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Sunday 31 January 2016


The 1916 dead have left us our Fenian fools and liars

Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams
PASSING THE TEST: Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams. The younger members of Sinn Fein are still required to venerate people with a terrible past, like Nazi collaborator Sean Russell. Photo: Tom Burke

The front page of the February issue of Sinn Fein's newspaper, An Phoblacht, has the headline "Join the RISING", under which are smiley photos of Martin McGuinness, Pearse Doherty, Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams. Across the bottom of the page is the legend "REVOLUTION 1916", under which a familiar profile of Patrick Pearse dominates the foreground, with behind him small, grey images of the six other signatories of the Irish proclamation.

On the right is the image the Sinn Fein shop is flogging on a commemorative badge, starring Pearse again, this time with Constance Markievicz, whom a district nurse saw on Easter Monday 1916 running triumphantly into St Stephen's Green immediately after the murder of unarmed Constable Michael Lahiffe shouting "I got him".

I suppose this makes her a suitable role model for Sinn Fein feminists.

You won't, of course, read anything so unsavoury in the books department of the Sinn Fein shop, which embraces censorship on a mighty scale. I could see nothing on offer except ill-informed hagiography or Gerry Adams's so-called autobiographies.

As always, Sinn Fein treads a delicate path between being the party of peace and the custodians of what they regard as the noble tradition of killing and dying for a hopeless cause until the Good Friday Agreement made it no longer politically acceptable.

For instance, in its "Republican Legends Series", it features the late Brian Keenan, who was in charge of the bombing campaign in England that killed many civilians, dealt with innumerable arms suppliers in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, including Muammar Gaddafi, and who was deeply admired within the IRA for such "spectaculars" as the blowing up of Canary Wharf in 1996 with a 1,000lb bomb that also killed two newsagents. But Keenan's name is never mentioned publicly by the leadership without it being added that he was a supporter of the peace process, which is expected to bring with it automatic absolution from mass murder.

Mary Lou McDonald passed successfully in 2003 one of her many loyalty tests by speaking alongside Brian Keenan at a rally in honour of Sean Russell - the Nazi collaborator who was Chief of Staff of the IRA when he died of a burst ulcer in 1940 on a U-boat taking him back home from his explosives training in Germany.

I sometimes wonder how some of the younger, educated Shinners cope when required to venerate such people. In these secular days they are still supposed to cheer the name of Limerick's Sean South, who as part of an IRA Pearse column was killed in 1957 while attacking a Fermanagh police barracks. An ultraconservative Catholic, he was an energetic member of Maria Duce - a group bent on enshrining Catholic doctrine in Irish law - which proved too extreme even for the bishops.

I've been reading a fascinating memoir by the journalist David Aaronovitch about growing up in England in an alternative universe where family, friends and almost everyone he knew outside school were devoted Communists. It would take him years to shake off the indoctrination which had made it impossible for true believers ever to question either Marxist dogma or the Soviet Union. As the Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm would eventually reluctantly admit: "When we talked about Russia, we were either fools or liars or naïve." It was "one thing to be naive," commented Aaronovitch, "it was another to be a liar, particularly if the lie did service for a crime."

And in truth, what the Republican leadership requires of its dimmer and more gullible is to be fools or naive. Having listened at a conference in the 1990s to a particularly pathetic defence of the IRA by a young Sinn Fein representative, Patrick McKernan, one-time head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, whispered to me: "The dead, the dead, the dead - they have left us our Fenian fools". But in fact, Sinn Fein's public representatives are expected to overlook criminality, distort history and smooth the path to power of people with a terrible past.

We are at a time when most of the establishment feels required to venerate the leaders of 1916 and children are being asked to consider how we might implement the aspirations of the Irish proclamation. Once again a quote from Aaronovitch: "People make their own history, Marx famously wrote, but not in circumstances of their own choosing; the traditions of dead generations weigh down on the living like nightmares."
Still, there is a very lively debate going on about the morality of 1916 and people are being frank about their backgrounds.

It was good to hear Arts Minister Heather Humphreys in Belfast talking about her grandfather signing the Ulster Covenant, and to have Michael McDowell defending his grandfather, Eoin MacNeill, who countermanded the orders for the Rising and probably thus saved many thousands of lives.

Outside Republican circles, which are still dominated by necrophiliacs ideologically frozen in 1966 - there is a welcome for the government's decision to make the commemoration as far as possible inclusive of all Irish people who died in the violence: Constable Lahiffe will be honoured at last.

It remains a problem that the political establishment still legitimises 1916 retrospectively, which in the view of the dissidents gives them carte blanche to keep merrily following the traditions of dead revolutionaries.

But maybe when 2016 is over, the Irish public might be ready to contemplate exorcising those ghosts once and for all and embracing in their stead inspirational heroes of our great constitutional tradition, who thought it better to live than to die for Ireland. Ruth Dudley Edwards's 'The Seven: the Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic', will be published by Oneworld Publications on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards