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Sunday 10 April 2016


Red pencils for Sinn Fein's ersatz cultural revolution

Centenary is looming and Gerry Adams's party is filling a commemorative vacuum, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Blog: Gerry Adams reminds us that we should all be focusing on the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on May 5 the anniversary of hunger striker Bobby Sands

Come on. Admit it. You thought the 1916 centenary was over and you were safe from Michael D Higgins making yet another grandiose speech about rediscovering the idealism of a visionary generation, children rewriting the Proclamation to ban green vegetables on human rights grounds and grown-ups playing in the street in uncertain early 20th century costumes.

But it's not. It's not. They haven't gone away, you know. For the day on which not very many people took over a few buildings and dared the government to come and get them was April 24, not March 24, and Sinn Fein is filling the commemorative vacuum.

Party members are denying, of course, that it has anything to do with them, lest anyone be so uncharitable as to accuse them of using 1916 for party advantage. No, no, no. What's happening, Gerry Adams tells us, is "a citizens' initiative" called "Reclaim the Vision of 1916", chaired by the artist Robert Ballagh, whom I met a while back at a history festival and found so amiable I came away liking him despite his noxious views.

There are lots of things Sinn Fein is accused of being in charge of which elicits a "Nothing to do with us, guv," response - most recently "Revolution 1916", that dreary exhibition in the Ambassador cinema on which I wasted €15 which was a throwback to the bad design and tunnel-visioned nationalism of 50 years ago. The Advertising Standards Authority is investigating complaints that radio and billboard advertisements omit to make it clear that it's a Sinn Fein event.

Sinn Fein is indignant. "There isn't a link between it and Sinn Fein," said a spokesman. "There are party members involved and it is an event that Sinn Fein supports but it would be wrong to say it is being run by Sinn Fein."

When a journalistic spoilsport pointed out that the address on the exhibition website was that of Sinn Fein HQ in Parnell Square, and that its email address was 1916@sinnfein.ie, he said: "That may be so but it is not being run by Sinn Fein." Throwing good money after bad, I had paid €10 for a glossy publication relating to the exhibition that includes Ballagh's "reworking" of The Last Stand - that really bad picture by Walter Paget, an indifferent London illustrator working from photographs, that imagines a heroic scene in the GPO with Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, Sean Mac Diarmada, dead bodies and fighting men. He hasn't improved it, and, hilariously, it's presented as a colouring page. You'll need your red pencil for the blood.

Clearly no one had told Gerry Adams that his party wasn't involved, since in his capacity as president of Sinn Fein he had written a foreword which begins "welcome to our exhibition . . . the centrepiece of Sinn Fein's centenary programme."

It takes me back more than a decade to Feile an Phobail, aka the West Belfast Festival, run by Caitriona Ruane, who was not in Sinn Fein just like Adams wasn't in the IRA, which helped get grants and sponsorship. She was still not in Sinn Fein when running the Bring Them Home campaign for the three IRA men imprisoned in Colombia for keeping company with Farc terrorists, but then suddenly joined the party and was parachuted into a Northern Ireland assembly seat.

Anyway, Bobby Ballagh tells us that what April 24 on O'Connell Street's "public amphitheatre" is all about is the "cultural revolution" the rebels were calling for - "a complete transformation of both public and personal reality".

I struggle to understand what that revolution would be, for both Sinn Fein and Bobby seem to favour the old-fashioned narrow cultural nationalism and penchant for censorship of my Irish youth.

Bobby, for instance, is an enthusiastic supporter of boycotting Israel, the only culturally creative society in the Middle East. He'd have got on fine with Tom Clarke, whose main interest in culture was in his New York days organising violent agitation against plays he thought showed the Irish in a bad light.

Bobby has explained that "the blueprint" for this cultural-revolution was set out in the Proclamation, "a visionary statement of the intent which rightly belongs in the pantheon of human inspiration alongside other exceptional documents like the Magna Carta and the American Declaration of Independence."

Look, Bobby, I hate to rain on the parade and pageant you're planning, but if that's the inspiration behind it, it's going to have all the cultural complexity of an Irish dancing competition in Ballydehob . . . (Nothing personal, Ballydehob: my mother was a Corkwoman and extremely well-read in English, Irish and a few other languages, though it must be admitted she reserved one of the circles of hell for exponents of what she denounced as the 'ersatz' Irish culture so beloved of Sinn Fein, the people who have nothing to do with what Bobby's calling "the initiative".) Bobby tells us that this event will be all about "the dream" of the 1916 heroes and will present "a new vision for a new Irish Democracy".

Obviously Sinn Fein has nothing to do with this, though in a blog explaining why the party will support it, Adams reminds us that we should all be focusing on the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on May 5, "Bobby Sands' anniversary".

So expect plenty of banners with pictures of the misfortunate young men of 1981 who starved themselves to death so that Martin McGuinness could wear a white tie to a Windsor banquet.

There's cultural complexity for you.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards