June­–July 2015        

The 1916 Rising

“We have nothing to celebrate?”

Presentation by Roger Cole to the debate in the Eblana Club, Dún Laoghaire

I would like to thank the Eblana Forum for inviting me to take part in this debate on the 1916 Rising.
     The title to this debate asks do we have nothing to celebrate about the 1916 Rising. So let us examine the core document of the Rising, the Proclamation, and to note that, however the Irish Times might claim, we do not need a new one.
     “Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old traditions of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”
     The Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic was Ireland’s Declaration of Independence against the British Empire. At a time when the ruling class of the Empire opposed equal rights for women, the very first sentence made it clear that men and women were equal. In doing so it rejected one of the core reactionary values of the British Empire and its imperialist allies in Ireland. The Republic was to be a nation of equals. The Republic was to be in the forefront in the struggle for the rights of women. That alone is reason to celebrate.
     “Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but by relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.”
     It is sometimes said that dreamers led the Republic. This paragraph of the Proclamation rejects that concept. Hardened realists, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, led the Republic. While the struggle against British imperial rule stretched back generations, it was the United Irishmen who established its modern form, a Republicanism inspired by the enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.
     The Great British famine in Ireland gave birth to the IRB, a revolutionary movement that revived that tradition. They were aware of the massive power of British Imperialism, they were aware of its ruthless determination to expand its power and domination over the rest of the world and to crush all opposition. Dreamers would never defeat it. What was needed was a secret revolutionary movement that would build an organisation among the Irish people in Ireland and throughout the world. The British famine in Ireland had forced millions of Irish to emigrate throughout the world, thus it created the means of its own demise. The British Empire ruled a quarter of the world; to defeat it the IRB also had to become an organisation that operated throughout the world, especially in America.
     This international dimension was crucial to the IRB. However, just as the American Revolutionaries in the eighteenth century sought and gained the support of the French Empire, the IRB also sought the support of the German Empire, their “gallant allies in Europe.”
     When the Proclamation was written, the Republic was planning a much larger rebellion. If the capital city had been held for longer, Germany and its allies could have, under international law, recognised it as the legitimate government of Ireland and provided it with more weapons. A then neutral American might have done the same. The outcome could then have been different. So the Rising was planned by realists, and what better and more realistic time to strike against the British Empire than when it was at full stretch, seeking to expand its Empire elsewhere.
     Of course, the IRB relied first and foremost on its own military formations by merging the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. The Empire defeated them. But the Republic was a harbinger of its decline. Other nations throughout the Empire were inspired by the Republic, which was in the vanguard of change and the emergence of a new world based on nation-states. For that too we have reason to celebrate the Rising.
     “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.”
     As a clear declaration of intent, made at a time when Ireland was an integral part of the British Union, where sovereign power resided with a British Monarch and Parliament, and when the most aspired to in Ireland was a level of Home Rule less than that which now applies to Wales, this was a clear revolutionary objective.
     Article 5 of the Irish Constitution states that “Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state.” And Article 6 states: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.”
     These articles reflect the values of the Proclamation, and for that we have reason to celebrate.
     They have meant that every time it is proposed that another slice of sovereign power be transferred away from the people of Ireland to the European Union, unlike every other state in the EU the Irish people have to give their consent. (They even get to give their consent again if they get it wrong the first time.)
     In 1916 the people of Ireland were not sovereign. They were loyal to the British Union and the British Army. Today, while so much sovereign power has been transferred to the European Union, these articles ensure that if we want to, we can always take it back.
     That is a reason to celebrate.
     The EU Commission president wants to create an Army of the European Union to go to war with Russia. Because of the Rising, it is hard to believe that 180,000 Irish would volunteer to die for the European Union in a way they were prepared to die for the British Union.
     For that, we have reason to celebrate.
     “The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious to the differences carefully fostered by an alien government which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
     Who would not celebrate that such objectives be laid down in the Proclamation of the Republic? Who would not agree that the bar of achievement should be set so high?
     For that, we have reason to celebrate.
     Finally, there is no doubt that there are two deeply rooted traditions in Ireland, one that looks to the 1916 Rising and the Proclamation of the Republic, and the other that is loyal to imperialism, British or European; one that sees Ireland’s future (or part of it) as a member of the British Union, with Irish men and women serving in the Army of the British Union, and another part where Irish men and women would serve as members of the Army of the European Union.
     The other tradition is the Republican tradition, one that seeks to establish a united, independent, democratic Republic and inspired by the 1916 Rising.
     For that, we have reason to celebrate.
     It is a division about the future of our country that will not end any time soon.
     I ask you to celebrate the 1916 Rising, to celebrate the Proclamation, celebrate the Republic, to celebrate the Army of the Republic with its democratically elected President and Commander in Chief, and to look forward to a future where the only Army in Ireland is the Army of a sovereign Irish Republic.

■ Roger Cole is chairperson of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) and of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown 1916 Committee

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