Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Who fears to speak?

Tom McGurk:

What strange sights are to be seen around Moore Street this week? The southern Irish political establishment are to be found there now wandering around with their history books, looking for Number 16.

Apparently - don't laugh - they are not even sure if Number 16 is the right address. Perhaps the shop where the 1916 leaders last met on the Friday of Easter week and subsequently surrendered may not actually be Number 16.

I hope it is, because of the superbly ironic Celtic tiger setting that the whole cameo now presents. There, sandwiched between a hairdresser and a mobile phone shop, is the long-abandoned Irish Alamo, with its roof collapsing and its walls falling in.

Could symbolic significance say more of how this state has officially regarded 1916 in recent times?

In 1966, the official revolutionary zeitgeist was everywhere. With the old revolutionary generation on its last legs at the GPO parade, and with Lord Brookeborough's B Specials maintaining the Queen's peace on the back-roads of Armagh and Tyrone, Patrick Pearse and company could be safely paraded for a new generation wearing paper hats and little tricolours.

Here was the southern post-Treaty state claiming its inheritance in revolutionary violence, and nobody was looking northwards to spoil the party.

All that was before - barely two years later - the six counties exploded, and with it the old partition settlement.

At that moment, the beginnings of the argument that dominated Irish politics ever since broke out - the argument about democratic legitimacy versus revolutionary violence.

Here was an ideological crux that has perplexed the south's politicians and historians ever since, because suddenly historical interpretation of state formation was more than just an academic thesis.

The unpaid bills for partition were coming in, and there was almighty manoeuvrings about who should and who shouldn't pick them up.

A new official version of events was needed to steer the state through the historical cross-currents flowing across the border as everyone went back to their history books.

Conor Cruise O'Brien's States of Ireland, published in 1972, began the assault on 1916 and martyrology. Even better, he used Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act to ensure that if there were to be a debate about state formation it certainly wasn't going to be in public.

By 1976, the Liam Cosgrave government decided to have no official commemoration of the 60th anniversary; instead, an unofficial ceremony which was attended by 10,000 people was held, and banned by the government.

Very soon a new version of state formation was being busily cooked up by historians. None of this adversely affected their academic promotional prospects.

In short, 1916 required burying, as state formation had to be explained away in exclusively constitutional versus physical-force narratives.

The new version argued that state formation began with the 1920sWar of Independence democratically mandated by Dáil Éireann (not quite true) and culminated in the democratic mandate given in the 1922 election to the Treaty and subsequent civil war. (Not quiet true either).

It was out with Pearse and in with Michael Collins.

The following salient facts that pointed up how instinctively close Mr Collins was to Mr Pearse in state formation were conveniently forgotten.

The Collins/deValera pre-general-election pact of May 1922 was intended to produce a cabinet coalition of pro-treatyites and anti-treatyites, to prevent a potential civil war.

On the eve of the election Collins unilaterally abandoned the pact.

The subsequent election result, where the pro-treatyites won the most seats, was subsequently characterised as supplying the ‘democratic majority foundations' of the state.

In fact, in recent years, analysis of the voting figures produced something strikingly different.

Michael Gallagher's 1979 psephological study revealed that over 70 per cent of treatyites' transfers went to anti-treatyites and vice versa.

So how was treaty or no-treaty the principal argument of that election? Critically what counts here is not how the votes were counted, but how they were cast.

In short, while treatyites won a majority, the dominating mandate was not primarily in favour of the treaty and the subsequent attack on Republicans that began the civil war - but for reconciliation and coalition between the warring factions. But impervious to the complexity of that ‘democratic mandate', by the following August Collins was taking a leaf from the 1916 handbook.

Already controlling civil, military and (through the secret IRB) extra-constitutional powers - and under insistence from London, which was to supply the heavy weapons necessary - he suspended the new Dáil and subsequently attacked the Republicans, launching the Civil War.

By this stage, there is considerable evidence to suggest that what Collins was leading actually amounted to an unaccountable military dictatorship.

In fact, where is the evidence that the ‘majority' treaty vote in 1923 represented a mandate for a civil war against the anti-treatyites - since one of the abiding attractions of the Treaty itself was that it promised an end to violence?

No wonder that within weeks of Collins' death, the reins of ‘democracy' were being seized back, by the introduction of a civilian-led cabinet with joint responsibility, and the summoning of the new parliament, along with the disbandment of the IRB.

No wonder, too, that the current Irish state's evolution from non-democratic and authoritarian means is not factored into the new version of state formation that has been subtly used to elide 1916 from the wider historical picture.

But what really provoked the recent official southern disappearance of 1916 was the Provisional IRA campaign in the North.

Actually, there are striking similarities to the political context of 1916 in the way the IRA launched that campaign, against wider nationalist opinion in the North in 1970.Like home rule before and civil rights then, wider nationalist opinion initially deplored the campaign, believing that a new and novel constitutional solution was possible.

The introduction of interment in the North, and particularly Bloody Sunday, provided enough water for the Republican guerrillas to swim in for years to come - not unlike the 1916 executions.

And somehow the shriller and the more insistent the condemnations issuing from the now 1916-less south became, the thinner to Northerners those exclusively constitutional, as opposed to physical force narratives seemed.

Had not the hunger strikes opened other doors, we might still be in the killing fields. Unlike the south, where generations of civil society could allow for such historical a-la-carte-ism, it is not so with the territorial imperatives of the North.

Let's hope, then, that 16 Moore Street (or wherever it is) will start the re-education process.

Row over Ireland's 'Alamo house'

Question claim IRA provoked the British

New bid to save rising leader's refuge

Irish argue over fate of Easter Rising landmark

Is Scotland to remain a cold, white monoculture forever?


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