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16 March 2015

Sinn Fein and its tenuous, tribal claims on Rising

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams

There's trouble looming over the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising. First, a bit of history.

In 1966, the O'Neill government organised a state commemoration of the Somme, but annoyed many unionists by allowing Easter Rising celebrations to be held in nationalist areas.

The most vocal opponent was the Rev Ian Paisley, who had just begun to make his rabble-rousing presence felt, who organised counter-demonstrations and welcomed the support of the newly reformed UVF.

Nationalists ramped up the tension by focusing on the message of Irish unity, divided only by the issue of whether it should be achieved peacefully, or violently.

All this would stoke up the flames of nationalist and loyalist hatred.

Meanwhile, down south, the commemoration was presided over by Fianna Fail, the governing party. That their founder, Eamon de Valera, was taking the salute at the military parade helped him narrowly win re-election to the presidency a couple of months later at the age of 83.

Now, in the Republic, the main parties all want a peaceful 2016, but, of course, Sinn Fein are looking to extract the maximum advantage for themselves by donning the mantle of the rebels.

Yet, as the writer Eoghan Harris keeps reminding us, unlike Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, they have no claim to this whatsoever.

The 1916 Rising was run by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which under Michael Collins voted overwhelmingly for the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and, as Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael), ran the Free State.

Fianna Fail's claim is its link with de Valera, the only surviving leader. And Labour's link is with James Connolly, who with his Irish Citizen Army, took part in the Rising and was executed.

The tiny Sinn Fein party - which wanted Home Rule under a dual monarchy - had nothing at all to do with the Rising. But because the ignorant so persistently described it as a Sinn Fein revolution, it suited de Valera to take over the party and the name: it would later split and disappear into oblivion.

As Harris puts it, today's Sinn Fein "can only trace its bloody line back to the carnage in Northern Ireland … it is muscling its way into the Republic of Ireland's celebrations, waving its Northern tribal credentials". And how!

In its well-meaning ambition to make the commemoration as inclusive and consensual as possible, the Irish government has dithered and procrastinated, producing a video so vague it was meaningless, musing about asking a member of the royal family to attend and leaving a gap through which Sinn Fein have marched.

Claiming the government is "embarrassed" by the Rising, Gerry Adams launched an alternative programme to the state events, with a triumphalist video featuring the signatories of the Proclamation. (Mind you, there were only seven, so there's little excuse for their misspelling one of them.)

What's on offer is the same dreary, poisonous necrophiliac celebration of death and destruction that most of southern Ireland wants to leave well behind it.

Among other cheery treats, we're promised dawn vigils outside the jail where the leaders were executed and a re-enactment of the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa - a crazy Fenian, who did his best to have his minions blow up London and whose death in 1915 provided a useful opportunity for Patrick Pearse to make an incendiary speech.

What is sinister is Sinn Fein's cynical attempt to insert into the nationalist pantheon people whom the majority would reject.

The Rising, we're told, will be an attempt to "rededicate ourselves to the achievement of the politics of Wolfe Tone, of Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, of Maire Drumm and Mairead Farrell, and of Bobby Sands".

Meanwhile, dissident republican factions are trying to unify for a super-parade, where they'll claim they are the only people true to the uncompromising legacy of 1916.

Ex-Taoiseach John Bruton, who believes the Rising was wrong, has said the government plans a commemorative wall bearing the names of everyone - from all sides, or none - who died in the 1916 Rebellion, to remind future generations of the true price of warfare. That would be real progress.

This controversy will run and run. May we all come out of it alive.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards