Friday, April 21, 2006

Partition – the elephant in the sitting room

Jude Collins:

You wouldn’t have thought it possible: an animal that size, in a confined area like that, critics and commentators checking out the space in meticulous detail for days and weeks and months in advance. But there you are – the elephant in the Easter 1916 livingroom somehow managed to avoid being noticed.

Or maybe it was noticed, but those who noticed thought it would spoil the mood, be rude to mention this huge presence overflowing the hearth-rug.

Mind you, it’s an elephant that’s used to being not noticed. When John F Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, he addressed the combined houses of the Oireachtas.

Ireland, he reminded his listeners, was “the first of the small nations in the twentieth century to win its struggle for independence” and provided an example to other emerging nations. He quoted the words of Henry Grattan: “A country enlightened as Ireland, chartered as Ireland, armed as Ireland and injured as Ireland will be satisfied with nothing less than liberty.” And he rounded off by congratulating Ireland on having achieved that liberty. “I am deeply honoured to be your guest in a Free Parliament in a free Ireland,” he said.

I remember watching that speech in 1963 and being swept up in the glorious flow of his words. But not so swept up I couldn’t see and smell the backside of the elephant that JFK had somehow stepped around.

I got the same feeling last Sunday as Bertie Ahern stood in front of the GPO in O’Connell Street in Dublin and explained to us all what the parade and celebration was about. “Today is a day of remembrance, reconciliation and renewal. Today is about discharging one generation’s debt of honour to another. Today, we will fittingly commemorate the patriotism and vision of those who set in train an unstoppable process which led to this country’s political independence”.

And when he had finished, no one booed or threw anything or shouted that he was a bloody liar. They clapped, they cheered, they waved their little tricolours. Just like JFK, Bertie’s body-swerve took him past the elephant as if it wasn’t there.

Except that the elephant Partition is still there. It would be nice if President Kennedy had visited a free parliament in a free Ireland back in 1963, but he didn’t.

And it would be nice if Bertie had got it right when he said that 1916 had led to Ireland’s political independence, but it didn’t. The actions of Pearse and others led to political independence for the south of Ireland but not the six northern counties. The American president addressed the free parliament of a southern state, not a free Ireland. And it’s this awkward, inconvenient, party-spoiling elephant called Partition that politicians on this island keep trying to avoid.

To even mention its existence as a driving force in our past is frowned on in some quarters. In a recent radio discussion Garrett Fitzgerald got tetchy when it was suggested that the civil war which followed the signing of the Treaty might have had something to do with a desire for 32-county independence. “Learn your history,” he declared in his best magisterial style.

Unionist politicians, who know full well that Easter 1916 was about breaking the British connection for all the people of Ireland, have no qualms about denouncing the events of the time. They were acts of treachery, acts of terrorism, and should never have happened.

This sort of talk makes southern politicians uncomfortable. Normally sensitive to unionist needs, they can’t very well join in this condemnation of violence because (i) it clashes with the free Ireland myth they have constructed, and (ii) the talk of terrorism and treachery sounds too similar to the way unionists talk about the activities of the IRA in the North over the last 30 years, and that’s one parallel southern politicians are keen should be avoided.

But Bertie Ahern is nothing if not resourceful, and he found a way round that little awkwardness. Keep the commemoration of those who won Ireland her complete freedom, but add to it commemoration of another 1916 event which northern unionists like to mythologise: the Battle of the Somme.

On the face of it, Bertie’s move makes sense. Many Irishmen, north and south, died in that battle. If a significant event occurred – whether the defeat of the insurgents in 1798 or the passing of the Act of Union in 1801 or the failure/success of Easter 1916 – it should, it must, be accepted and incorporated into our history.

But for what it was, not for what we’d like to pretend it was. The First World War – supposedly the war to end wars – was a struggle between two imperial powers, Britain and Germany, and the millions on both sides who died in that war, including the many Irishmen, died futile, pointless deaths. We only add to the many lies on which that war was built when we say that their deaths were glorious.

A second feature of that war – one with which unionists are comfortable but not surely nationalists: the Irishmen who died at the Somme died in the uniform and service of the British army. That’s the army whose presence on this island over centuries has had a single purpose, to suppress any moves towards Irish freedom.

If you hear a tearing sound, that’s nationalist thinking trying to applaud at once those who fought for Irish freedom and those who donned British uniform and bought an old imperial lie.

But the contradictions don’t end at the differences between those who fought in the GPO and those who died at the Somme. Cork TD Ned O’Keefe wants to honour all the combatants involved in Easter 1916. “I believe we should remember those who died on both sides of the figthting,” he says.

A British Tory MP has built on this and called on the Taoiseach to visit the graves of three members of the Worcestershier and Sherwood Foresters Regiment in his constituency. That’s the regiment that supplied the firing squads which executed Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders.

Dublin TD Sean Ardagh backs the idea. “I think it would be a suitable thing for the Taoiseach to do,” he said.

What an odd thought: in the name of Anglo-Irish friendship, the Taoiseach is being urged to honour those who died in the cause of Irish freedom and those who did their damnedest to suppress it.

What next: a memorial to the Parachute Regiment at Free Derry Corner? There has been much talk of the need to acknowledge the complexity of Irish history and not to simplify it into a clash between good guys and bad guys.

In the North, we’re urged to acknowledge the variety of forms in which Irishness comes and to be open to such variety. Both constructive suggestions. But acknowledging complexity and variety is one thing; pretending a mammoth grey bum in the livingroom, which is pressing us all against the wall and making breathing difficult, doesn’t exist – that’s another entirely.

King Speaks For McAllister


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