1916: commemorations north and south

Mary McAleese has entered a robust defence of the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, though she notes that with anniversary of the Somme having a 90th anniversary there is “the potential to be a pivotal year for peace and reconciliation, to be a time of shared pride for the divided grandchildren of those who died, whether at Messines or in Kilmainham”. Mark Brennock reports on the main themes. Speech below.President Mary McAleese:

HOW GLAD I AM that I was not the mother of adult children in January 1916. Would my 20-year-old son and his friends be among the tens of thousands in British uniform heading for the Somme, or would they be among the few, training in secret with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or with the Irish Volunteers?

Would I, like so many mothers, bury my son this fateful year in some army’s uniform, in a formidably unequal country where I have no vote or voice, where many young men are destined to be cannon fodder, and women widows? How many times did those men and women wonder what the world would be like in the longer run as a result of the outworking of the chaos around them, this context we struggle to comprehend these years later?

I am grateful that I and my children live in the longer run; for while we could speculate endlessly about what life might be like if the Rising had not happened, or if the Great War had not been fought, we who live in these times know and inhabit the world that revealed itself because they happened.

April 1916, and the world is as big a mess as it is possible to imagine.

The ancient monarchies, Austria, Russia and Germany, which plunged Europe into war, are on the brink of violent destruction. China is slipping into civil war. On the Western Front, Verdun is taking a dreadful toll and, in the east, Britain is only weeks away from its worst defeat in history. It’s a fighting world where war is glorified and death in uniform seen as the ultimate act of nobility, at least for one’s own side.

And on the 24th of April, 1916, it was Easter Monday in Dublin, the second city of the extensive British empire which long included among its captured dominions the four provinces of Ireland. At four minutes past noon, from the steps of Dublin’s General Post Office, the president of the provisional government, Patrick Pearse, read the Proclamation of Independence.

The bald facts are well known and reasonably non-contentious. Their analysis and interpretation have been both continuous and controversial ever since. Even after 90 years, a discussion such as we are embarked upon here is likely to provoke someone. But in a free and peaceful democracy, where complex things get figured out through public debate, that is as it should be.

With each passing year, post-Rising Ireland reveals itself, and we who are of this strong independent and high-achieving Ireland would do well to ponder the extent to which today’s freedoms, values, ambitions and success rest on that perilous and militarily doomed undertaking of nine decades ago, and on the words of that Proclamation.

Clearly its fundamental idea was freedom, or in the words of the Proclamation, “the right of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland”. But it was also a very radical assertion of the kind of republic a liberated Ireland should become: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. . .”

It spoke of a parliament “representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”- this at a time when Westminster was still refusing to concede the vote to women on the basis that to do so would be to give in to terrorism.

To our 21st-century ears these words seem a good fit for our modern democracy. Yet 90 years ago, even 40 years ago, they seemed hopelessly naive, and their long-term intellectual power was destined to be overlooked, as interest was focused on the emotionally charged political power of the Rising and the renewed nationalist fervour it evoked.

In the longer term the apparent naivety of the words of the Proclamation has filled out into a widely shared political philosophy of equality and social inclusion in tune with the contemporary spirit of democracy, human rights, equality and anti-

confessionalism. Read now in the light of the liberation of women, the development of social partnership, the focus on rights and equality, the ending of the special position of the Catholic Church, to mention but a few, we see a much more coherent, and wider-reaching, intellectual event than may have previously been noted.

The kind of Ireland the heroes of the Rising aspired to was based on an inclusivity that, famously, would “cherish all the children of the nation equally – oblivious of the differences which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”.

That culture of inclusion is manifestly a strong contemporary impulse working its way today through relationships with the North, with unionists, with the newcomers to our shores, with our marginalised, and with our own increasing diversity.

For many years the social agenda of the Rising represented an unrealisable aspiration, until now that is, when our prosperity has created a real opportunity for ending poverty and promoting true equality of opportunity for our people and when those idealistic words have started to become a lived reality and a determined ambition.

There is a tendency for powerful and pitiless elites to dismiss with damning labels those who oppose them. That was probably the source of the accusation that 1916 was an exclusive and sectarian enterprise. It was never that, though ironically it was an accurate description of what the Rising opposed.

In 1916, Ireland was a small nation attempting to gain its independence from one of Europe’s many powerful empires.

In the 19th century an English radical described the occupation of India as a system of “outdoor relief” for the younger sons of the upper classes. The administration of Ireland was not very different, being carried on as a process of continuous conversation around the fire in the Kildare Street Club by past pupils of public schools. It was no way to run a country, even without the glass ceiling for Catholics.

Internationally, in 1916, Planet Earth was a world of violent conflicts and armies. It was a world where countries operated on the principle that the strong would do what they wished and the weak would endure what they must. There were few, if any, sophisticated mechanisms for resolving territorial conflicts. Diplomacy existed to regulate conflict, not to resolve it.

It was in that context that the leaders of the Rising saw their investment in the assertion of Ireland’s nationhood. They were not attempting to establish an isolated and segregated territory of “ourselves alone”, as the phrase “sinn féin” is so often mistranslated, but a free country in which we ourselves could take responsibility for our own destiny, a country that could stand up for itself, have its own distinct perspective, pull itself up by its bootstraps, and be counted with respect among the free nations of Europe and the world.

