Brian Wilson: Beware gesture politics that divide Scotland

President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle yesterday for the first major event in Ireland to mark the centenary. Picture: PA
President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle yesterday for the first major event in Ireland to mark the centenary. Picture: PA
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THE 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising is an opportunity for reflection, writes Brian Wilson

Who fears to speak of Easter Week, that week of fine renown/When the boys in green went out to fight the forces of the Crown

Not least in Scotland, there will be plenty speaking – and indeed, singing – of Easter Week over the next few months as the centenary of the Dublin rising approaches. I wonder whether we will be any more enlightened when it is over?

Early indications are not promising as the auction for association gets underway. There has been an arcane skirmish in Glasgow City Council about the wording of an SNP-sponsored commemorative motion. This week, Women for Independence raised their eyes from internal fiscal challenges to tweet sweetly: “2016 will be the centenary of the Irish uprising. They dismantled their bit of the British state. We have yet to”.

We can only hope that such crass hem-touching does not prove to be the highest level that Scottish obsequies can aspire to.

There is a lot of serious and mutually respectful debate going on within Ireland itself around the forthcoming commemoration. Would it be too much to hope that some of it could rub off here?

Our own history, both ancient and modern, is certainly intertwined with that of Ireland and there is much to be fostered and celebrated. On the other hand, the last thing that Scotland needs is a fresh injection of bowdlerised Irish history, crudely linked to our own very different affairs and doubtless accompanied by multiple flag-waving.

The undisputed fact is that the Easter Rising was a hugely significant landmark in recent Irish history, largely because of the brutal response that it triggered. The actual event enjoyed little public support and if the British had not executed the leaders for treason in a time of war, the subsequent history of Ireland would have been very different and not necessarily worse than it has turned out.

Beyond that, defining the Rising’s legacy is endlessly complex and I am not convinced that pious resolutions by Scottish local authorities will contribute much to unravelling it. They should beware gesture politics where gestures have the capacity to divide rather than unite.

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There was, as Sir Tom Devine has pointed out, a Scottish contribution to the Easter Rising, notably in the Edinburgh-born person of James Connolly. Irish political movements which supported the rising were represented in Scotland. By the same measure, however, there was abundant Scottish input into other seminal events of the period, notably the Ulster Covenant which laid the ground for subsequent partition.

I don’t recall many council motions to mark that centenary in 2012. Yet history without inconvenient realities is not history.

The persistence of sectarianism in Scotland can be partly attributed to the fact that tribal loyalties have been insufficiently challenged by debate and any serious attempt to see the other lot’s point of view. A century-long perspective could be used as an opportunity for understanding, if that is the objective.

Debate within Ireland centres both on what the Easter Rising aspired to and what was actually achieved. The aspirations – which are distorted by a focus on any one of the personalities involved – were variously a united Ireland, a workers’ republic and a Gaelic-speaking nation. It is self-evident that none of these has come within a country mile of fruition. The reality has been indefinite partition, aggressive Irish capitalism, even fewer native Gaelic speakers than in Scotland – and a lot of bloodshed.

The Easter Rising did not lead directly to a Republic but, via the success of Sinn Fein in the 1918 election, to a UDI, leading first to war with the British followed by a terrible civil war over whether or not to accept a Treaty based on partition. Throw in the fact that a divided Ireland ended up thereafter with two political structures each, in its own way, under conservative clerical influence and the best that can be said is that the report card is mixed.

In a recent article for The Irish Catholic, Father Sean Murphy of Loyola University, Chicago, set the actions of the Rising’s leaders against the tests for a just war and found that they failed on every count, with far more civilians than military personnel killed and the sidelining of Ireland’s elected representatives causing “dreadful long-term damage to Ireland’s political culture”. There’s plenty in that analysis alone which demands debate rather than cheer-leading.

Fr Murphy wrote: “The Rising’s leaders believed that Irish blood-sacrifice was necessary, not just for independence, but also for revitalising the soul of the Irish, corrupted by messy ‘democratic’ politics” He added: “Much of Irish history since 1916 has been about trying to repair the damage”.

It is surely true that a continuing problem for Irish society has been the difficulty in drawing a line at when, in the eyes of some minority, violence ceases to be the legitimate means of achieving the outcome they desire and then dressing that up in the language of Republicanism. Meanwhile, the dividing lines in Irish politics were created and have been sustained mainly around constitutional issues rather than social or economic ones. That does not lead to progressive politics.

My own favourite figure in Irish politics was Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League which broke the back of Irish landlordism and achieved reforms which are still deemed impossible in 21st century Scotland. Davitt challenged sectarianism by making common cause with Highland crofters who faced the same struggles and same enemies. And for good measure, he laid the first turf at Celtic Park. Davitt died in 1906 and was promptly denounced by Connolly – the Marxist revolutionary – as “the tool of political crooks and social reactionaries”. People who actually achieve things usually end up being reviled by those with purer theories.

Ireland is entering an election year which provides the guarantee, if any was needed, that the centenary commemorations will become a very prominent political football, with every political party fighting over the claim to true inheritance. At least this will contribute to the wider debate about the place of the Easter Rising, for good and ill, in subsequent Irish history.

We should adopt the role of interested spectators to that debate, rather than surrogate partisans. There is a lot more to learn than to contribute.