Wednesday 22 November 2017

Andrew Lynch: Remembering 1916 will have big impact on Election 2016

1916 Easter Rising anniversary
1916 Easter Rising anniversary

Let the games begin. After months of dithering, the Government has finally got its act together by announcing an extensive programme of events to mark the centenary of 1916.

Unfortunately, Enda Kenny’s desire for an all-inclusive occasion is probably doomed to failure – because Sinn Fein are planning their own commemorations that will be strongly focused on winning votes in Election 2016.

When the Taoiseach launched Ireland 2016 in Collins Barracks last Tuesday he was under severe pressure to come up with something good. Last November’s draft programme was an unmitigated disaster, leading to accusations that the Coalition regarded this whole issue as an irritating little distraction.

Relatives’ groups complained that nobody had consulted them properly. An accompanying video showed images of Queen Elizabeth and David Cameron but none of the 1916 rebels, causing the popular historian Diarmaid Ferriter to dismiss it as “embarrassing, unhistorical s***”.

The website was equally ridiculous – it had used Google Translate to create pages of pidgin Gaeilge.

To do the Government justice, they have clearly learned a lot from those early blunders. The centenary is kicking off with an impressive exhibition of 1916 archival material at the National Museum of Ireland, while there will also be public projects at sites including the GPO, Kilmainham Gaol and Patrick Pearse’s Cottage.

March 15 has been designated ‘Proclamation Day’ and a copy of that cherished document along with our national flag will be delivered to every school in the country.

On Easter Sunday 2016, scheduled events include a parade from Dublin Castle to Parnell Square and a State reception for relatives.

Monday will feature a televised celebration of Ireland through music and drama at several public locations.

The quality of the activities has yet to be tested – but for now, at least, nobody can complain about the quantity.

There is, however, one big danger. While the Government have wisely dropped plans to invite a British royal, their programme has a bland tone determined not to cause offence to our nearest neighbours.

This is where Sinn Fein sees a major opportunity – their commemoration promises to have “a nationalist narrative” and could make their opponents look like a bunch of west Brits by comparison.

Instead of woolly slogans about ‘re-imagining our future’, the Shinners are intent on explicitly celebrating Pearse’s idea of ‘blood sacrifice’.

They will re-enact Fenian funerals, hold vigils outside Kilmainham Gaol on the anniversaries of the 1916 leaders’ executions and hire an actor playing Pearse to read the Proclamation on O’Connell Street daily for 33 weeks.

The centrepiece of their programme is a Revolution 1916 exhibition at the Ambassador Theatre, which is likely to claim direct links between the Easter Rising and the Provisional IRA.

Needless to say, the message behind all this is not exactly subtle. Gerry Adams genuinely believes that if Pearse and Connolly were alive today, they would be standing alongside him on a Sinn Fein platform.

Conveniently for Adams, one other little event is due to take place in April 2016 – a general election in which he and Enda Kenny may be the two contenders for the Taoiseach’s office.

Turning 1916 into a political football might be in bad taste, but nobody should be one bit surprised.

The Rising has divided people from the moment Pearse stepped outside the GPO to announce it on Easter Monday, with some Dubliners cheering, others jeering and most passers-by just bewildered.

If the Government tries to make next year’s centenary a happy-clappy affair, treating Irish rebels and British soldiers as heroes alike, they could end up pleasing nobody – and leave themselves wide open to attack from their republican enemies.

William Butler Yeats famously wrote in his poem Easter 1916: “A terrible beauty is born.”

That terrible beauty is still alive today – and poised to create conflict once again on its 100th birthday.

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