A Google search for the phrase “narrow nationalism” produces about 28,000 results. It is almost as though some people cannot use the word “nationalism” without qualifying it by the word “narrow”. But that does not make it correct.

I have a strong impression that to its enemies, both in Ireland and abroad, Irish nationalism looked like a version of the imperialism it opposed, a sort of “imperialism lite” through which Ireland would attempt to be what the great European powers were – the domination of one cultural and ethnic tradition over others.It is easy to see how they might have fallen into that mistaken view, but mistaken they were.

Irish nationalism, from the start, was a multilateral enterprise, attempting to escape the dominance of a single class and, in our case a largely foreign class, into a wider world.

Those who think of Irish nationalists as narrow miss, for example, the membership many of them had of a universal church which brought them into contact with a vastly wider segment of the world than that open to even the most travelled imperial English gentleman.

Many of the leaders had experience of the Americas, and in particular of north America with its vibrant attachment to liberty and democracy. Others of them were active participants in the international working-class movements of their day. Whatever you might think of those involvements, they were universalist and global rather than constricted and blinkered.

To the revolutionaries, the Rising looked as if it represented a commitment to membership of the wider world. For too long they had chafed at the narrow focus of a unilateral empire which acted as it saw fit and resented having to pay any attention to the needs of others.

In 1973 a free Irish Republic would show by joining the European Union that membership of a union was never our problem, but rather involuntary membership of a union in which we had no say.

Those who are surprised by Ireland’s enthusiasm for the European Union, and think of it as a repudiation of our struggle for independence, fail to see Ireland’s historic engagement with the European Continent and the Americas.

Arguably Ireland’s involvement in the British Commonwealth up to the Dominion Conference of 1929 represents an attempt to promote Ireland’s involvement with the wider world even as it negotiated further independence from Britain.

Eamon de Valera’s support for the League of Nations, our later commitment to the United Nations and our long pursuit of membership of the Common Market are all of a piece with our earlier engagements with Europe and the world which were so often frustrated by our proximity to a strong imperial power – a power which feared our autonomy, and whose global imperialism ironically was experienced as narrowing and restrictive to those who lived under it.

We now can see that promoting the European ideal dovetails perfectly with the ideals of the men and women of 1916.

Paradoxically in the longer run, 1916 arguably set in motion a calming of old conflicts with new concepts and confidence which, as they mature and take shape, stand us in good stead today.

Our relationship with Britain, despite the huge toll of the Troubles, has changed utterly. In this, the year of the 90th anniversary of the Rising, the Irish and British governments, co-equal sovereign colleagues in Europe, are now working side by side as mutually respectful partners, helping to develop a stable and peaceful future in Northern Ireland based on the Good Friday agreement.

That agreement asserts equal rights and equal opportunities for all Northern Ireland’s citizens. It ends for ever one of the Rising’s most difficult legacies, the question of how the people of this island look at partition.

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is accepted overwhelmingly by the electorate North and South. That position can only be changed by the electorate of Northern Ireland expressing its view exclusively through the ballot-box.

The future could not be clearer. Both unionists and nationalists have everything to gain from treating each other with exemplary courtesy and generosity, for each has a vision for the future to sell, and a coming generation, more educated than any before, freer from conflict than any before, more democratised and globalised than any before, will have choices to make, and those choices will be theirs.

This year, the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, and of the Somme, has the potential to be a pivotal year for peace and reconciliation, to be a time of shared pride for the divided grandchildren of those who died, whether at Messines or in Kilmainham.

The climate has changed dramatically since last September’s historic announcement of IRA decommissioning. As that new reality sinks in, the people of Northern Ireland will see the massive potential for their future, and that of their children, that is theirs for the taking.

Casting my mind forward to 90 years from now, I have no way of knowing what the longer term may hold, but I do know the past we are determined to escape from and I know the ambitions we have for that longer term.

To paraphrase the Proclamation, we are resolved to “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole island”. We want to consign inequality and poverty to history. We want to live in peace. We want to be comfortable with, and accommodating of, diversity. We want to become the best friends, neighbours and partners we can be to the citizens of Northern Ireland.

In the hearts of those who took part in the Rising, in what was then an undivided Ireland, was an unshakeable belief that, whatever our personal political or religious perspectives, there was huge potential for an Ireland in which loyalist, republican, unionist, nationalist, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, agnostic pulled together to build a shared future, owned by one and all.

That’s a longer term to conjure with but, for now, reflecting back on the sacrifices of the heroes of 1916 and the gallingly unjust world that was their context, I look at my own context and its threads of connection to theirs.

I am humbled, excited and grateful to live in one of the world’s most respected, admired and successful democracies, a country with an identifiably distinctive voice in Europe and in the world, an Irish republic, a sovereign independent state, to use the words of the Proclamation. We are where freedom has brought us.

A tough journey but more than vindicated by our contemporary context. Like every nation that had to wrench its freedom from the reluctant grip of empire, we have our idealistic and heroic founding fathers and mothers, our Davids to their Goliaths.

That small band who proclaimed the Rising inhabited a sea of death, an unspeakable time of the most profligate worldwide waste of human life. Yet their deaths rise far above the clamour – their voices insistent still.

Enjoy the conference and the rows it will surely rise.