The Ahistorical 1916 Debate

The centenary commemorations have been plagued by a bitter, albeit predictable, debate around the true nature and legacy of the 1916 Rising. Was it justified? Did it have a mandate? Who can claim the legacy? Most of the questions asked and debates raging are largely abstract, almost entirely hypothetical, and at this point pretty irrelevant. It’s an example of how our political narrative is very backwards looking, focused on the past and who did what rather than who can do what. But, for the purpose of debate and in the spirit of 1916, let’s entertain these questions, just for a minute.

Was the Rising justified and did it have a mandate? Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would say yes, it was justified, but it didn’t have a mandate. It’s perfectly valid to say that it wasn’t justified, but to do so is to do one of two things; to take the view that Ireland should have remained in the UK, as some but not all on this side of the debate feel (again, perfectly valid); or to take the view that Ireland should have achieved independence through democratic means, which ties in with the question of whether or not the Rising had a mandate. The whole debate places the 1916 Rising in the context of 2016 values and views. It removes it entirely from its historical context. It also assumes that there was a democratic route to Home Rule or independence, and that the British respected Ireland’s views and desires.

Even by 1916 the Home Rule promised by the Government of Ireland Act 1912 was effectively off the table. Redmond, the darling of those who demand that a revolution has a democratic mandate, had already rejected it on the basis that the Unionists of the 6 counties had been given an opt-out clause. We forget the fact that the Bill only passed in 1912 after two previous attempts and with a majority of 10 votes. The Liberals had supported Home Rule for decades and had depended on the support of the Irish Nationalists since 1885, yet even if the 1916 Rising hadn’t happened, if the dominance of the Irish Parliamentary Party hadn’t been replaced by that of Sinn Fein following the 1918 General Election, and if the Liberals had remained as a single force rather than two, the Conservatives still would have had an absolute majority in the Westminster parliament, on which Lloyd George relied in order to remain as Prime Minister. It is inconceivable that the Conservatives would have stood down in the face of Irish nationalism after decades, in fact centuries, of vehemently opposing it, and to claim that they would have let Ireland have Home Rule because the likes of Canada and Australia were granted dominion status completely glosses over the fact that such countries weren’t the same as Ireland, which was a part of the UK, had MPs in Westminster, contributed significantly to the UK’s domestic economy, and was established as a potential stepping stone for military actions against the UK, a fear that was later reiterated in the 1940s when the UK attempted to get Ireland on its side in order to prevent it from being a staging ground for a Nazi invasion of Britain. Even in 1921 when the British delegation led by Prime Minister Lloyd George granted 26 counties for the creation of the Irish Free State with dominion status, the idea of Irish Home Rule was so immensely unpopular in the rest of the UK that by the time of the cash-for-honours scandal that effectively marked the end of Lloyd George’s career, he had little remaining support from anywhere in politics or wider society. The move ultimately destroyed his career. Then there’s the fact that if measured by modern standards, not even parliamentarians like O’Connell, Grattan, Parnell or Redmond could have claimed a democratic mandate as the franchise at that point excluded women and many working class men. They represented the Irish middle class, and they campaigned on that basis. Yet these vital facts have been excluded from the debate.

To claim that the Rising had no mandate is ridiculous, even if true. No revolution can claim a democratic mandate, as is the nature of revolutions. If measured by this same standard, the War of Independence, American Revolutionary War, French Revolution, Suffragette movement and anti-colonialist movements also cannot claim a mandate and are therefore unjustified.

It also takes for granted all the rights and freedoms we enjoy now. If a democratic mandate for a revolution could have been established then I’m sure it would have been, but in 1916 it wasn’t possible for there to be a referendum on Home Rule or Independence as there has been in Scotland in recent decades, the franchise was extremely limited, democratic organisations deemed to pose a threat to British influence in Ireland were declared illegal and suppressed, and even into the 20th century the UK used slaves in its colonies, showing little respect for fellow humans or democratic rights, because these rights did not exist at the time. This is the environment in which the Rising occurred. It was against middle class domination, against the oppression of women, against sectarianism, and in a contradictory way, in favour of democracy. It was a rising that represented a broad range of people, predominantly those not represented by the parliamentary system of the time. If we argue that the Rising was neither justified nor mandated, then we must also accept that many of the actions of the likes of Redmond were neither justified nor mandate, particularly him coaxing thousands of Irish men into the British army to serve in the trenches, a move defended by supposedly respected historian, Ruth Dudley Edwards (who has appeared in RTE programmes arguing the case against the rising), on the basis that had the British lost the First World War, the Irish would have known what it’s like to be ruled by a truly evil empire, a claim that not only diminishes the brutality of the British Empire, but is entirely ahistorical. The Germans were not attempting to conquer Europe as in the Second World War, instead it was a war fought on the fault lines of Europe that lay in the same places as the fault lines left by Charlemagne’s empire over 1,000 years ago. It was not an expansionary war.

This now brings us onto the topic of legacy. Who can claim it? The people and the people alone. There have been many attempts by various Republican groups, including Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael to lay claim to the legacy and erase the role of others, but the reality is that as a people’s revolt its legacy can only be that of the people, and it is for the people to decide what to do with it. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael did not exist at the time, and while founding figures of Labour led the rising alongside others, it, as an organisation, like Sinn Fein, played no role in it. To use it as a campaign tool is itself historically inaccurate, and to portray it as a failed revolt is also historically inaccurate. It was a revolt led and participated in by people of all backgrounds, rich and poor, man and woman, young and old, Protestant and Catholic, Irish and not-so-Irish. It was also a revolt that never sought to be successful in and of itself. It was designed as a catalyst, to garner support for a Republican cause. The leaders never set out to win, they set out to hold out long enough, a week to be exact, to achieve international recognition for their cause and for an independent Irish state, as a week was the established requirement for this. So, in conclusion, when commemorating the Rising, and when debating its legacy, it is important to keep it in its historical context, to recognise the environment in which it existed, and to not have our views blurred by the standards of today and the rights we now take for granted.

By Danny Rigg, Editor
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