Perspectives on 1916 Easter Rebellion

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Last Tuesday’s Journal reported, ‘From the Archives,’ that in February 1991 Derry City Council was planning its commemoration for the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Unsurprisingly, the planning meeting was boycotted by unionists.

In 1991 the council held a series of special literary, artistic and musical events. Next year the 100th anniversary comes around and it would be surprising if the new ‘Super Council’ weren’t to mark that occasion too. And it will also be surprising if unionists react any differently than they did back in 1991.

At first the Rising appeared to be yet another tragic failure, in the long line of failed rebellions against British rule, but it set in motion a chain of events that was to lead to limited independence and, eventually, to a fully sovereign Republic. As things turned out, the Easter Rising was Ireland’s first ‘successful’ rebellion and naturally that merits commemoration.

For much of last year a debate raged, sparked by former Taoiseach John Bruton, about the moral justification for the Rising. With Home Rule already on the statute books at Westminster and only suspended for the duration of the First World War, Bruton believes full independence would have evolved peacefully over time without the Rising.

Bruton’s theory is doubtful. It’s one of the ‘What Ifs’ of history. If the enormous loss of life and destruction that happened between 1916 and 1921 could have been avoided then, of course that would have been good but it’s far from certain that the British would ever have willingly allowed Ireland to break with the British Crown. Look at the panic the prospect of Scottish independence caused in London last year.

In one of the many ironies of history, northerners commemorating 1916 can’t escape the fact that the rebellion copper-fastened the inevitability of partition. While, “the whole enterprise dumbfounded general opinion in Dublin”, as historian Roy Foster puts it, for unionists the rebellion was a despicable act of treachery, a massive stab-in-the-back during the war effort. Don’t expect that opinion to change anytime soon, so next year’s commemorations will be just as divisive as they were in 1991 and back in 1966 when it was the 50th anniversary.

Another irony is that four years earlier, unionists had staged their own rebellion against British rule. Carson had created and armed his Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to resist the will of parliament at Westminster . The UVF was the role-model for the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, who were central to the events of 1916. So we had ‘good’ rebellions and ‘bad’ rebellions depending on whether they were unionist ones or republican ones.

But, if the Rising itself was divisive, Pearse’s Proclamation on behalf of “the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic” deserved not to have been. The violence made it easy for unionists to dismiss its claims even though it presented an inspirational vision.

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally…” said Pearse outside Dublin’s GPO.

Today Patrick Pearse’s vision remains only partially realised. The big question is whether peace or the Currynierin Brigade of revolutionaries are more likely to make “all the children of the nation” believe they will be cherished equally in a New Ireland?