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1916 Commemorations – burying Irish Republicanism 

JM Thorn

18 April 2006

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” — William Faulkner

In recent years almost every party in Ireland, from Fianna Fail to the SDLP, through to Sinn Fein have been trumpeting their “republican” credentials.  Each has tried to define itself as the true inheritor of republican values.  On the face of it, this is quite a turnaround from the recent past, when nationalist parties were doing everything they could to dissociate themselves from republicanism.  It was denounced as backward, inherently violent and even sectarian. 

The intellectual vanguard of this attack came from what became known as the “revisionist” historians.   They tried to debunk every manifestation of Irish Republicanism from the United Irishmen to the 1916 rising.  Their essential argument was that revolutionary opposition to British was doomed to failure, and that if a moderate constitutional path had been followed the outcome would have been more favourable for the Irish people.  Of course, these revisionist histories were not just about academic debate; they were very much informed by contemporary politics.  It is no coincidence that revisionist analysis started to appear in the post-1969 period when a section of the nationalist population in the North was in armed revolt against the British/Unionist state. 

This came as a shock to Irish capitalism, which had been attempting to improve relations with Unionists and Britain, and put behind it the unfinished business of partition.  The Northern revolt indicated that the political structures on the island of Ireland, including those of the Southern state, were not as stable as once thought.  Another problem for the ruling class in the South was that the struggle in the North was being waged under the banner of Irish Republicanism, claiming its legitimacy from historic movements such as the United Irishmen and 1916 rising.  These were also icons in the ideology that underpinned the Southern state.  While this “official” republicanism was safe in a period of social peace, in a period of struggle it was problematic. 

The O’Neill-Lemass dialogue of the ‘60s, meant to gently accommodate the sectarian state in the North and make the Island of Ireland more profitable for big business, led first to violent loyalist reaction and then to Nationalist revolt. The ideas of republicanism could afford that revolt some legitimacy and this is why it came under such attack in this period.  The threat posed to the stability of the Southern state demanded that the struggle in the North be isolated and the ideas that could rally support for it in the South be discredited.  It was for this reason that the annual commemoration of the 1916 rising was abandoned. This came just five years after the huge state sponsored commemoration of its 50th anniversary in 1966.  In the political context of 1971, when the North had erupted, uprisings were not events that the Southern rung class wanted to celebrate. 

So why has the Southern state decided to reinstate the 1916 commemoration?  The most important reason is the ending of the struggle in the North, and the ongoing pacification process.  The ruling class in the South clearly believe that some sort of stability has been restored, and that it is now safe for them to reclaim events such as the 1916 rising.  Despite its denigrations, the 1916 rising continues to be revered by most Irish people.  It is therefore still important for political parties and the institutions of the state to be associated with it.  The rising can be used as a way of courting popularity and legitimacy.  It should be no surprise that the police and army should play a central role in the commemoration.  The symbolism and political message of this is that they are rightful heirs of the rising, and the only bodies that have the legitimate right to use force in Irish politics. As one Dublin newspaper put it, there is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann. This is a rejection of the position held by successive republican groups, including those involved in the rising, that the right of the Irish people to self-determination legitimised the use of force. The fact that the army leading the commemorations is the army of the partitionist “Free Staters” celebrating everything that was anathema to Irish republicanism is a striking indication both of the victory of Irish capital and of the absolute failure of the physical force tradition – a failure underlined by Sinn Fein”s inability to respond to the hijacking of republicanism, other than by tailing along at the end of the Free Stater”s parade. Earlier Gerry Adams called for unity with the capitalist parties, who openly proclaim their opposition to any democratic settlement to the Irish question 

What we see with the new 1916 commemoration is revisionism that does not renounce Irish Republicanism, but rather strips it of any radical content.  In this it shares some of the characteristics of the old pre-1969 “official” republicanism.  But it is not the same.  This is because the Southern state is in a very different position today.  For most of the early period it had uneasy relations with Britain and the North, it espoused a republican ideology, if only rhetorical (e.g. articles two and three of the constitution), and it was attempting some form of national economic development.  Now the Southern state is openly supporting the continued partition of Ireland, it is a member of the EU, and has completely opened up its economy to foreign capital.  The new “official” republicanism is therefore moulded to support this new reality. 

