1916 still poses a dilemma for the government parties and Fianna Fáil

Past heroes in the republican struggle for Irish freedom are succeeded by the republicans of later generations, not by the inheritors of the suppressors of that struggle or gombeen men and women.

COMMENTGovernment ministers, their parties and the Fianna Fáil leadership are in denial. They have led numerous attacks on Sinn Féin at an increased rate since springtime. On March 20, at a Fianna Fáil event geared at unveiling their plans to mark the Easter Rising’s centenary, Micheál Martin became so wound up that the crux of his speech was focused on denouncing Sinn Féin. According to Martin, the all-Ireland party “attempted to distort history in a most appalling way to justify acts that could not be justified”.

One wonders how Martin and his party “justify” the acts of “good”, “old” IRA volunteers from the Easter Rising to 1921, or, in Fianna Fáil’s case, to 1923, undertook.

Let’s take just one instance from that period. In June 1921, Kate Wright, a 21-year-old student, was shot dead while standing alongside Trinity College’s cricket grounds as the British “Military of Ireland” played the British “Gentlemen of Ireland”. She was killed by an IRA active service unit that opened fire on the cricket game from beyond the Nassau Street railings.

What do Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael have to say for themselves? After all, Fianna Fail’s founder and leader for 33 years was the then president of Sinn Féin and president of the Irish Republic, the state to which the IRA pledged its loyalty. The IRA’s then chief of staff was future Fine Gael leader, Richard Mulcahy. Where is/was the hysterical denunciation of these individuals by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael? There is none and there never was any. Politically cultivated hysteria is reserved for one’s contemporary political opponents.

After Martin’s lashing out in March, he remained consistent. The following month, he stood at the graves of fourteen Easter Rising leaders and decided that the 99th anniversary of their executions was a fitting time to declare that “Sinn Féin has aggressively been promoting the false claim that they have some connection to 1916 and to the volunteers who fought then”. He essentially recycled his speech from the same event two years earlier, in which he stated that “[t]here is not the slightest connection between the Republic declared in 1916 and [what he labelled] the Provisional movement”.

Let’s examine Martin’s claims. Sinn Féin, Irish for “Ourselves”, was established in 1905, a time when the Irish-Ireland movement and the Gaelic revival were reaching their zeniths. Sinn Féin gave greater electoral options to the Irish people, at least to those who had a right to vote (less than two-thirds of the adult male population), hoping to make sure the unionist-home ruler duopoly would be challenged.

Arthur Griffith, party founder, set down two key approaches for Sinn Féin. Firstly, abstentionism – the policy that Irish representatives should refuse to take their seats in a foreign parliament, i.e. Westminster, and should create their own assembly. Secondly, self-sufficiency, which was encouraged because of the Irish nationalist interpretation of the relationship between Britain and Ireland as a relationship of colonial and economic exploitation of the weaker country by the larger power. The approach was that if Britain couldn’t make a profit out of Ireland, its interest in remaining an occupying force would diminish.

Sinn Féin was the party that provided for nationalists disillusioned with the home rulers’ lack of success and bend-the-knee methods. Between 1905 and the Easter Rising, the term “Sinn Féin” came to be applied to all things more radical than the Home Rulers. The Irish Volunteers came to be popularly referred to as the “Sinn Féin Volunteers”.

A Sinn Féin Rising

Sinn Féin as an organisation was not responsible for the Rising, but some members were heavily involved in it, not least Eamonn Ceannt and Seán MacDiarmada, IRB secretary. MacDiarmada was the campaign manager of the first Sinn Féin Westminster by-election attempt in his home county of Leitrim in 1908. He used the cover of his role as Sinn Féin national organiser to do what he did best: travel the country, talent-spot for the IRB and recruit 1,000 new members to the brotherhood.

Jennie Wyse Power, president of Cumann na mBan, a very active force in 1916, was a Sinn Féin founding member and in about 1912 became vice-president of Sinn Féin. She subsequently became its treasurer. The 1916 proclamation was signed in her home, 21 Henry Street, by the provisional government a couple of hours prior to the Rising.

Arthur Griffith met with the IRB’s Supreme Council on 9th September 1914 in 25 Parnell Square, then Gaelic League HQ,  alongside James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army. They decided to make preparations for insurrection. The Easter rebels flew an Irish tricolour embroidered with the slogan “Sinn Féin go deo”, Sinn Féin forever. It was auctioned by Whyte’s last year.

The British government and newspapers labelled the Rising the “Sinn Féin Rebellion”, ensuring, no doubt unintentionally, that those who supported the Rising could express that support electorally in the years ahead. More likely the government and press agenda was to discredit and sink Sinn Féin by portraying it as the driving force of the Rising.

Such attempted smears failed. By 1917, the party experienced a membership surge as veterans of Easter Week joined the party and made it their own, giving it a republican constitution. Sinn Féin quickly became the political party vehicle for the advancement of Irish national freedom and the establishment of a republic.

The current Fianna Fáil leader would do well to revise his blinkered view of history. Just because de Valera, albeit as party leader, abandoned Sinn Féin because in 1926 the party voted against dropping its policy against participation in the Free State parliament, it doesn’t mean Sinn Féin went into a time freeze until the 1970s and re-emerged as something completely alien to its earlier moulds. The party suffered throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, often as a result of state repression, but against the odds, it never ceased to exist.

