“I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.”
“I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.”
by Gerry Adams
Belfast 2013 is not the City I grew up in. In my youth and for much of my adult life Belfast was a place in which nationalists had no rights; a place where sectarianism and discrimination, injustice and inequality were commonplace and exercised as a matter of institutional and political practice.
Tens of thousands of nationalists were denied the vote in local and Stormont elections. They were denied jobs and housing. Any sense of Irishness was prohibited or frowned upon. The Irish language, music and culture were marginalised and the political representatives of northern nationalists had no influence and no power.
Elsewhere in the north the gerrymandering or manipulation of electoral boundaries ensured that local councils, even in those areas like Derry which had clear nationalist majorities, were run in unionist interests by unionist controlled councils. And Belfast was among the worst.
The northern state was an orange state. The Orange Order was the cement that held the political, economic and institutional structures of the state together. Most business people were members of the Order. If you were a unionist and wanted to be a senior RUC officer – you had to be an Orangeman. A judge? You had to be an Orangeman. A successful politician? You had to be an Orangeman.
The legacy of those decades still haunts the north. Sectarianism remains a scourge. The scars of discrimination can be found in the disproportionate numbers of citizens on the housing waiting lists in nationalist areas; in the employment patterns across the six counties where nationalist areas experience the highest levels of unemployment; and in the depth of deprivation. 36 out of the 40 most deprived wards in the north are nationalist.
For unionism the northern state was their state. It didn’t matter that some unionists also lived in appalling housing or worked in terrible conditions. The northern state – the Orange state – belonged to them. It gave them a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have changed all of that.It is a process which has been good for everyone on this island. It is also a process which is irreversible.
The underlying ethos of the Good Friday Agreement is parity of esteem, mutual respect and equality.It is also about change. Any process of change present big challenges. There are those who fear change.They see equality for all citizens as a threat.
Equality is not about one side dominating the other – nor is it about anyone attacking what some describe as unionist culture – it is about all citizens – unionist and nationalist – for the first time since partition being treated with mutual respect and on the basis of equality.
It is about nationalists and unionists, and others, living in a society in which decisions are taken democratically and peacefully.It is about tolerance and inclusivity- not hatred and bitterness.
Symbols, including flags, can be divisive but only if the debate is seen in its narrowest context.
So, Belfast is no longer a unionist city. It is a shared city.It wants to be a modern city. The vast majority of citizens don’t want the old Belfast – they want a new Belfast.
The decision taken by Belfast City Council is part of this. It was a compromise position democratically arrived at. Sinn Féin wanted either no flags, or equality of symbols with both the Union flag and Tricolour flying side by side. Sinn Féin Councillors supported the compromise position of the union flag being flown on a set number of designated days a year.
This compromise position was based on Flags legislation brought forward by the British government and which unionist leaders at the time recommended
This April the Good Friday Agreement will be 15 years old.It too was a compromise between conflicting political positions.
It’s success is to be found in the lives saved; the peace that has been achieved; the power sharing arrangements that are working; and the numbers of young people, who unlike their parents or grandparents, have had no experience of conflict.
So, where do we go from here?
It is clear that there are some among unionism who want to turn the clock back. Who believe that mutual respect means nationalists accepting that the unionist ethos must dominate.
That’s not mutual respect or equality. Nor does it reflect the political and demographic realities of today. 90 years ago the northern state was carved out of the rest of the island on the basis that it provided unionists with what was then believed to be a permanent in-built two thirds majority
In the most recent census figures published just before Christmas less than half of the population designated themselves as being British. 40% said they had a British only identity.
A quarter of citizens stated that they had an Irish only identity while 21% said they had a northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of the population rejecting a British identity and seeing themselves as Irish.
So, the north is not as British as Finchley – as Margaret Thatcher once claimed – and unionists have to accept that almost half of citizens in the north have a different identity.
Could this gradual change in demographics and in peoples’ opinions be part of the motivation of those who seek to stoke the sectarian fires?
Could the decline in the unionist vote be part of the rational for the response of some unionists to the changes that are taking place?
Playing the orange card – fuelling sectarian divisions – is an old unionist and British tactic used to mobilise unionist opinion and put nationalists in their place.
It is a dangerous tactic which in the past brought pogroms and partition and decades of violence.
The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by BNP, UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers. They are seeking to exploit this situation for their own ends.
There is an expectation across the community that those who are organising these protests will be subjected to due process and that the protests will be policed in a fair way.
As political leaders on this island reflect on the events of recent weeks it is important to understand that the Good Friday Agreement must not be taken for granted. It requires constant attention and work.
There are important parts of the Agreement still not implemented – for example a Bill of Rights and legacy issues. These matters must be addressed.
After the Massereene attack in 2009 in which two British soldiers were killed Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson brought together all of the political leaders, church and civic leaders to map out a way forward and to ensure that the tiny minority of voices who want to undermine the progress that has been made do not succeed.
That approach is needed again. The Unionist Forum established by the DUP and UUP may have a role to play but it is limited. Stability and inclusivity and progress are not in the gift of one section of people. Everyone has to be involved.
We need an all-party, cross community response to the flag protests and the violence which has accompanied them. It also needs to address all of the other outstanding issues.
This will be a huge challenge. Republicans do not underestimate the problems involved and in particular the difficulties facing unionism. But there can be no going back. The tiny minorities who want to cling to the past must be rejected. Sectarianism must be tackled and ended. The promise of the Good Friday Agreement for a new society in which all citizens are respected, and where fairness and justice and equality are the guiding principles, has to be advanced.
The controversy that has erupted over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall would have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics in the North of Ireland, or who has spent any time there. On the contrary, it merely confirms that the much heralded peace process which brought to an end thirty years of conflict known as the Troubles was cobbled together in state rooms and government ministries and not in or between the communities concerned. Instead, it involved throwing money at said communities in a clear attempt at buying their cooperation, hoping that in time the entrenched divisions, mistrust, and outright hatred would recede in importance compared to a peace dividend of prosperity and concomitant boom in consumption.
Given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism, the use of the word ‘process’ as in Peace Process proved prescient. It was a process that went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the intransigent stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons.
In July 2000 – two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed an administration – the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province which began in 1969.
The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont seemed entirely justified. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley had personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of loyalist ascendancy in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were less than enthusiastic about ending the war.
The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardliners on either side of the political and communal divide, working together in government was proof to many that the conflict and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning it, had absolutely and finally come to an end.
But has it?
Passing through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughgall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the Troubles, there’s little sign that the polarisation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. In loyalist and Protestant working class housing estates throughout the province you come upon an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, and various symbols exalting loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, the meeting places of an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of Protestant domination.
That said, militant loyalism is not alone in being able to attract a sizeable minority to its ranks. So-called dissident republicanism is also on the rise. In Derry, for example, around the republican Bogside, dissident graffiti is a common sight, just as it is in places like Armagh and Newry; the former notorious as a no-go area for British Army patrols and the RUC during the height of the Troubles.
Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the North that the political establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over thirty years of conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. Despite the recession it appears vibrant and affluent. An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street is palpable.
But move out to West, East, North and South Belfast and you enter a different world. Despite the peace process these areas remain citadels of British nationalism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in nationalist ones. The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating both communities, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community remains off limits to members of the other, with the pride that each takes in its martyrs and the paramilitary organisations which fought on either side evident in the elaborate wall murals that abound.
The underlying causes of the conflict – the struggle to retain when it comes to unionism an identity based on a supra-British cultural, economic, and political hegemony, and when it comes to nationalism the struggle to achieve parity in the short term and an end to British rule in the longer term – still lie at the heart of society the North of Ireland. The fact that members of the province’s moderate Alliance Party, whose votes decided the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag over City Hall, have received death threats illustrates a sad familiarity and banality when it comes to this tiny corner of northern Europe.
As they say when it comes to any conflict, stand in the middle of the road and you get knocked down.
A prevalent grievance within working class Protestant and loyalist communities is that they have lost out to their Catholic and nationalist counterparts during the peace process. They believe that their communities have not received as much of the aforementioned peace dividend. With this context in mind, the vote over the flag is more confirmation that their status is steadily being eroded and undermined.
As the recession inevitably bites in a part of the world where the word peace increasingly suggests the temporary suspension of conflict rather than its definitive end or resolution, this sense of grievance, however false, is likely to get worse rather than better.
But regardless of the why’s and wherefores, a democratic decision was taken and as a result there has been a wave of riots and elected politicians living in fear of their lives.
Loyalism is a dying creed in the North. It offers nothing but the false and fading comfort of a triumphalism rooted in the past, one reduced to symbols and arcane rituals complemented by periodic eruptions of revanchist violence. The controversy over the flag reflects the rising tide of panic within a community that grows increasingly isolated in its hatred and refusal to understand that the past in the North cannot and will not be the future.
In Western Europe in 2012 surely the only place for a cultural identity that is incompatible with democracy is the dustbin of history.
As you are aware from reading the daily and weekly newspapers, we are about to be blessed with a visit from King George V.
Knowing from previous experience of Royal Visits, as well as from the Coronation orgies of the past few weeks, that the occasion will be utilised to make propaganda on behalf of royalty and aristocracy against the oncoming forces of democracy and National freedom, we desire to place before you some few reasons why you should unanimously refuse to countenance this visit, or to recognise it by your presence at its attendant processions or demonstrations. We appeal to you as workers, speaking to workers, whether your work be that of the brain or of the hand – manual or mental toil – it is of you and your children we are thinking; it is your cause we wish to safeguard and foster.
The future of the working class requires that all political and social positions should be open to all men and women; that all privileges of birth or wealth be abolished, and that every man or woman born into this land should have an equal opportunity to attain to the proudest position in the land. The Socialist demands that the only birthright necessary to qualify for public office should be the birthright of our common humanity.
Believing as we do that there is nothing on earth more sacred than humanity, we deny all allegiance to this institution of royalty, and hence we can only regard the visit of the King as adding fresh fuel to the fire of hatred with which we regard the plundering institutions of which he is the representative. Let the capitalist and landlord class flock to exalt him; he is theirs; in him they see embodied the idea of caste and class; they glorify him and exalt his importance that they might familiarise the public mind with the conception of political inequality, knowing well that a people mentally poisoned by the adulation of royalty can never attain to that spirit of self-reliant democracy necessary for the attainment of social freedom. The mind accustomed to political kings can easily be reconciled to social kings – capitalist kings of the workshop, the mill, the railway, the ships and the docks. Thus coronation and king’s visits are by our astute neversleeping masters made into huge Imperialist propagandist campaigns in favour of political and social schemes against democracy. But if our masters and rulers are sleepless in their schemes against us, so we, rebels against their rule, must never sleep in our appeal to our fellows to maintain as publicly our belief in the dignity of our class – in the ultimate sovereignty of those who labour.
What is monarchy? From whence does it derive its sanction? What has been its gift to humanity? Monarchy is a survival of the tyranny imposed by the hand of greed and treachery upon the human race in the darkest and most ignorant days of our history. It derives its only sanction from the sword of the marauder, and the helplessness of the producer, and its gifts to humanity are unknown, save as they can be measured in the pernicious examples of triumphant and shameless iniquities.
Every class in society save royalty, and especially British royalty, has through some of its members contributed something to the elevation of the race. But neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind. But that royal family has opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted every patriot, and intrigued against every good cause. Slandering every friend of the people, it has befriended every oppressor. Eulogised today by misguided clerics, it has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes. Murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury – every crime known to man has been committed by some one or other of the race of monarchs from whom King George is proud to trace his descent.
Has crept through scoundrels since the flood.”
We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.
Fellow-workers, stand by the dignity of your class. All these parading royalties, all this insolent aristocracy, all these grovelling, dirt-eating capitalist traitors, all these are but signs of disease in any social state – diseases which a royal visit brings to a head and spews in all its nastiness before our horrified eyes. But as the recognition of the disease is the first stage towards its cure, so that we may rid our social state of its political and social diseases, we must recognise the elements of corruption. Hence, in bringing them all together and exposing their unity, even a royal visit may help us to understand and understanding, help us to know how to destroy the royal, aristocratic and capitalistic classes who live upon our labour. Their workshops, their lands, their mills, their factories, their ships, their railways must be voted into our hands who alone use them, public ownership must take the place of capitalist ownership, social democracy replace political and social inequality, the sovereignty of labour must supersede and destroy the sovereignty of birth and the monarchy of capitalism.
Ours be the task to enlighten the ignorant among our class, to dissipate and destroy the political and social superstitions of the enslaved masses and to hasten the coming day when, in the words of Joseph Brenan, the fearless patriot of ’48, all the world will maintain
“The Right Divine of Labour
To be first of earthly things;
That the Thinker and the Worker
Are Manhood’s only Kings.”
- James Connolly.
William Butler Yeats’ epic poem on the Easter Rising of 1916 has immortalised an event which possesses all the elements of a Greek tragedy and which ninety-six years later is still capable of stirring strong emotions.
The audacity and bravery, bordering on insanity, of just over 1200 combined Irish Republican Brotherhood Volunteers, led by Patrick Pearse, and Irish Citizen Army Volunteers, led by James Connolly, which on Easter Monday 1916 merged to form the Irish Republican Army, unleashing an armed rising in Dublin against the British state has rarely been equalled. Making the event even more astounding is the fact that at the time Britain controlled an empire covering a quarter of the globe and had a million men under arms.
The First World War was in the process of destroying an entire generation of Europe’s working class, including 30,000 Irishmen out of the 200,000 who’d enlisted to fight under British arms, many of those Catholics and members of the nationalist Irish Volunteers from the south of the country, where constitutional nationalism had succeeded in gaining popular support.
Led by John Redmond, the constitutional wing of Irish Nationalism had won a pledge from the British government that the Home Rule Act (1914), granting Ireland self government within the UK, would be implemented at war’s end. The act had already passed through the British Parliament, only to be suspended by the government at the outset of hostilities in a move which angered many Irish Nationalists.
The Redmonite wing of Irish Nationalism derived its legitimacy from the constitutional path previously laid out by Charles Parnell, one of the most powerful and effective parliamentarians ever to sit in the House of Commons. By virtue of his strong personality, unwavering commitment to his objective and political acumen, Parnell succeeded in enlisting the support of Liberal leader and prime minister, William Gladstone, for the concept of Irish Home Rule in the face of strong opposition from the Tories and their unionist allies in the six counties. However, a split within the Liberals, in which a large section of the party shifted its support behind unionist and Tory opposition to Irish Home Rule, saw Parnell’s First Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886 defeated in the Commons by a slim majority.
Parnell (left) was an enigmatic character. He was closer to the Conservatives in his political instincts, yet able and willing to work in tandem with the Liberals in order to advance the cause of Irish Home Rule that was closest to his heart. While committed to the constitutional path, he was also sympathetic to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the radical wing of Irish Nationalism, having worked with them on issues of land reform and tenant’s rights in and around the Irish National Land League. There is some evidence that Parnell may even have taken an oath of allegiance to the IRB around this period, but on his historians remain divided.
Despite John Redmond’s support for the war, and the enlistment of thousands of Irish Volunteers (formed as a mass organisation and supported by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in response to the emergence of Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers in the North in 1912 in opposition to Home Rule) to fight in the British Army, a sizeable minority within the organisation were against taking Britain’s side. It resulted in a split within the organisation, with a minority holding to the position of neutrality. The IRB, within this minority, were not just content with staying out of the war, however. Instead they viewed it as an opportunity to strike for Ireland’s independence. The most prominent advocate of this position was Patrick Pearse, who sat on the leadership of both the Volunteers and the IRB.
Pearse (right) was a teacher, poet, barrister, writer, and champion of native Irish language and culture. From a very early age he had been committed to the cause of Ireland’s freedom, with a romantic attachment to Irish history, both real and mythological, which combined to imbue him with the belief in the need for a ‘blood sacrifice’ in order to awaken the Irish people to action. Pearse’s romanticism is evident in the speech he gave at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, lifelong champion of the Fenian cause who died of natural causes at the age of 83. Pearse’s oration closed with
“Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God Who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. And the seeds sown by the young men of ’65 and ’67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today. Rulers and Defenders of the Realm had need to be wary if they would guard against such processes. Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”.
The leader of this minority faction of the Irish Volunteers was Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was resolutely against attempting an armed rising against British rule, viewing any such undertaking as doomed to certain disaster. However, he did support the use of force in the event that the British attempted to suppress and disarm the Volunteers, implement conscription in Ireland, and/or arrest the leadership. In this regard he was tricked by the IRB, who produced a forged official British document, known as the Castle Document, stating that MacNeill and other prominent leaders of the Volunteers were to be arrested.
It was now that MacNeill was told about the plan for the Rising and the imminent arrival of German arms. Believing now that the British were about to move against the Volunteers, he reluctantly agreed to give his support. The IRB knew it would be vital in ensuring a national mobilisation the national Irish Volunteers, which after the split stood at just over 13,000.
However, when he learned of the arrest of Roger Casement, the man charged with organising the German arms shipment, and the interception of the ship transporting them three days prior to the start of the Rising on Easter Sunday, MacNeill changed his mind and countermanded the orders he’d originally supported mobilising the Volunteers for Easter Sunday. This resulted in confusion and a drastic reduction in the number of men who came out, which ultimately led to the Rising only taking place in Dublin, where it had to be delayed by one day, taking place on Easter Monday instead of Sunday as originally planned.
The leaders of the Rising in Dublin, chief among them Pearse and Connolly, were under no illusion as to their chances of success when news arrived of the loss of the German arms shipment and MacNeill’s counter orders preventing a national mobilisation from taking place.
Pearse, as stated, was a romantic and an idealist, consumed with the desire to make what he described as a ‘blood sacrifice’ in the cause of Irish freedom. He desired martyrdom, believing it would inspire future generations to take up the cause. Connolly on the other hand was a committed trade unionist, socialist, and Marxist, whose being was consumed with the objective of winning the Irish working class to the cause of mass revolutionary struggle.
Born in Edinburgh to Irish parents, Connolly (left) early on developed a devotion to Ireland. He’d led an active life, during which he he’d served in the British Army, lying about his age in order to enlist. Serving in Ireland for a period he met his future wife Lillie. He also experienced the first stirrings of the class consciousness and devotion to the cause of the oppressed that would dominate his life from then on in. The role of the British troops in supporting the landlords in reducing the lives of poor tenant farmers to abject misery, and the racist attitude to the Irish in general, lit a fire that never went out to the day he died.
He began to devour socialist and Marxist theory and returning to Scotland threw himself into activism. He stood as a socialist candidate in municipal elections, then moved to Dublin to take up a paid position as secretary of a fledgling socialist organisation, later helping to form the Irish Socialist Republican Party. In 1903 he emigrated to the United States and became a full time organizer with the Wobblies. Seven years later he returned to Ireland to join the Socialist Party of Ireland as its national organiser, moving to Belfast where he attempted to organise the working class across the sectarian divide. In 1913 he returned to Dublin and was heavily involved in the infamous lockout, when the Dublin bosses grouped together to lock out thousands of workers in an attempt to break the growing influence of the Irish Transport and General Trade Workers Union (ITGWU), led at the time by James Larkin. Connolly spent a brief period in prison as a result of this struggle. He emerged even more determined to immerse himself in the class struggle, and as a result of his experience of police brutality he’d become an eager advocate of the concept of a workers’ militia to defend workers against police violence during protest meetings and strikes. The Irish Citizens’ Army was born.
As well as a brilliant organiser and natural leader, Connolly was also a major thinker and theorist, his work around the National Question in particular a significant contribution to the Marxist canon. His theoretical work combined with his experience in the struggle to leave him in no doubt that when it came to Ireland ‘The struggle for socialism and national liberation cannot and must not be separated.’
Regardless, it seems strange that a man committed to mass action of the Irish and international working class as the agency of revolutionary change should embrace the desperate tactic of an armed uprising by a tiny minority against the British state. The reason can be found in his devastation at the sight of thousands of Irish working class men enlisting to fight in an imperialist war under British arms, the same British arms that were holding his beloved Ireland in colonial subjugation.
“This war appears to me as the most fearful crime of the centuries. In it the working class are to be sacrificed so that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth. Nations are to be obliterated, progress stopped, and international hatreds erected into deities to be worshipped.”
It was this which decided him on the desperate course of an armed rising by a committed minority, hoping it would raise the consciousness of the Irish working class to follow their example and struggle against the British state. This turn to action preceding consciousness on Connolly’s part dovetailed with Pearse’s commitment to a ‘blood sacrifice’ in Ireland’s cause, responsible for two of the most unlikely of allies joining forces to make history.
That said, Connolly was never under any illusion about the deep political differences that existed between his conception of a future Ireland and the one held by the ultra nationalists of the IRB. He knew that the plight of the Irish working class would not be improved one inch by replacing the Union Jack over Dublin Castle with the Irish tricolour. It is why he urged his volunteers to keep hold of their weapons in the unlikely event of a victorious outcome to the Rising, as they would need them to carry out the next stage of their struggle to turn a political revolution into a social one against their erstwhile allies.
But, as mentioned, by the morning of the Rising on Easter Monday 1916, Connolly knew that he and his men were about to embark on a disastrous course. As they formed up outside their Liberty Hall HQ, he turned to a trusted aide and said
“We’re going out to be slaughtered.”
What followed was a story of courage and sacrifice that has elevated the Easter Rising to the status of legend throughout the world. The romantic symbolism of the reading out of the Irish Proclamation to bemused passersby outside the GPO in the middle of O’Connell Street, was matched by the rebels’ naivete in taking up fixed positions throughout the city, trusting that the British would be reluctant to bring artillery to bear on Dublin, the closest city within the British Empire to London, to force them out. The forlorn hope that events in Dublin would inspire the remaining Volunteers around the country to mobilise despite MacNeill’s orders to the contrary never came to pass either. Initially taken by surprise, the British responded with overwhelming force, bringing thousands of reinforcements and artillery into Dublin from the mainland to batter the rebels into submission after six days of heavy fighting, when Pearse finally gave the order to surrender on Saturday April 29th.
The aftermath proved as dramatic as the Rising itself. The rebels were initially vilified by their fellow Dubliners, who blamed them for causing the destruction of large parts of the city. As they were marched off to confinement by British troops they were harangued and pelted, especially by women whose husbands and sons were at that moment fighting in the trenches. But public and popular sentiment soon fell in behind them as the leaders were executed one after the other without trial or due process apart from military courts martial.
Here the British government made a catastrophic error in handing responsibility for the fate of those who’d surrendered to the British military authority in Dublin. In the end fifteen were executed by firing squad, including the seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation – Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas J Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett. Another name that can be added to the aforementioned list is that of Roger Casement, who was later hanged in Pentonville Prison for his role in attempting to organise the shipment of German arms.
Casement (right) was a colourful character who despite enjoying the benefits of a privileged background devoted his life to ending the cruel treatment suffered by the victims of colonialism in Africa and the Americas.
Some of the most moving testimonies ever given by condemned men were made by the leaders of the rising in the hours and days before their execution. James Connolly said during the court martial held in his prison cell prior to being shot that
“Believing that the British government has no right in Ireland, never had any right in Ireland, and never can have any right in Ireland, the presence, in any one generation of Irishmen, of even a respectable minority, read to die to affirm that truth, makes the Government for ever a usurpation and a crime against human progress”.
Patrick Pearse testified that
“When I was a child of ten, I went on my bare knees by my bedside one night and promised God that I should devote my Life to an effort to free my country. I have kept the promise. I have helped to organise, to train, and to discipline my fellow-countrymen to the sole end that, when the time came, they might fight for Irish freedom. The time, as it seemed to me, did come, and we went into the fight. I am glad that we did. We seem to have lost; but we have not lost. To refuse to fight would have been to lose; to fight is to win. We have kept faith with the past, and handed on its tradition to the future. I repudiate the assertion of the Prosecutor that I sought to aid and abet England’s enemy. Germany is no more to me than England is. I asked and accepted German aid in the shape of arms and an expeditionary force; we neither asked for nor accepted German gold, nor had any traffic with Germany but what I state. My object was to win Irish freedom. We struck the first blow ourselves, but I should have been glad of an ally’s aid. I assume that I am speaking to Englishmen who value their freedom, and who profess to be fighting for the freedom of Belgium and Serbia. Believe that we too love freedom and desire it. To us it is more than anything else in the world. If you strike us down now, we shall rise again, and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed.”
Pearse was proved right. His sacrifice and that of the others who were executed lit the flame of Irish resistance to British rule, which ended with the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922 after a bitter guerrilla war lasting three years, followed by a brief civil war between former comrades over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty enshrining the partition of six counties in the North, which remained British.
As Yeats wrote in his poem, with the Easter Rising of 1916 a terrible beauty had been born. Ireland would never be the same.
Rebels, Peter De Rosa
The Lost Writings, James Connolly
The IRA: A History, Tim Pat Coogan
The Easter Rebellion, Max Caulfield
The latest Irish Times Poll is showing SF support at 25 per cent, an unprecedented level in the 26 counties, so tomorrow’s public meeting is timely
`Economic crisis — lessons from Ireland, Tues 28 February 8pm
Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, House of Commons, SW1A OAA
Speakers: Sinn Fein Vice President Mary Lou McDonald TD and Pat Doherty MP
The meeting will be an important opportunity to discuss the deepening economic crisis affecting both Ireland and Britain, which has seen people face swingeing cuts and austerity. Sinn Fein’s leading figures will explain the party’s position, in particular that austerity is making the crisis worse, and that investment to stimulate the economy rather than cuts is what is necessary; and in the context of the party’s all-Ireland perspective. Sinn Fein have been at the forefront of challenging cuts across Ireland, north and south, and including by the Tory government cuts imposed from Westminster.
For further information about Sinn Fein’s economic policy visit http://www.sinnfein.ie/economy and http://www.sinnfein.ie/budget2012
For further details of the meeting sign up on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/events/224411747652266/
Seminar: Lessons from Ireland for the economic crisis — why we need investment not austerity, there is a progressive alternative.
Tue 28 Feb 7pm, Portcullis House, London
Speakers Mary Lou McDonald TD, Vice President Sinn Fein; Pat Doherty MP.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when British soldiers killed 14 demonstrators in Derry.
Worth reading this interview with Eamonn McCann from Socialist Review