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Sunday 5 February 2006

Questioning right to life of a sacred cow

READERS of the Sunday Independent are a superior class of Irish people. (Yes, yes, I'm flattering you shamelessly, but, a) I mean it and, b) I'm buttering you up in the hope that you'll do me and, indeed, Ireland, a small favour.)

You demonstrate your superiority because, in a country culturally conditioned by an authoritarian church to suppress any questioning of orthodoxy, you have for years tolerated dissenters on these pages.

Long before it was popular or profitable, the Sunday Independent allowed its contributors to question and criticise church, State and even the peace process.

We're no longer bullied by bishops or impoverished by little Irelanders but, as a nation, we still have a few sacred cows hanging about the place whose right to life needs to be called into question. One such is the belief that Easter Rising of 1916 was a good thing.

This particular cow sickened a while back, and while it got the occasional nod from passers-by for old time's sake, increasingly, it was worshipped enthusiastically by only a few fundamentalists, who encouraged it to run amok.

Then came the Government's decision to call in the vets, fill the cow with antibiotics, monkey glands and sedatives, get it scrubbed up, trained to be continent and put under the aegis of the Health and Safety Authority.

Henceforward, was the thinking, this docile sanitised cow would be kept away from the fanatics and be a safe pet for the whole community.

A few heretics, however, are suggesting that the beast is inherently dangerous and should be put down.

They point out that in 1916 Ireland was a democracy, that Home Rule was on the statute book, that during a war in which 140,000 Irishmen served, back home a tiny conspiratorial cabal staged a revolt that caused about 450 deaths and 2,600 injuries (mainly to civilians), that in the subsequent war about 1,400 died and in the civil war around 2,000, and that these conspirators still inspire young men to kill.

Why, they ask, do we celebrate that?

Last weekend, President Mary McAleese, presumably at the behest of the Government, denounced such heretics as "a powerful and pitiless elite" who wickedly suggested that 1916 was "an exclusive and sectarian enterprise".

Her speech demonstrated that despite her modish rhetoric, at 54 our president is little changed from the Mary Patricia Leneghan who grew up sharing the prejudices of a fiercely nationalist, Catholic Belfast community.

She shows no sign of having read any modern Irish history except that produced by a gaggle of counter-revisionists who repackage old myths in modern jargon, and she put at risk all the good work she has put into trying to make friends with unionists.

The McAleese hotch-potch of justifications for violence included women not having the vote and her curious belief that Ireland was run from the Kildare Street Club.

THE speech was littered with sneering references to "imperial English gentlemen" and the "foreign class" (ie Anglo-Irish Protestant) who mainly ran Ireland. (There was, of course, no mention of the enormous contribution made by the Irish to protecting and running an efficient empire.)

Roy Garland, a unionist commentator who feels nothing but friendship for our Republic, wrote of how Mrs McAleese "has taken risks for peace but now plays with fire".

To him, the legacy of her 1916 "heroes" was "the utter decimation of the southern unionist community, the cowering of many 26-county Protestants, partition and fratricidal strife in the North."

"She has let herself down and demeaned the presidency," said a moderate unionist friend. "And she made it worse by comparing 1916 - where 16 men were shot for staging a revolution - with the Somme, where tens of thousands of people died terrible deaths in a war they hadn't started."

A friend from a unionist background but now a constitutional agnostic emailed:

"I am distressed and disappointed by a speech that reeks of narrowness . . . exclusivity - precisely those characteristics which Mrs McA levels at the critics of 1916.

"For example, to claim, as she does, that membership of the Catholic church automatically enabled Irish people to have a higher level of contact with the wider world causes the followers of Irish Protestantism to wonder whether they have been relegated to the status of lesser beings to be pitied for their insularity and unavoidable small world view.

"It is precisely this sort of dogma which helps to make non-Catholics feel a sense of 'not belonging' to Ireland - of being outsiders who can never really belong."

The Irish Times columnist, David Adams, a loyalist who fought hard to make the Good Friday Agreement work, complained that her speech represented "propaganda posing as historical truth". What she said about the "idealistic and heroic founding fathers and mothers" of 1916 could equally validly be said about the Provos or even the Real and Continuity IRAs, he commented.

Before our army starts marching in celebration of 1916, we need a sober debate about whether we should cheer. The small favour I ask is that you consider and discuss these questions posed by Kevin Myers last week.

  1. What right had the 1916 insurgents to start killing innocent Irish people in Dublin? What right? (No, no, no: don't ask what right the British had to rule Ireland. That's quite another question, to which, of course, the poor victims of the 1916 insurgents had no answer.)
  2. Why had none of the signatories of the Proclamation, not one of them, ever stood for parliament?
  3. How could they possibly call the butchers of Belgium 'gallant allies'?
  4. How can supposedly civilised people today 'celebrate' an orgy of violence in which hundreds of innocent Irish people died?

And here is one from me: 5. How can it be right for a handful of unelected men in the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood to kill and maim in the name of Irish freedom in 1916, in a democracy, yet be wrong for members of various secret Irish Republican armies (some of them elected) to do the same over the subsequent nine decades?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards