Ireland is approaching the final phase of the decade of centenaries, commemorating events which led to a separate Irish state in parallel with the creation of Northern Ireland and partition and the fighting of a civil war over terms of the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland.
The decade of centenaries, which in fact covers 12 years between introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912 and the Irish Free State’s admission into the League of Nations in September 1923, was a Government initiative guided by historians to give shape and leadership to commemoration of the most formative period in Irish history.
It took in social developments, like the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and granting of the vote to women in 1918. It also encompassed World War I, not only because of the sacrifice by soldiers from all over Ireland, but because of its impact on the reordering of Europe including Ireland.
Unfortunately, the effect of Covid-19 since March has been to cancel all large-scale outdoor commemorations, to the great disappointment in particular of Cork County Council, which had an ambitious programme of events, not least to remember two Lord Mayors,
Tomás MacCurtain, slain at night by undercover forces, and Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike, having delivered the memorable line that sums up much of Irish history: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who suffer the most who will conquer.”
The GAA is rising to the current challenge of commemorating Bloody Sunday, and Tipperary, whose team played football against Dublin that November day also plans to highlight the event.
Freedom as an ideal is almost utopian. In reality, it always has limitations, it brings responsibilities, and it often disappoints. Unfortunately, civil war occurred frequently in many countries after independence or revolution, as it takes time and political struggle before a new constitutional legitimacy can be established. While those events in Ireland still arouse passionate debate, they have long ceased to figure as political issues, or to act as barriers to cooperation.
Political commemoration, which is both natural and inevitable, is mostly positive from the point of view of national morale. It provides an opportunity to revisit people and events, very often using fresh sources of information, both with empathy but also a degree of critical distance.
The Government’s Expert Advisory Group has spoken of extending sympathy without having to abandon loyalties. If there is a drawback to commemoration, it is in the illusion often fostered by overblown rhetoric that we are fundamentally in the same position today as we were back then, overlooking all that has happened since. We are a long way on, both from 1690 and 1916. We may observe elsewhere that President Trump’s Washington is far removed from the Founding Fathers.
The most difficult anniversary and the most important to handle right may be partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland. They too were born in violence, though we have been spared North-South civil war, even if peace is not yet completely secure.
The immediate danger is an exaggerated polarisation of opinion, on the one hand, treating Northern Ireland as a triumph of political endurance, or, on the other hand, as an artificial and failed entity fit only for the dustbin of history.
Irish government policy is to avoid bringing constitutional differences to a head”
A lot of community relations bodies and historians have been trying to create space for more nuanced perspectives, where some common ground can be identified. Unfortunately, wider British politics is threatening to intervene, while Irish government policy is to avoid bringing constitutional differences to a head in an ill-prepared border poll and to advance instead mutual understanding, reconciliation and sharing.
Undoubtedly, pressures created by the stand-off over Brexit and the Scottish ruling party’s desire for a rerun of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum are being met by talking up the ‘greatness’ of the United Kingdom in its present format since 1921.
One of Boris Johnson’s most distinguished predecessors, founder of the Conservative Party and its first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, confessed with some humility out of office and near the end of his life in the House of Commons that “the one great evil of the United Kingdom is the condition of Ireland”. This was in 1849 after four years of Famine.
Today, the nuance and sensitivity that successive British Prime Ministers since John Major have shown with regard to the peace process in Ireland seem to have been largely discarded. If British newspaper reports on Monday, September 6 are credible, the Northern Ireland peace process, the scrapping of last year’s Withdrawal Agreement and the prospect of a hard border are all to be deployed in an attempt to bludgeon Britain’s way to the ‘have your cake and eat it’ deal with the EU that they want, most of the benefits with few of the obligations.
As if the continuing threat and ramifications of Covid-19 are not enough, the possibility that ‘Britannia waives the rules’ means a likelihood of high political drama with grave consequences at stake, unless a resolution is found.
On September 4, President Macron made a speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of the French Republic in the Pantheon, a vast church transformed since the French revolution into the secular last resting place of many of its most famous citizens, beginning with Voltaire and Rousseau. Macron said the Republic was never finished, that it had constantly to be re-conquered.
It meant freedom of conscience, including the right to blaspheme (a reference to the murderous al-Qaeda attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo). He expressed opposition to pulling down statues. He stressed the continuity of French history over the centuries, and that the Republic had existed, long before it actually came into being.
Ireland as a nation existed centuries before 1922. Irish unity, if it is to happen any time soon, will need to bring different strands and entities together. There is no override button in either Irish or British hands.