Much of this was summed up in a speech delivered by president Mary McAleese last year to an academic conference on the rising.  She claimed that the aspirations of the rising had been realised in “this strong independent and high-achieving Ireland” whose “freedoms, values, ambitions and success” rested on the words of the Proclamation.  She cited the “peace process” in the North as an example of inclusivity, of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. According to her, the Good Friday Agreement ended “forever one of the Rising”s most difficult legacies, the question of how the people of this island look at partition.”  Another example of “inclusivity” was the welcome given to “newcomers to our shores”.  She also claimed that the rising wasn’t about “narrow nationalism” and that Ireland’s membership of the European Union dovetailed “perfectly with the ideals of the men and women of 1916.”  In the run up to this week”s commemoration, she even claimed a link between the Celtic Tiger and the rising.  Supposedly, those involved “made sacrifices of their lives so that we would enjoy these good times.”

In order to justify its collaboration with imperialism, whether that is the peace process in the north or support for the war in Iraq, the commemoration of the rising by the southern ruing class has to deny its anti-imperialist nature.  This historical perversion has gone as far as trying to reconcile the rising with the Battle of the Somme.  This was made clear by Mary McAleese when she compared the 1916 leaders with the Irish soldiers who fought in the British army during the First World War: 

“Whatever our background or our take on history, religion or politics, we can take pride in what they gave.  They did what they did in the belief that they were helping a new generation to grow up in freedom and without fear.  That is true of those who died in 1916 and it’s true of those who died on the Somme.”
This completely distorts the nature of these events and the motivation of the people who took part in them.  The 1916 rising was a revolt against imperialism and war, and for democracy, while the Somme was a part of a struggle between imperialist powers for world domination.  There is no equivalence between the two, they are in complete opposition.

The speeches and statements by McAleese illustrate well the level of distortion, both of the present and the past, which is required to harmonise the 1916 rising with contemporary Ireland.   Bertie Ahern, on a visit to the Somme Heritage centre in Co. Down last year, made clear the programme of Irish capital when he declared that the southern government had no strategic interests in the North, and considered the Good Friday Agreement to be a final settlement of constitutional questions in Ireland.  Partition persists and has been copper fastened by the Good Friday Agreement, and the pacification process that brought it about has created even greater sectarian polarisation in the North.   The South is dominated by foreign capital and the demands of imperialism.  “Neutral” Irish soldiers are part of the European army and NATO, and the Irish government is actively collaborating in the war in Iraq.  The rapacity of Irish capitalists knows no bounds as the living standards of Irish workers come under assault and inequality increases.  Immigrant workers are met with racism and discrimination, they and their children denied any rights, subject to the most oppressive and exploitative forms of employment.  These are the foundations of modern Ireland, of the “peace process” and the “Celtic Tiger”.  Rather than the realisation of the ideals of 1916, they represent their complete negation.

The rising of 1916 was fundamentally an anti-imperialist revolt.  Its aims were democratic; the achievement of self-determination for the Irish people, and the ending of Irish involvement in the slaughterhouse of the Great War.  It also had an equalitarian vision, as envisioned in the Proclamation, for the future development of an Irish republic.  While the revolt was not socialist, and we can be critical of its bourgeoisie leadership, its conspiratorial methods and concessions towards religion, these things do not diminish its revolutionary character.  This was recognised at the time by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who urged the international socialist movement to support the Irish struggle.  Rejecting the purist position of some socialists who dismissed the rising as a putsch, they argued correctly that such anti-imperialist revolts would be the precursors of revolution. 

The 1916 commemorations aren’t about examining the past.  They are about distorting it in order to justify the current policies of the Irish ruling class.  This relates primarily to the peace process, but also to the neo-liberal economic agenda and support for the Iraq war.  In opposing these socialists must also challenge the ideology that underpins the continuation of capitalist rule. This is why it is important to debunk the myths being peddled by the 1916 commemorations. 

What’s important for Marxists and working class activists is that they are not overwhelmed by the pomp of the 1916 celebrations and the triumphalism of Irish capital. The capitalist class have scored two major victories that have put them in  the ascendant – the dominance of labour through social partnership and the seeing off of the Northern revolt.  Both victories were immeasurably strengthened by the capitulation of their opponents, with the trade union bureaucracy policing the workers and the republican leadership proclaiming that collaboration with capitalism and imperialism was really the continuation of republicanism in a new guise. However the current ideology is much more unstable than the old.  “You’ve never had it so good” is unconvincing in the face of a vicious attack on workers wages and conditions, as are claims that imperialism and anti-imperialism are just points of view, easily accommodated in a post modernist Irish nationalism.  This is especially the case given that the Good Friday Agreement is already dead and buried and the process is now one of trying to accommodate Paisley and his fellow bigots.

The state sponsored commemoration of the 50th anniversary of 1916 in 1966 was much more impressive than today’s events.  By 1971, the commemorations were cancelled and the Irish rulers were running a mile from the national question.  Any assertions of workers rights or democratic rights will see them fall back in disorder just as quickly.



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