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Sunday 10 April 2011

Legitimising the events of 1916 fraught with danger

We need an honest debate on what has happened during our many civil wars, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

At a reunion last week of the British Department of Trade and Industry, where I worked in the late Seventies, I had the usual dispute with Patrick Pearse's first cousin, Patrick Shovelton. Patrick was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, served in the war in the Royal Artillery, became a senior civil servant and later Director-General of the General Council of British Shipping.

He has two important gongs from the queen; his wife is a Dame. His Who's Who entry is unremarkable, except for the sentence: "Born 18 Aug. 1919; s of late S. T. Shovelton, CBE, and May Catherine (née Kelly), cousin of Patrick and Willie Pearse, Irish patriots".

Patrick knows me only because I wrote Pearse's biography, about which he complains. He intends to stay alive until 2016, he explained, for he has been promised a seat in the front row at the centenary celebrations. We had a brief rehash of our disagreement over the legitimacy of 1916, and parted company civilly, with me, as usual, wondering at the unquestioning enthusiasm for a violent revolution of this pillar of the British establishment.

In being unquestioning, Patrick follows in a great Irish tradition of approving of past bloodshed while tut-tutting over it in the here-and-now. Yet until we face the truth that what happened in 1916 was wrong, we will never break this murderous cycle.

In 1916, in a democracy fighting for survival with the help of over 200,000 Irishmen, Pearse and the other six members of the Military Council of the 11-man Supreme Council of the tiny, secret oath-bound IRB, which had infiltrated the 2,000 or so Irish Volunteers, decided to stage an insurrection.

They were a clique within a clique within a clique. Of the 450 or so who died in consequence, 76 were rebels, 116 were soldiers and 242 were civilians; 28 were children from the Dublin slums. And there were 17 policemen, mostly Catholics. It was our first 20th-century civil war.

A sentimental reaction to the 17 executions -- and quite

a bit of intimidation and fraud -- helped Sinn Fein win the 1918 election.

There had been no manifesto-commitment to fight for independence, but another tiny group took it upon themselves to start the next civil war, in January 1919, at Soloheadbeg. As Dan Breen would explain, "the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police". In the ensuing devastating war, Catholic police bore the brunt of the casualties.

Our third civil war happened because a minority spat on the Treaty the electorate had accepted. The losers, under Eamon de Valera, metamorphosed into Fianna Fail.

Over the ensuing decades, they would deal ruthlessly with the IRA rump who periodically let off bombs or killed policemen in the name of a United Ireland. Internment and hanging were the State's weapons of choice.

The total dead of the three wars was around 4,000. And so to the fourth, waged for almost 30 years by another tiny group, until -- after around 3,700 deaths, 56 per cent civilian -- they recognised they could not win militarily and sued for peace.

The first three civil wars left the island with hundreds of thousands of refugees and two mutually hostile states distinguished by isolationism, poverty and bigotry. The fourth would copper-fasten partition and sectarianism. They were all as futile as they were brutal.

And now the so-called dissidents are at it. Like Patrick Pearse, they have "the strength and peace of mind of those who never compromise".

Enda Kenny might deplore the instigators of the third and fourth civil wars, but Adams and McGuinness, who led the Provos, defend them all. The Provos killed 273 members of the RUC; two were murdered as late as 1997. But now they're in power, everything's changed.

Yet, as one spokesman for the Real IRA put it: "If we are wrong now, then they were wrong for all them years: and if we are right now, then they are wrong."

Like hundreds of police over the last 95 years, Constable Ronan Kerr was murdered in the name of Irish freedom. Others will die. As a weary Northern Irish policeman said to me the other day: "To violent republicans, a policeman is only a number."

Cardinal Sean Brady has asked that "we should resist the temptation to glamorise the dreadful pain and sorrow of [the Troubles]". Yet as long as we continue to glamorise 1916 and any of what followed, we legitimise the activities of those who believe they carry the torch lit by Patrick Pearse.

Patrick Shovelton is probably too old to rethink his admiration for the actions of his cousin. But if they want to stop the killing, the Irish people need to start an honest debate.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards