The famous Proclamation of Easter 1916. The legitimacy which it claimed for the Provisional Government was, in reality, without democratic basis or strength.
THE CENTENARY of the Easter Rising (or Rebellion) of 1916 when Irish republicans staged an insurrection against the authorities has sparked an enormous amount of airtime, print material, debate and discussion.
The events of that Easter are century ago are not something most unionists are familiar with, but the centenary commemorations and debate have certainly encouraged a greater knowledge among some of them.
There are enormous complexities involved. I was asked to deliver a presentation in Dundonald in East Belfast recently and found an attentive and large enough audience from the unionist community.
The events of what was wrongly called ‘the Sinn Fein rebellion’ at the time should be known more by unionists as well as nationalists. They raise interesting issues.
Northern Ireland’s first Roman Catholic Attorney General, John Larkin, recently entered the debate, voicing his opinion that the events of Easter 1916 “lacked any democratic or constitutional legitimacy”. The significance of his statement requires much reflection.
The central issue was that Home Rule for Ireland had been agreed by the Westminster Parliament, which was awaiting the end of the war to enact the legislation and bring about a devolved political structure in Ireland. There was a debate about the northern part of Ireland, where armed resistance was being offered to Home Rule by the Ulster Volunteer Force of Sir Edward Carson (raising another complexity). But to all intents and purposes Irish nationalist leader John Redmond and his party had achieved their goal. Which was why Redmond felt morally obliged to support the Liberal government over the war effort.
Enter a small conspiratorial group who believed in achieving political aims through violence. These men were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and they had managed to infiltrate the major sporting and political organisations in nationalist society. They included among their number Patrick Pearse, who was to famously laud the idea of blood sacrifice. The IRB used their influence to plot a rebellion at Easter 1916 and what eventually transpired was the outworking of their plan.
The result was considerable destruction and loss of life on both sides of the conflict in the city. One third of Dublin citizens (100,000) ended up on public relief after the rebellion owing to loss of property and employment
Scenes of destruction in Dublin during the rebellion
In the public space of commemoration a century later it is likely that those who lost their lives in the military and the civilian population will be remembered as well as those who took part in ‘the Rising’ more than they were 50 years ago.
Historians debate what turned the tide in Ireland. After the rebellion was quelled some of the rebels were pelted with rotten fruit as they were led away to prison. There were many Dublin men serving in the First World War and their wives had little time for men who had stabbed them in the back as they saw it by staging the rebellion.
But the tide would turn. The IRB leaders had reckoned that the sacrifice of their lives would awaken Ireland. The court martials after the rebellion make it very clear that the key leaders expected to give up their lives to the firing squad. The British authorities in Dublin duly obliged, although it is noteworthy that after a concerned expression from the Prime Minister the number of executions seemed to be curtailed.
90 men were sentenced to death by court martial after the Rising, but only 15 of the sentences were actually carried out
“We are all ready to meet our God…Now that we are defeated, outside that barrack wall the people whom we have tried to emancipate have demonstrated nothing but hatred and contempt for us. We would be better off dead as life would be a torture…” Con Colbert (1888-1916). Executed May 8, 1916, age 23. His remarks display his despondency on how the rebellion was received. Those who planned it believed there would have to be defeat and executions to awaken the spirit of Ireland as a nation.
Sir Edward Carson, the unionist leader, was not automatically in favour of executions, as his comment shows: “No true Irishman calls for vengeance. It will be a matter requiring the greatest wisdom and the greatest calmness in dealing with these men. Whatever is done, let it be done not in a moment of temporary excitement but in a moment of deliberation”
Redmond foretold what would follow from the executions when he said: “If any more executions take place in Ireland, the position will become impossible for any constitutional party or leader”
James Stephens, IRB leader, predicted “Ireland…was not with the revolution, but in a few months she will be, and her heart which was withering will be warmed by the knowledge that men have thought her worth dying for.”
Sadly, history shows him to have had a point. Ultimately this is a good example of the pen being mightier than the sword. Physically the rebellion failed. But it has had a good press.
It is now an event seen through a rather romantic lens, perhaps in the same way the romance of the Titanic appears to casually neglect the salient fact that she actually sank on her maiden voyage – which unsinkable ships are not supposed to do.
Now the rebellion is seen as the revolt that shook an empire. Actually it was hardly a blip at the time, given all else that was going on in the world. But the story lost nothing in the telling.
The 1916 executions, however, were followed up by continued harrowing losses of Irishmen on the Front, the continuance of the war beyond the timescale every had hoped, a sense that events were taken out of Irish hands after the Rising through the executions – which caused a smouldering resentment – and the Conscription Crisis, when the government proposed conscription in Ireland, then had to back down.
There were also complex economic factors at play. Dublin, unlike Belfast, was not tied into the war economy, producing beer and biscuits while heavy engineering was providing employment in the northern city. In Dublin additional taxes affected the local industries because beer and biscuits were not seen as necessities but English Ale had no such taxation applied and resentments grew just as the ranks of the unemployed in Dublin did too.
In all of these complexities central questions remain. How should we view a historical event which was created by a conspiracy? Was the rebellion anti-democratic in 1916? Could it be justified in the Ireland of 1916, where Home Rule had been successfully attained?
These are important questions and require considered thought and discussion.
But equally there are other interesting questions for modern unionists. Some nationalists argue that the Ulster Volunteers and the offer of armed resistance (which extended to the warning that the UVF would take on the British army in some of Carson’s speeches from political platforms) paved the way to Easter 1916.
I happen to believe that the Irish Republican Brotherhood would have staged a rebellion anyway. They were revolutionaries in a hurry, with no time to wait for the niceties of parliamentary debate or political movement. Pearse may have greatly admired the UVF gunrunning, but unionism figured little in their ultimate opinion-forming or planning, I suspect.
But I also wonder what would have happened if the IRB had not staged their rebellion, and if constitutional nationalism had continued to hold sway until the end of the war.
Would the real conflict have moved north and involved unionist armed resistance to the British parliament?
And if it had would a civil war have been sparked across the British Isles, as nationalists and unionists pulled in their support (and unionists had it within the military as the Curragh mutiny of 1914 had shown). That being the case, who would have won?
Unionism, as far as I am concerned, had a greater popular mandate than the seven men who signed the Easter Proclamation in Dublin in 1916. The Ulster Covenant of 1912 gathered more unionist signatures in Dublin than the Rising gathered men to fight for the Proclamation in 1916. Almost half a million men and women signed in total. It was a declaration of self-determination which the natural conservatism of the unionists meant never developed into nationhood. Does that give sufficient justification to go to war?
Therein perhaps lies a greater irony. Those that proclaimed for Irish freedom did not represent the majority of Dubliners let alone nationalists in 1916 and those who proclaimed the strongest of British identities were prepared for a conflict which they believed would have led to their continuance within a kingdom which would, as a consequence, have been anything but united…