Republicans spent most of their energy on IRA activity as they judged that Sinn Féin was too weak to achieve anything substantial. But the party continued on in bleak times. Fianna Fáil meanwhile continued, as they continue today with reduced success, to shamelessly expropriate the republican mantle while simultaneously doing less than one iota to achieve a united Irish republic.

Sinn Féin has commemorated the 1916 Rising every year since 1917, not just when it was electorally convenient to do so. Some of those commemorations were declared illegal by the parties who in 2015 are telling the Irish people that Sinn Féin is trying to hijack the Rising.  We should welcome anyone’s participation in commemorating 1916, but that does not mean that some are not embarrassingly late to the show. Their incessant attacks on those who are more steadfast reveal that they know this is the case.

Martin is a Cork man. So too was the famous Sinn Féin lord mayor, Tomás Mac Curtáin, who was murdered in his home by Black and Tans in March 1920. Another Corkonian was that mayor’s only son, another Tomás. In 1940, that Tomás, as an incarcerated IRA volunteer, went on hunger strike in Arbour Hill prison. De Valera and Fianna Fáil were in power. They facilitated the deaths of two of Mac Curtáin’s comrades, Seán Mac Neela and Tony Darcy, and would have had no problem in seeing other hunger-striking republicans, including Mac Curtáin and Jack Plunkett, a 1916 veteran and brother of Joseph Plunkett, go to their graves.

In 1965, the repatriated remains of 1916 hero Roger Casement were buried by the Fianna Fáil government in Glasnevin Cemetery under tonnes of cement to prevent republicans from moving Casement to his desired final resting place at Murlough Bay, Co. Antrim. Even in death, Casement was denied, and 99 years on continues to be denied, the most basic decency by those who’ll be wrapping themselves in the green flag next year for the first time in a long time.

Lost legacies

Fianna Fáil are not alone in facing the conundrum of telling people that 1916 was great, but everything that followed, including the actions of nationalists in the North in 1969 defending themselves against RUC-backed loyalist mobs intent on burning homes, was “unjustifiable”. Fine Gael and the so-called “Labour” party are in the same, if not a worse, position.

The mud-guard party for Fine Gael’s neoliberal privatisation agenda has long abandoned the beliefs of James Connolly, the man in whose steps they claim to march. Put simply, the instant

“Labour” accepted the Free State, it became something greatly different and significantly less honourable than the organisation that had been founded in 1912.

Connolly argued, “[i]f you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

Six years after Connolly’s sacrifice, Labour surrendered the idea of socialism in Ireland when they took the oath to the British Crown in a parliament of the British empire. Their party has limitless arrogance to claim James Connolly as theirs. Connolly was a socialist-republican, and a die-hard one at that. He opposed privatisation, foreign control of Irish interests and rack-renting landlords – all things that are maintained and strengthened by Burton et al.

Repulsive, but hardly surprising. After all, in 1976, the Fine Gael-Labour government oversaw the arrest of James Connolly’s eighty-three year-old daughter, Nora, for her presence at the republican movement’s Easter commemoration, which was deemed illegal by the state – a state that suppressed the patriots of that generation, a state that was ashamed of the patriots of a previous one.

Fine Gael, the party of “law and order”, must be the most uncomfortable of the lot. I wonder what it’s like for them to see their party leader pay homage, no matter how disingenuously and cynically, to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a pioneer of city centre bombing campaigns. What level of cognitive dissonance is conjured up when one sees one’s leader speak with admiration of an Irish freedom fighter who was executed in the aftermath of a policeman being killed in a shoot-out at the Kent family home? What kind of “law and order” message is that for Kenny to be sending?

Francis Fitzgerald’s Béal na Bláth speech in August was a cut above the rest. Denouncing the “misuse” of the Irish tricolour as a “symbol of violence” by activists opposed to her government’s policies was priceless. Like most politicians, Fitzgerald requires a history lesson, badly. How can a flag directly inspired by the flag of the French Revolution that was literally soaked in the blood of the decapitated aristocracy, created by an Irish revolutionary known as “Meagher of the Sword” because of his determination to achieve freedom through violence, which flew from atop the GPO for six days of slaughter in Dublin City, be anything other than baptised and come-of-age in violence?

In 1898, battles raged over claims as to who were the then inheritors of the United Irishmen republicans of the 1798 rebellion. Was it the republicans of 1898, fonted by the Wolfe Tone Memorial Committee, or was it the Redmondites who were happy with the idea of Ireland being a loyal little fiefdom in the empire?

The answer was clear then and it’s clear now. Past heroes and attempts to achieve victory in the continuum that is the republican struggle for Irish freedom are succeeded by the republicans of later generations and their attempts, not by the inheritors of the suppressors of that struggle or gombeen men and women.

Perhaps during freshers’ week you snapped a selfie with the hijacked Shinner at the Young Fine Gael stand. A cardboard cutout of a former IRA director of intelligence: the architect of the killings of at least 70 suspected British intelligence officers in Dublin; the creator of a ruthless IRA assassination unit, “The Squad”;  the man who masterminded the IRA’s finances for three years, funnelling about $6 million into its coffers, and the man who said of suspected spies and agents, “[b]y their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear.” Young Fine Gael proudly present the one, the only, the highly respectable Mr Michael Collins, Sinn Féin TD for Armagh (that’s probably foreign country to Fine Gael), 1921-22.

This coming year, the words of Connolly are especially apt. “Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when living.”

(Image via NLI on Creative Commons)