked men walked the streets if Coalisland. I will continue to press the police for action on these disgraceful events.
I have never argued the Easter rebellion should be ignored, but it is notable that criticisms levelled at my decision not to attend such commemorations have been muted.
I did not take my decision based on this or any other matter dependent upon whether it would be the most popular choice to make, but on whether it was the right thing to do. It is gratifying however, that many of the voices which have echoed my own, have come not from unionists, but from convinced Irish nationalists. Their analysis bears careful examination.
After the memories of re-enactments and commemorations have faded, unfortunately we still will be faced by those who continue to seek legitimacy for terrorism today from the rebellion launched in Dublin a century ago. A focus on the future, and on the improved relationships between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland are a much more positive focus than the decision by a small group of people to launch a violent rebellion 100 years ago. I hope that will be the legacy that will be remembered of this period in the years to come.
Arlene Foster is DUP leader and First Minster