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Sunday 7 December 2008

The young are breaking free of Rising myths 

Fresh young minds are challenging established views on the morality of events in 1916, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE motion – 'That this house believes that the 1916 Easter Rising was immoral'; the time – last Monday; the place – the Philosophical Society, University College Cork. An outraged elderly member of the audience – offended that such a motion had even been debated – produced a familiar tirade about the iniquities of the British empire which had given the men of 1916 no choice, after which a crisp young man pointed out to him that imperialism was the prevailing ideology of the time; that the Belgians, French, Portuguese, Spanish and anyone else you could think of had all been at it; that Ireland would have been at it if it had had the chance and that going on about the British was tunnel vision.

I was as thrilled as the Blast-from-the·Past was stunned, though I was already aware that the young freethinking audience seemed relaxed about the proposition that their state was founded on an immoral act.

As proposer, my thesis was (a) that in 1916, Ireland was a democracy (eg equal representation, free elections, free speech, free assembly, secret ballots, local councils), so there was no moral justification whatsoever for an unelected cabal to attempt a violent coup d'etat (450 dead); (b) that anyone who thought them justified had to defend the moral legitimacy of those who without a mandate from the electorate to go to war, fought a vicious campaign against those of their neighbours who worked for the state (1919–21: 1,500 or so dead); those whose contempt even for home-grown democracy plunged Ireland into bitter civil war in 1922–23 (around 2,000 dead); the various irreconcilable IRA rumps who ran the bombing campaign in Britain in 1939 and the Border campaign from 1956-1961; the Provisionals (whose campaign led to more than 3,000 deaths); and all the other IRAs including the Reals – who gave us the Omagh bomb.

Buy 1916; get the rest free. And the murderers of Mumbai for that matter. They were idealists too.

I read to the audience Patrick Pearse's powerful defence of his and his colleagues' decision to choose violence, culminating in; "We have the strength and peace of mind of those who never compromise" – words that have been quoted for nearly a century by every republican rump that refuses to accept the democratic will.

That Pearse's portrait was on the wall behind Taoiseach Bertie Ahem's desk is a perfect illustration of the doublethink of our Irish political class.

"The 1916 leaders were Irish democrats," he explained once. "They became revolutionaries because they refused to confine their vision to a limited devolution."

But wasn't confining their vision to a limited devolution exactly what Bertie spent years persuading the Provos to do?

As a good Fianna Failer, the charming and erudite Martin Mansergh has to defend 1916 and 1919-21 and also those who plunged Ireland into civil war – while condemning though understanding everything since.

After the usual absurd nitpicking about the limitations of democracy in 1916 (which is only a variant on the nits picked by the various IRAs we have now), he used the circular argument that because the state honours the men of1916 they were in the right and made special mention of how Professor John A Murphy had demolished the argument that the 1918 election could not validate 1916. (Sorry, Martin. I had lunch with John A the following day: he may be an octogenarian, but he's still evolving intellectually and he's rethought his attitude to 1916.)

Mansergh then rushed off to the peace process in Cyprus, leaving an array of truly impressive young people to apply themselves to the motion.

There was a clutch of objectors most of whom made speeches – all predictable – but otherwise, there was genuine debate and open minds.

At least three youngsters demolished the concept of retrospective justification of a wrong act, others looked critically at cherished myths and yet more struggled with such issues as whether you can have a half-way house in a democracy and what constitutes a totalitarian mindset. Some of them were so ambivalent they produced arguments for both sides.

The motion was lost, but narrowly: I believe my side would have won had not several supporters sloped off to the bar.

Next time, perhaps. The Phil audience were vibrant, lively and confident; the Irish young seem to have escaped the brain-washing of earlier generations and are happy to debate ideas which their parents would have avoided.

Most no longer feel the pressure to vindicate the actions of their ancestors. They are cosmopolitan, open-minded, curious and able to speak for themselves.

We should be proud of them.

They may yet save their country from what its self-styled patriots have done to it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards