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The conflict between those who would normalise Sinn Fein and those who would not so much as socialise with a member of Sinn Fein is deep-seated. It turns on the question of something a great deal more basic than debate.

SF want to commemorate and celebrate the campaign waged by the provisional IRA. They see that as respecting their own dead, placing their narrative alongside others in telling the story of the troubles, and ensuring that the PIRA is seen as part of the longer tradition of violent Irish nationalism.

They do not accept that the PIRA’s campaign was exceptional. They want to liken it to earlier conflicts, specifically the insurrection of 1916 and the War of Independence.

When confronted by the thought that there are worse things in wars than the horrors of battle, that war crimes are a reality, they tend to have two responses. Firstly, they emphasise the old cliché that terrible things happen in war. Indeed they often condemn all wars. In other words, they deny the concept of a war crime and the need to consider it separately. Secondly, if they accept that war crimes exist, they argue that every party to every war is equally guilty.

The dispute here turns on i) what constitutes a war crime and ii) the extent to which war crimes featured in the conduct of a particular war.

Clearly the conduct of any war is a matter of selecting targets. Very few would quibble with the proposition that when civilians are selected as targets, an unambiguous war crime is committed. Even fewer would quibble with the suggestion that all wars have featured war crimes, the intentional targeting of civilians.

Nations like to commemorate, honour their war dead, their heroes. This is usually possible because the conduct of wars is ambiguous or the incidence of war crimes is sufficiently infrequent as to permit relatively civilised myth-making and public ceremony. That is to say, the war crimes – the targeting of civilians – can be condemned or quietly and shamefully hidden away so that the overall conduct of the war can be remembered as heroic or at least necessary. Thus Poppy Day can be celebrated while carpet bombing cities isn’t mentioned, the US knows that there can never be a Mai Lai Massacre Day and the Irish State knows that while there can be a commemoration of The War of Independence or the Civil War, that must not include detonating a bomb to which IRA prisoners had been chained.

It is stark and true that we all know about the horrors of war, the breakdown of civilised conventions, the cover it gives to do evil, the collaboration – cowardly if seeking advantage and understandable if seeking to survive. We know too about the heroes who would have no part in attacking civilians. Bluntly, we know damn well the difference between a war crime and a battle.

Because it was a campaign of war crimes punctuated by military engagements, the campaign of the Provisional IRA cannot be allowed these established, shamefaced distinctions and hair-splitting. For the most part, theirs was a campaign of assassinated civilians, “prisoners” tortured and their bodies dumped or secretly buried, “proxy bombs” in which a civilian was attached to a bomb and made to deliver it while his family was held hostage, and perhaps the most shameful and dishonest of them all: the public bombings.

They were shameful because they reduced civilians to mere messages (“The only thing the Brits understand!”) They were were also dishonest in their depravity. Think about what they did – time and again. They placed a bomb in a public place. Then by way of a warning, they gave their victims a “sporting chance” of escape. Subsequently, they expressed go-by-the-wall regret over the casualties (Irish and British) and said that it wouldn’t have happened if the authorities had acted more promptly on their warning or if the British were not occupying Ireland.

Thus the PIRA campaign of war crimes was a nasty episode in Irish history. Best forgotten completely? No! Let it serve as a warning that some Irish people can sink to the obscenities witnessed in so many countries. For that reason it must become part of our history, evidence that the Irish are capable of evil deeds. However, it most certainly should not become a part of us as one narrative among many. It cannot be commemorated with any suggestion of pride, let alone celebrated.

It might have been possible to put it to the backs of our minds and move on (We are constantly reminded that young people don’t remember the sordid PIRA targeting.) but Sinn Fein won’t allow that. They want it made normal that in today’s Ireland we tolerate the celebration of war crimes – worse, a campaign of war crimes.

In this they are usually facilitated by Irish journalism which hides behind conventional approaches to news and impartiality. Today SF speakers are passively granted a hearing. They state their views on public controversies of all kind as if they were an honoured part of our republic. This spineless and now established media approach is analogous to the effete silence faced by someone who habitually spouts vile nonsense. That is to say, otherwise decent people too often opt for a quiet life rather than confront a neighbour, friend or family member. In so doing they fail a basic test. A citizen of a republic has a responsibility to tell a blackguard that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and to do it day after day.

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One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.

I attended a funeral recently. On the way there, driving in rural north county Dublin, I encountered an anti-water tax sign which urged people to “Rise up”. A short time later, waiting, in the church porch, I noticed the front page headline on the Catholic newspaper “Alive”. It was anti same-sex marriage and urged people to “Rise up”. Now, I’d be confident that there’s a study somewhere of the Irish Catholic/nationalist preoccupation with the romantic, rising/resurrection notion that stretches from at least the “Easter Rising” of 1916 to the present-day nationalist splinter group, éirigí. (That translates as a plural imperative, commanding the people to Rise.) But lately there’s been quite a bit of resort to the word, especially on Facebook.

Ok, it might be nothing more than a word that is in people’s minds right now. In the short term it’s Lent and Irish Catholics are looking to Easter; next year is the centenary of 1916 and there’s a considerable amount of media attention being paid to that. Nevertheless, it might be worth giving some thought to the prominence of the word.

Some of those calling for a rising, like some of those calling for a revolution, may be completely serious. That is to say, they’ve thought about the words they use, the reality of battle, the effect on the general population, their desired outcome and they’ve concluded that this is the best or only way forward.

However, the largest group using evocative terms are hardest to understand. They constantly reiterate their opposition to violence but are unwilling or unable to let go of its lexicon. On the cultural side, the marches, banners, feelings of solidarity, if drained of violent rhetoric, would be revealed as a quasi-constitutional way of letting off steam or as an illustration of the way things work in a polyarchy, i.e. political priorities are decided by pressure on government or – more fashionably – on the political class.

On the theoretical side, they have opted for the parliamentary path and have explicitly eschewed violence but many still want to think in terms of a people rising up in revolt. It is a search for a third way between revolt and reform. It can seem incomprehensible that having abandoned the former and chosen the latter, the impression presented is that the choice was the other way round. There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, like any organisation or party experiencing change, they don’t want to be either outflanked or teased by more aggressive former comrades.

Secondly, they still see a role for street activity. They not only want to identify with the tradition of gains won when people clashed with the state, they also see this as a continuing route for advance. Some reckon it is the only way progress was ever made or will be made. A seat in parliament from this perspective becomes a mere platform for an activist who believes more in street activity.

The final group is comprised of fantasists who believe they are living in a police state and that they are part of an uprising which will shortly be joined by the majority.

If words matter, those who urge others to Rise Up or who talk in terms of revolution will have to be questioned forensically until citizens know exactly what – if anything – is meant.

There is a report in today’s Irish Times on papers presented to this year’s McGill Summer School on the theme, “How stands the republic?” The report headlines the contribution of Professor Diarmuid Ferriter. ( http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/seanad-abolition-a-grubby-power-grab-ferriter-1.1478603#.Ufa-e8C0aQY )

Diarmuid says, “If we accept a definition of republicanism that is about participation, a say in our fate, civic engagement and realising freedom and self-determination among citizens, we face the conclusion that any exaggerated celebrations in 2016 will mask the persistence of ambiguity and the endurance of the gulf between rhetoric and reality.”

That definition would be at odds with a minority staging a rising and with the views of the founding elite of the new state. Moreover, there has never been a gulf between rhetoric and reality. Apart from misuse of the word “republican”, their rhetoric matched the reality they created.

He also says, “One of the chief causes of the contemporary crisis was the absence of alternative views and insufficient scrutiny of flawed decision-making,”

In a republic the media provide citizens with challenging viewpoints and citizens are expected to think, speak and come to judgement. This did not happen because we tolerate poor performance and lack of personal integrity particularly among our professional elite – journalists, academics, teachers, managers etc. The crisis was certainly caused by political policy and ideology but it was also caused by very many people failing to do what they were paid to do and thereby letting down their fellow citizens. Those people are still in place: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/they-are-known-to-be-useless-and-they-are-all-still-there-a-reminder-from-eddie-hobbs/

The McGill choice of theme, “How stands the republic?”, is revealing. It implies an argument: that we are engaged in evaluation of an ideal or a project, that we can go on as we are with some minor changes. A better theme would be, “Should we create a republic?” Such a starting point would argue that we are thinking about doing something that we’ve not done before, breaking with the 1916 founding myth and its tawdry legacy of oppression, cruelty and malfunctioning elites.

“The jury expressed the opinion that something should be done to prevent boys getting possession of firearms.” – Recorded by the inquest jury into the death of 2 year old, Herbert Lemass, in early 1916.*

A little boy, called Herbert, died of a gunshot wound to the head because his 16 year old brother, John, was “fiddling with a revolver”.This happened in the family home on Capel Street, Dublin and a sister witnessed it. Anyone reading this unaware of the people involved would assume that the revolver belonged to an adult family member or perhaps an adult visitor to the house. However, John – or Seán outside of the family – was a member of the Irish Volunteers as was his 17 year old brother, Noel. Seán joined when he was fifteen and went on to fight in the GPO a few months after he had accidentally killed his little brother. After the GPO surrender he avoided arrest because of his age.**

The founding myth of the Irish State is bloody but the establishment view is that it is heroic and that questioning is “revisionist” and a bad thing. When it comes to light that a fifteen year old was allowed to join a rebel army and was given a gun to take home, it doesn’t prompt even the Irish Times to comment. Quite a number of children were among the volunteers and the excuse offered is that this shouldn’t be judged from today’s perspective. Normal shock and outrage are soothed by talk of things being different back then. Apart from the fact that the British considered Seán a child and let him go, the jury’s note at the top of this piece illustrates that in 1916 arming a child was as crazy as it would be today.

There’s nothing new or specifically Irish in mature adults sending young impetuous kids to their deaths. However, in Ireland a national newspaper can publish on the shooting in 1916 of a toddler by his big brother and not even ask what kind of nutters put the gun in his hand and what kind of parents allowed it to happen?

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/revelation-of-family-tragedy-provides-insight-into-lemass-s-political-persona-1.1469508 This is a front page report on a longer piece by the historian, Eunan O’Halpin, “Lemass’s Silent Agony”, published in the Irish Times Weekend Review of July 20th 2013

** http://test.scoilnet.ie/Res/maryodubhain100899224214_2.html