Questions of rebellion and legitimacy for us all…


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

1916 dublin viewScenes 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…


Will the Orange Order sit down with Sinn Fein?

DSCN6052The memorial window in the Orange Order headquarters in Belfast commemorating 333 members murdered during the Troubles, most by republican terrorists.

ON FRIDAY I was asked to go onto the BBC Radio Ulster Talkback programme as a commentator from the Protestant community and a former Director of Services with the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

The topic surrounded the suggestion from Presbyterian minister Rev. Brian Kennaway, a former Orangeman, that the Orange Order should sit down and talk with Sinn Fein.

It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that such a call has been or will be made.

But the likelihood of it happening at official levels is not something you nor I should practice holding our breath over.

The Orange Order sees Sinn Fein as representing the IRA, whose terrorist campaign over 40 years in Northern Ireland resulted, for the Order, in the loss of over 300 members, most of them killed by republicans. The IRA may be gone from the scene (or not) but there are individuals in Sinn Fein who were to coin a phrase ‘inextricably linked’ with the IRA campaign, the current Deputy First Minister being but one example.

The Grand Orange Lodge has no policy on meeting with Sinn Fein and so nothing is carved in stone. But in terms of the parades policy, it has clearly softened over the years from not meeting with Sinn Fein dominated residents groups over parades issues to local autonomy over the issue. This now means that if a lodge feels it is appropriate to meet residents including Sinn Fein in an area, then it can do so. Support at County level is supposed to be made available to assist. The Grand Lodge, however, is not part of this process, since, presumably, it does not generally organise parades. At senior level there is also an awareness of the minefield that exists; when Portadown District Lodge, before the new policy, met with West Belfast MP Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein President, it was without the prior knowledge of the Grand Lodge and caused a considerable stir, resulting in a reprimand from the top tier.

Portadown District met Adams to explore a parade from Drumcree Church along Garvaghy Road, so at least there was a focus to the meeting. General calls for the Order to meet Sinn Fein have little focus and, it would have to be said, little point. But it could be over parades that meetings will take place in the short-term since there is an obvious pressure point.

In the longer-term, if the Orange Order continues to seek meetings with government over issues which concern it, then sooner or later a Sinn Fein minister will be in the picture.  This weekend the Order published a paper on alleged religious discrimination in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, showing that it clearly has an ambition to represent its constituency at a high level, having sought a meeting with the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Malcolm McKibbin.

The real dilemma for the Order will come if there are particular departments with SF ministers, or where it hopes to attract funding. This will not necessarily involve Grand Lodge leaders but from the perspective of the general public, there would be no difference between a Grand Master and his officers sitting down and local lodge officials in an area, or representatives from one of the Orders ‘arm’s length bodies’. In that context, the Orange Order has already sat down with Sinn Fein, as the Portadown example shows.

However the real focus for the Order will be its members, not the wider public. And there will be little appetite among the members for wider and public talks with Sinn Fein.

Tullyvallen3The memorial in Tullyvallen Orange Hall, County Armagh, to lodge members murdered by republicans during the Troubles. Five died when their lodge meeting was attacked by gunmen. Berry Rainey, one of the survivors, is pictured at the plaque.

Sinn Fein provide a dilemma for the Orange Order on the ground and in terms of outreach work to the nationalist community. As staff were increasingly expected to attend events and put the Orange perspective, they were also increasingly likely to encounter political representatives from Sinn Fein at such events.

A knee-jerk reaction was not to attend if there was a Sinn Fein presence, something which was neither viable nor logical as SF political support grew. Eventually it was decided that there would be a protocol for attendance at such events, which included not sharing platforms, not shaking hands and not being in photographs. There was often quick thinking required, however, as to how to deal with republicans, since protocols cannot cover every eventuality.

However, the real issue of conscience should not rest with the Orange Order, or with others who have issues with Sinn Fein.

There are probably people within Sinn Fein who are genuine in wanting to move forward in our society. But there is a major issue which cannot be ignored. It is the issue of the IRA campaign of terror and murder. Sinn Fein was once described as being inextricably linked to the IRA, which is why the Orange Order makes such an issue of Sinn Fein showing remorse over the murder of Orangemen.

This appears unlikely to happen since the republican position appears to be that the IRA have expressed regret for all deaths, which would include the Orange Order, most of whose murdered members were members of the security forces.

But for the Orange Order unless there is a specific apology there will be no desire to meet with republicans. For the Orange Order there would be no gain in meeting, given the very considerable pain which would undoubtedly occur.

Sinn Fein probably know very well that if the Orange Order leadership could be persuaded in some way to meet them, it would result in serious division within the organisation.

But there is also the wider issue of how we move forward as a society if we cannot both express genuine remorse and also accept sincere expressions of regret.

There were a few Orangemen who were involved in terrorism, another fact which cannot be avoided.

But the loyalist paramilitaries to which a very few of them owed allegiance did express regret when they called a ceasefire in 1994. Gusty Spence, reading a statement to the media, said “In all sincerity, we offer to the loved ones of all innocent victims over the past twenty years, abject and true remorse. No words of ours will compensate for the intolerable suffering they have undergone during the conflict.”

I suppose it comes down to the definition of the word innocent, something over which there will be little agreement in Northern Ireland.

When I was Director of Services of the Grand Orange Lodge, I was once participating at an event which drew a wide range of ‘cultural’ bodies and organisations to a workshop organised by the Community Relations Council. Afterwards I was approached by an intermediary and asked if I would continue a conversation with an individual who had been at the table and was a republican ex-prisoner. This man had actually been making some reasonable points in the discussions.

I sought guidance from senior Orange officials and also researched the individual, who had served a prison term for murder. I went back with the message that if he could express regret that the victims had been murdered (he continued to plead innocence and claim fabricated evidence, so it was not asking him to change that stance but merely to express his personal regret at the murders).

When the response to that question came back, it was surprising to me personally: he would not express that regret.

This is where there is a real problem, which impacts on us all.

While some Sinn Fein representatives have made great efforts to be even handed – Mitchel McLaughlin as Speaker of the NI Parliament is one notable example, becoming head of the parliamentary Commonwealth Association at Stormont, attending First World War events and hosting the first-ever Burns Night at Stormont – others seem wedded to an older and darker outlook.

If Sinn Fein and republicans really want to respect the Orange Order and begin an engagement with the Orange tradition, then remorse for the largest institutionalised loss of the Troubles by any civilian organisation is going to have to be considered.

And on the Orange side, the Order – which is at pains to describe itself as a Christian organisation – should be having its numerous chaplains discuss the issue of remorse and also take guidance from the mainstream churches as to how this matter should be approached in the context of Sinn Fein.

It is an issue which affects many people. And it is an issue which is going with us into the future and cannot be ignored.


Is your community storming along?



The colour and pageantry of the Broadisland Gathering in Ballycarry, County Antrim


OUR community group has just published an account of how a sleepy County Antrim village got to be transformed into one of the best-known Ulster Scots communities.

The Broadisland Gathering festival is the longest-established Ulster Scots festival in Northern Ireland.

It was first held in 1993 and has been held each September ever since.

Prior to the Gathering the largest event in Ballycarry was the annual Church of Ireland fete in the Redhall estate. The fete had stalls, horse and cart rides, teas, tours of the historic Redhall House and lots of other activities.

But while it may have drawn the crowds from the village, the fete could not compare with the Broadisland Gathering in terms of numbers who attend, and the fact that many of them are from outside the area. Some not inconsiderable number, in fact, have not been from Northern Ireland at all, with visitors from Scotland, Germany, Spain, England, the Republic of Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Brazil and Israel among those who have enjoyed this unique Ulster Scots offering.


Signs of the times…members of the organising committee in a bygone year.

As a co-founder of the festival, I am always mindful of how it has developed from the germ of an idea to the day when the PSNI estimated there had been 5,000 visitors to our wee village of 900 folk.

For Ballycarry, the Gathering has put us on the map, created a strong sense of village pride, including through difficult times in our community, brought an economic boost to local businesses including the B&Bs and the local public house, and provided a great event of music, dance, enjoyment and pageantry.

The Gathering, which is non-profit making, has struggled at times because of reductions in grant funding and donations, but it has always taken place.

The purpose of the booklet is to set to print the history of this important event in the history of the community and also to help other communities and groups understand the community development aspects of the event.

In 2012 a number of our group were fortunate to be selected to take part in the Community Leadership programme funded by the International Fund for Ireland and delivered by NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action). This was a very inspiring and encouraging programme and during it we looked at development models.

One model which resonated with the group was that of Bruce Tuckman, who proposed the Tuckman Model in 1965 which suggested that the phases which occur in the life cycle of a group or, in the case of an event such as the Broadisland Gathering, may be summarised as ‘forming-storming-norming and performing’.  Tuckman argues that all these phases are necessary to allow a group to grow, to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and to deliver results. This model has become the basis for subsequent models.

In the first phase of the process the group is formed and there is considerable activity and energy expended in developing events and activities in the second (storming) phase.

The second phase can also result in divisions over projects and personalities, however, and some groups never get beyond the storming phase.  A lot depends on the motivations of those who are in the group. In our group we had divisions, debates and disagreements, but ultimately the central motivation was the good of the community and that won through.

For those that do survive, the next phase sees the activity settle down into a ‘norming’ situation where people work much more comfortably together and team goals are determined and pursued. At the outer end of the cycle comes the performing stage, when the group members are well versed in how to work together and how best to achieve results.

In 1977 Tuckman and colleague Mary Ann Jensen added another level to the cycle, that of adjourning, when closure is brought to a project, or indeed a group.

DSCF8298 - Copy
Large crowds attend the Gathering each year, making it the biggest social event in the village calendar

In the context of the Broadisland Gathering we can see the model start in 1993 with the proposal to stage the event.  The local council was approached and the proposal was put to a council committee and agreed, which resulted in the release of £1500 grant aid to stage the first Gathering (nowadays another 0 at least has to be added to the average costs).

After the initial proposal was agreed and the committee established, there was a movement to a storming period when lots of ideas were suggested, some realistic, others not so much so.

This period also allowed the committee members to learn to work together. The festival entered a norming phase when the ideas and themes for the event had been agreed and the focus moved to delivery, while the performing stage sees the festival run much smoother than before. Each Gathering follows this same pattern, an interesting example of the practicalities and also the limitations perhaps of the Tuckman model in our case. The adjournment phase is easily defined and usually lasts from around November to January, when all reports and appraisals have to be completed by November and the new application processes start up in January for the group.

One aspect which has been apparent to the committee has been that a plateau was reached several years ago. This came about because the Gathering had been staged for many years and it was felt that the festival had become stale. The committee made effort to add different elements to the event, which included provision of marquees for entertainments and stalls, development of a discussion tent and adding other elements included the Piping Hot History Walk, which involved myself undertaking a guided tour of the rich history of the village while piper John Fittis played in between historical facts as participants walked along the street and around the Templecorran cemetery.

The uncertainty of funding has also been a major issue and it is something of an achievement that the festival has survived so long and the skirl of the pipes have not died away.

Not surprisingly, the organisers feel that they have a worthwhile product which can be marketed widely, and provides a genuine Ulster Scots ethos to an entertainment event. Following an extensive consultation in 2009, the committee continue in the knowledge that the local community values the Gathering and that other volunteers for the work are now coming forward. In 2010 new events being introduced to the Gathering were a sign of new membership and ideas.

The Festival Committee has remained keen to discuss with other agencies the promotion of the Gathering in the context of a weekend in Larne, or East Antrim.  The idea was floated to have an integrated strategy which would involve travel from the west coast of Scotland, accommodation in the nearby town, transport to the Gathering on the Saturday, perhaps a tour of the coastal route on the Sunday during the day, and return on the Sunday evening. It is not within the gift of the Festival to organise such a tour, and so the suggestion has been made to various bodies but with no success to date. Such a development would truly highlight the Ulster-Scots connection.

Having developed the Gathering as a unique product over the years, the organisers believe that it has much to offer the area and also to cultural tourism in Northern Ireland.  The Gathering has been used by the Ulster Scots Agency as an example of good practice, and in 2008, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, praised the Gathering as a good template when he visited the event. The then Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, also praised the event when he visited in 2010 as a festival which put across the culture of the Ulster Scots community in a way which could offend or threaten no one.

The aim of the Gathering remains to continue to celebrate culture and heritage in an entertaining and enjoyable way. As an event which has transformed the village of Ballycarry each September it has entered into the history of the area. What the future holds for the event no one can say, although it is clear that it has a place in the heart of the community and every effort will be made to continue it into the future.

As I write this blog, I am just returned from a committee meeting at which new ideas and proposals have been discussed for the 2016 Gathering. We had, it is fair to say, a stormin’ time, with ideas enough to be going on with as we approach the 24th Broadisland Gathering in ‘the heartland’ later this year…