This is a guest post from @1916Centenary.
Our thanks to him/her and hope it does challenge you all!
1916 in 2016- a challenge for unionism.
Much thanks to Open Unionism for its invitation to post on this forum.
The 1916 Centenary twitter account was established in order to encourage some intelligent reflection on the 1916 rising and the factors, cultural, political and military, which coalesced to inspire a rebellion in Dublin city (and one or two other provincial centres) in 1916, at a time when Britain was engaged in a war. We seek to inspire those not sympathetic to 1916 to reflection, and sometimes to provoke those who revere it with unsettling questions.
There is little doubt that anniversaries/centenaries such as this one have the potential either to create greater mutual understanding or to further bitterness and division, depending on which side one’s ancestors took in the past or one’s contemporary national allegiance. Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, in May 2010, pledged the Dublin Government to mark the centenary of the Somme and the heroism of those who fought and died there, Protestant and Catholic, and stated that he also expected that the events of Easter 1916 will be commemorated with respect and dignity in every part of this island. “That, I respectfully submit, is a challenge that must be considered by the leaders of Unionism.”
Responding to this, then Culture Minister in the Northern Ireland executive, Nelson McCausland, warned about the legacy of 1916 and the potential that “veneration” could encourage and assist dissident republicans who want to “indoctrinate another generation of young men to pursue the nihilistic path of violence”.
Is it indeed a bridge too far? Is it too much to expect that political unionism, representing a community many of whose young men, policemen and soldiery, were deliberately targeted for killing during the 25 years of troubles, not to mention many innocent civilians, would bring themselves to lay a wreath and observe silence in memory of those claimed as heroes by some of the paramilitary organisations which waged that campaign?
What can one say? There seems little value in “whataboutery”. Both communities did suffer greatly. The 1916 leaders never envisaged 1969-1994. They prayed in the Proclamation that “no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine”. It seems pertinent to point out that the Republic proclaimed in 1916 expressly dedicated itself to pursuing “the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. This phrase directly refers to the Unionist and Orange traditions- the Republic would be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien [read: British] government, which have divided a [unionist] minority from the [nationalist] majority in the past”. The civil and religious liberty pledged in the Proclamation finds its resonances in the ideals of the Glorious Revolution and the Orange Order.
The Rising is still seen as the decisive event which led to an independent state in the south, running from the reaction to the executions of the rebels, through the (old) Sinn Féin electoral successes in 1917 and 1918, the establishment of the First Dáil, the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Despite many disappointments and failings revealed over recent years concerning politicians and some southern institutions, and a process of self-interrogation in relation to a failure of inclusivity, citizens of the Republic remain in the main proud of their state and its achievements . Many families have relatives who took part in the Rising and War of Independence for the highest ideals, and they hold their memory in reverence. The ideals promoted by the leaders of the Rebellion and War of Independence also attracted a number of Protestants. It will be the cultural and intellectual strands in 1916- rather than militarism-which will best serve as a focus for remembrance today. Fortunately, there is a rich store there.
It might be worth considering the following:
- Queen Elizabeth, whose family suffered huge personal loss with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in 1979, stood in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin during her state visit in 2011, laid a wreath and respectfully bowed her head in acknowledgement of those who had fought for Irish freedom.
- Nationalism has engaged in much self criticism since the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Easter Rising in 1966, beginning with the critical article published in Studies by Fr Shaw. Official 1916 commemorations were quietly dropped lest they be seemed to give succour to nihilistic elements. It was not until the peace process was firmly embedded that some in the Republic’s government gave voice to a growing unease that nationalism was being expected to “almost apologise for its patriot dead” in the interests of generosity and peacemaking. Bertie Ahern reinstated the parade in 2006, the 90th anniversary of the rising. The parade was attended by the British ambassador to the Republic.
- There is a far greater willingness now in the Republic and among mainstream nationalism to acknowledge errors of the past; sectarian incidents in places during the War of Independence which betrayed the non-sectarian ethos of the revolutionaries but which contributed to many Protestants departing the new state and a monocultural Roman Catholic ethos which pervaded many aspects of Irish society after independence (although there would be an element of “pendulum swing” operating here, as the new state sought to define itself pretty sharply against the parent country from which it saw itself as having been liberated, and its values).
- the development of a more inclusive and pluralist society in the Republic since 1966 as the state emerged from rebellious adolescence into greater maturity
- increasing acknowledgement and respect shown by the Republic to those who had been airbrushed from the national narrative for several decades-those Irish, nationalist or unionist, who fought in both the Great War and World War II. This has been evidenced by the Republic’s Government’s organisation of a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme in 2006, the attendance of Irish Government representatives and diplomats at War commemorations at cenotaphs in Belfast and London, the restoration of the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin and the annual attendance of the President and Government representatives at Remembrance day ceremonies in St Patrick’s Cathedral
- the establishment of the visitor centre at the Boyne battlefield site, a place sacred to Unionist memory
The two traditions on the island cannot pass each other like ships in the night. There is much pain. Unionists bowing to 1916 means in no sense being bound by it- as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth said in Dublin Castle. Bowing to 1916 in 2016 will in reality be unionists acknowledging that many who fought in the rebellion were inspired by high ideals, albeit not ones they would share. Acknowledging that Northern Ireland shares the island with an independent state and to attend, in effect, its independence celebrations, would be a mark of good neighbourliness. One suspects it would be far easier for unionism to do this in Dublin where the Rising is directly linked to the mainstream nationalist tradition, than in Belfast where is more closely aligned in the eyes of many with Sinn Fein and the troubles.
Orange Order Grand Secretary Drew Nelson, in his recent address to Seanad Éireann, stated:
“The 1916 Proclamation of the Republic declares its resolve to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.
I have to say frankly that our experience of Republicanism does not reflect that ideal. Both historically and in the recent past the Protestant community have been on the receiving end of a sectarian campaign carried out in the name of Irish Republicanism.
But circumstances are always changing and three things in particular on this side of the border have, I believe, created a very positive climate which set a good foundation for working towards that normalisation of relationships, namely:
1. The development of the visitors centre at the Boyne Battlefield site.
2. The funding of CADOLEMO, our community development and capacity building organisation in the Republic, by the Irish Government.
3. The Queen’s visit.
I believe that these three things were all done in the spirit of cherishing “all of the children of the nation equally”
We are all challenged to step out of our comfort zones. Unionism present at the GPO will force nationalism and republicanism in a very visible way to recognise the orange strand in the flag they cherish. In bowing in 2016 to noble ideals in the 1916 Proclamation, unionism can turn around and challenge nationalism to live up to its own deepest ideals. In a mode of respect, more likely to be heard.
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