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Tag Archives: Easter Rising

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.

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I recall Brendan Halligan saying at the time that the one good thing about Charles Haughey’s ascent to Taoiseach was that it would help polarise Irish politics. It didn’t.  I recall too that Frank Cluskey regarded him as a test instrument; if there was any doubt about a policy but Charles Haughey disliked it, very likely it was the correct thing to do. I was relatively young then and, finding Charles Haughey ridiculous, I struggled to understand his appeal. Later it occurred to me that he was mad. (If you doubt this, find a picture of him before his mansion with his horse.) Of course the realisation that he was mad was of little value in trying to understand his appeal. That understanding took years and another similar Taoiseach in Bertie Ahern.

The key to understanding the phenomenon of a Taoiseach who is without political values and claims to be neither left nor right is the preoccupation with aristocracy and leadership of the nation*. The main virtue of the RTE TV drama series, “Charlie”, is that it makes this plain. The importance of the drama right now is that the Irish attitude to national leadership has not changed. Ireland’s history, and the view of politics accepted by the majority and reinforced by journalists has led to this point.

The leader is required to deliver a modicum of self-respect to a nation held down by outsiders and their cronies within. These cronies – “the establishment” – characteristically exhibit foreign traits and “betray” the “people”. The leader is required to be kindly and to have a common touch, delivering to some people and some communities, while offering hope of a delivery to each one. When Charlie wants Ireland to “dine at the top table”, he epitomises national abasement.

Charles sought to be the chieftain of the Irish nation. Today the model remains one of ruler and ruled with “ordinary people” or sometimes “ordinary working people” seeking relief, reassuring promises, favours, and gifts from their chieftain or aristocracy. Lately the would-be chieftains strike their version of the traditional anti-establishment pose by deriding “the political class”. The term offers a distant whiff of Marxism while ensuring that the concept of class is never explored. Then they get on with precisely what FF and Charlie inherited from their SF origins: they insinuate themselves into communities, take up causes and make representations. They have it appear that nothing can be “delivered” without pressure and that they are best at pressurising.  It is a depressingly long way from citizens discussing and deciding on the direction of their republic. The whinging cry now, as in the 70s and 80s, is for leadership.

The state’s founding myth continues to figure in selecting leaders.  In 1916 Ireland had The Easter Rising (Irish: Éirí** Amach na Cásca).  The cultural base to that was a harking back to mythical Irish chieftains. The cruelly executed signatories to the Easter Proclamation*** became lost leaders, revered for representing the nation.  The drama, Charlie, showed that by the early 80s an invitation – in familiar “rebel song” format – to Arise and Follow Charlie (It featured the line, “Hail the leader, hail the man”. Jesus wept!) was still compelling.**** Today we have calls for new leaders and new parties to come and save the people who have been “betrayed” by leaders who ignore the “principles”, dreams and aspirations of 1916. (There is even a nationalist group styling itself “Éirigí”.) The tradition of rebellion in Ireland is essentially nationalist, a desire to be ruled by “our own”. Though Irish nationalists – in common with British opponents of monarchy – like to call themselves “republican”, their use of the term drains it of its participative meaning.

In the first episode of the TV drama, as Charlie called the race together under his emerging leadership, he stood before an enormous picture of Pádraig Pearse.  With the 2016 centenary approaching the trick is being reworked time and again.

Many found the TV drama difficult to follow or disliked the reliance on actors who featured in the crime series, Love Hate. More importantly, the drama was criticised for its stereotypes and gormless script. However, the real subjects of the drama (Charles Haughey and co.) performed for the most part as stereotypes who spoke rubbish which voters found agreeable. Moreover, the drama speaks to Ireland’s present predicament as citizens seek new saviours.

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* Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote that Mr Haughey “was an aristocrat in the proper sense of the word: not a nobleman or even a gentleman, but one who believed in the right of the best people to rule, and that he himself was the best of the best people”. – quoted in Dermot Ferriter’s The Transformation of Ireland 1900 – 2000 pg.561

**  https://glosbe.com/ga/en/%C3%A9ir%C3%AD

*** The text of the 1916 proclamation: http://www.iol.ie/~dluby/proclaim.htm

**** Donie Cassidy teamed with Dublin folk singer Pete St. John to co-write ‘Charlie’s Song’ (better known as ‘Arise and Follow Charlie’).