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17 August 2015

Many still cling to misguided ideas of the men of 1916

Tommy McKearney

I mixed business with pleasure recently, with friends keeping me company as I did a couple of speaking gigs in Ireland. I get more invitations than I can accept, but in principle I'll talk to any group. I usually learn a lot from the other participants.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, some of the most memorable events have been at the West Belfast Festival and at unionist party events. This time I also had two very different audiences.

The first event was a debate in Dublin organised by the Sean Heuston 1916 Society. At the age of 25, Heuston was executed for his part in the Easter Rising. What used to be Kingsbridge railway station - where he once worked - is named after him.

The 1916 Societies describe themselves as being dedicated to the promotion of the principles of the 1916 proclamation: individual members may join political organisations, but the organisation is independent.

I haven't come across any who don't think the Provisionals sold out. The members are very active indeed at the moment, with talks, commemorations and soliciting signatures for an all-island referendum on Irish unity.

I've written biographies of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, two of the seven signatories of the proclamation, whose photographs abound on 1916 Societies' publicity material.

And I'm immersed in matters 1916 at the moment as I finish a book called The Seven that looks at their lives and legacy.

At the Heuston Society, I proposed the motion that the 1916 Rising was bad for Ireland. Speaking against was Tommy McKearney, three of whose brothers were killed (one by his own bomb, one by the SAS in Loughgall and one, a non-paramilitary, by the UVF), who got life for murdering a postman who was a UDR part-timer, was once a hunger striker and is now a disillusioned socialist ex-Provo still utterly committed to uniting Ireland, though he tells us violence is inappropriate at present.

I had no local friends there, as the most likely looked at me piteously and begged me not to ask them to come with me. They're already fed up with 2016 and are talking of leaving the country for Easter next year.

However, two kindly came from Belfast, so there were friendly faces to look at as I asked the audience what the hell made these seven people think they had the right to start a revolution with no electoral mandate whatsoever and Home Rule on the statute book.

The audience was young, articulate, engaged and polite, but most seemed as much in thrall as previous misguided generations as to the notion that anything goes if the objective is a united Ireland.

Tommy and I have debated courteously before. We both think the other deeply wrong, but there is one important thing we agree on.

Anyone who retrospectively legitimises what the men of 1916 did is legitimising - whether he likes it or not - all republican violence since.

The Irish government wants violence retrospectively legitimised only until the 1921 truce, Fianna Fail's magic date is 1923, the end of the civil war, and the Provos want the thumbs up until after the 1998 agreement.

But it's not over. As Rory Dougan of the Republican Network for Unity put it a couple of years ago: "Always remember what previous generations of republicans have passed on and, in the words of Tom Williams, carry on, carry on until that certain day."

(Tom Williams was the 19-year-old hanged in 1942 for murdering a Catholic policeman. His cellmate, Joe Cahill, one of the five others involved who had their sentences commuted, became Gerry Adams's guru and carried on.)

Afterwards, my friends and I went to the upstairs bar, where two ex-terrorist celebrities were pointed out to us. There was Bridget Rose Dugdale, who came from a wealthy English family, earned a PhD in economics, became a revolutionary, robbed and bombed for the IRA, served a few years in jail and seems not to have changed her opinions. The other was simply described as "The man who blew up Nelson's Pillar". All very educational.

My second event was the William Carleton Summer School in Tyrone, which was very different. I'll write about it soon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards