A CENTENARY CELEBRATED 1605 LXXXVIII

A CENTENARY CELEBRATED

“Glorious Madness” The O’Rahilly called it. In military terms the Easter Rising was objectively doomed from the start. Even had the Volunteers risen throughout Ireland – which they didn’t – for how long could a semi-trained militia have held out against a determined professional army, superior in men and armaments?

A hundred years ago this month fifteen of the Rising’s leaders were executed soon after surrender ( The O’Rahilly died in the fighting). General Maxwell, the buffoon who organised the “field general” court martials, i.e. trials without defence, jury, qualified judges or public access, thought a short sharp shock was required.  183 civilians were put on trial, of whom ninety were sentenced to death. The executions were only stopped by the hasty intervention of  the British Prime Minister , Asquith,  after he arrived in Dublin on May 12. By then the damage had been done and the slow fuse of a sea-change in Irish public opinion, very much mixed beforehand, lit.

The Centenary of the Rising was celebrated (early) this Easter. The major commemorative events, including solemn ceremonies honouring the leaders and the others who fell, as well as the largest military parade ever staged in Dublin, were sober and dignified and with an evident sense of national pride. Events were well attended and blessed with good weather.

The Celebrations were more restrained  and  less gung-ho than in 1966, the last landmark anniversary. The country has moved on in so many ways in half a century  – and it shows. In 1966 Ireland was a different country, economically, socially, culturally and  in the national mind-set. Many survivors of 1916 were still around fifty years later. The last surviving 1916 Commander, De Valera, was Irish President, while  Taoiseach Sean Lemass had fought in the GPO aged 16. Memories of the  War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War were still fresh. The country was just emerging from a lengthy period of national stagnation in which the chief political obsessions were Partition and relations with Britain.

THAT Ireland also had been at peace since 1923, had avoided the Second World War – unthinkable without the national independence which had its gestation in the events of 1916 – and had no recent experience of what bloodshed and armed conflict entailed. Fifty years on Ireland has fresh and ghastly memories of a generation of violence in the North that claimed close to four thousand lives and injured many more, and has overwhelmingly embraced a peace that promises reconciliation. This has led to a more mature and realistic appraisal of 1916.

The Rising changed matters – utterly – setting in train a chain of events that led to an independent Irish state. It’s worth noting that the recent celebrations took place against a background of political wrangling here over how and by whom the next sovereign ( I emphasize sovereign) Irish government will be formed following February’s inconclusive general election.

Would that be the case had there been no Easter Rising? Would we be like Scotland today – or, indeed, Northern Ireland? And what else would/could  have happened in the interim? “ What –Ifs?”  are fascinating – for example, would Britain have faced down the Ulster Unionists had there been no Rising? – but ultimately just speculation. Whatever else one can say, as an end result of the process that began in 1916 we Irish are now masters of our own destiny and the issues with which we are seized, like health, housing, welfare and water, are First World Issues  which we brought about and on ourselves.

How different to that Easter a century ago and to the setting – a somewhat backwater city, impoverished,  riven by class and privilege and teeming with some of Europe’s worst slums. Politically the cauldron was simmering , with every week bringing a roll call of dead and injured from the charnel house of the Great War, where as many as one thousand Irishmen of every hue died in each month of the conflict. Gallipoli had been a few short months before. And indeed, in the week of the Rising, which saw a total of 485 fatalities,  532 Irishmen were slaughtered in three days in the Hulloch gas attacks  near Loos. There was crossover in death. Dublin Fusilier Private John Naylor died on April 29, the same day his  wife  Margaret was shot in Dublin crossing a bridge to buy bread for her children; she died two days later.

Until quite recently the Irish in the First World War were treated as invisible, official policy being to ignore or discount the huge numbers of Irish who had fought and died. The  recognition of the sacrifice of those many thousands has been one of the signal achievements of reconciliation of the last decades. The dead Irish of the War certainly informed the Centenary celebrations as never before, reflecting the  more thoughtful and inclusive approach of the present day.  There is greater appreciation of the circumstances of the Volunteer split in 1914, with the majority following Redmond to enlist in what nobody thought would be a lengthy carnage, in the expectation that Britain would deliver  Home Rule at war’s end, while the minority  set about organising a Rising.

Today’s more inclusive approach generated a focus on attendant aspects of the Rising heretofore somewhat overlooked.  Tom Clarke has now emerged from the shadows to vie with Pearse and Connolly as leaders. The 40 dead children of Easter Week – among the “collateral damage” of  the 260 civilian dead  ( 54% of the total casualties)  – received  much attention and were the subject of a best-selling book written by  popular Irish broadcaster Joe Duffy. So also the nature and scale of the civilian casualties and destruction of central Dublin during Easter Week.

The role of women has now been accorded appropriate recognition. Some  fought; others  nursed the wounded,  or cooked for and tended to the insurgents.  Some brave women acted as despatch couriers. After the surrender 77 women were among those imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. To the well acknowledged role of Countess Markievicz has been added, among others, Connolly’s political secretary Winifred Carney,  couriers Julia Grenan and Leslie Price, sniper Margaret Skinnider and Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who accompanied Pearse when he surrendered, and who was for long airbrushed out of the famous surrender  photo. Some thought was even given to the “other side,” i.e. British soldiers and RIC casualties, who have been included ( not without controversy)in a Remembrance Wall listing all the victims of 1916 and unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The motives and aims of those who fought varied. There was a general sense of idealism and patriotism and an undoubted hope that the Rising in Dublin would inspire a general revolt. This happened eventually – and decisively. Out of defeat came ultimate victory. In his superb “Easter 1916” Yeats asked of the Rising  “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith.” That England already HAD was the judgement of the Irish people. Not by granting Home Rule but rather by executing the 1916 Leaders, thus keeping faith with its long and bloody involvement in Ireland. As a nation today “we are where we are.” But we ARE a nation – thanks to the men and women of 1916.

19/04/16

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QUO VADIS HIBERNIA ? 1604 LXXXVII

QOU VADIS HIBERNIA ?

It WAS the Economy, Stupid – but the Micro and not the Macro. Ireland Inc. may be doing very nicely, thank you, our putative growth rate may be the highest in Europe and our circumstances dramatically better than five years ago, but very little of this cut ice with the Irish voters on February 27. Like its predecessor the Government was unceremoniously dumped, though this time without any obvious successor.

In fact its goose was cooked two years ago. The Local Election results in May 2014 mirrored almost exactly what happened last February, suggesting that three years was all the electorate needed to pass judgement. This after seeing off the Troika and and receiving concessions on interest rates payable on our debts and on the promissory notes early on. The perception in official circles may have been that the worst was over, but for the ordinary punter austerity was biting and the cuts causing outrage. I wrote at the time (“Mugged by Reality”) that the hiding the Government parties suffered rendered their chances of recovery slight – regardless of any new policy initiatives.

So it proved. We now have a stalemate with very few options. With the magic number eighty, the only viable majority government would be between Fine Gael (50) and Fianna Fail (44). There is historical baggage certainly, but, failing such a coalition, were all other attempts and permutations unsuccessful, including minority administrations by either, another election would beckon. Whether either party has the stomach for one so soon is unclear, but as I write there is little indication of the big two entering negotiations on a “Grand Coalition.”

Right now Fine Gael is seeking to negotiate some type of rainbow- style arrangement involving the minor parties (5 seats) and the 19 assorted independents. Sinn Fein (23) and the ten Leftists have painted themselves out of any coalition while Labour (down to 7 seats) is still shell-shocked. While there are Cabinet seats and Junior Ministries on offer the prospect of a stable administration emerging seems fanciful. Whatever about Independents being loath to precipitate another election, any divisive vote could bring the government down. The cautionary tale of the fall of the first Fitzgerald administration in 1982 when an independent withdrew vital support over a budget proposal to tax children’s shoes has not been forgotten . April promises to be particularly interesting .

The election post mortems have taken place. Much has been made – particularly on the Left ( 5.5% of the vote) and from Sinn Fein ( 13.8%) – of the fact that the two major parties for the first time saw their combined vote fall below 50% . Yet with less than one fifth of the votes cast going to these self-described parties of the Left – about what Labour polled in 2011 – and with many of the Independents rooted in the gene pools of the major Parties, rumours of their demise seem premature.

Fine Gael and Labour have both polled lower and Fianna Fail – long the dominant force in Irish politics – have bounced back appreciably since 2011. There is clearly considerable disenchantment currently with the traditional parties, but the big two have traditionally been coalitions across class and social divide and have also had the ability to absorb whatever small splinter groups to have emerged, while Labour has its own particular niche.

Cue the recent election. Fine Gael’s failings included political naivete, hubris, the wrong priorities, failure to empathize with public sensitivities, perceived indifference to issues such as homelessness and crime. There was general dissatisfaction with the health service, other legacy issues from the crash including the hangover from years of austerity and the palpable reality that most people – particularly the squeezed middle – are worse off now than eight years ago. To cap it all Fine Gael ran a woefully inept campaign – virtually the worst I can remember in half a century and equalled only by Fianna Fail’s 2011 fiasco.

For Labour, some or all of the above, plus guilt by association with Fine Gael. Its strongest card, that it preserved much of the core welfare payments intact, was undermined by clever, focussed and continued sniping from the left over broken election “promises.” Labour was never able to shrug off this charge even though the sniping was obviously politically motivated and so disingenuous in view of the country’s dire economic situation that only die hards on the anti –Labour left could parrot the “broken promises” line with a straight face. It had moreover oversold itself during the 2011 campaign with Gilmore’s fatuous “ Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way “ remark and was on the back foot virtually from the off on that account.

In many ways it was the Crash Election Part Two , and, as in 2011, the incumbents paid the price. It was never going to be easy governing after 2011, but the Coalition did have several factors going for it. It had been gifted office. It enjoyed an extended honeymoon period in which all the blame could be lumped conveniently on Fianna Fail and/or the Troika. Most of the heavy lifting in terms of savage budgets had been done by Fianna Fail. Even the Troika budgetary targets could be passed off as force majeure.

That left the small print. Adherence to the Troika programme and targets promised a rapid economic recovery, which is now well under way at the macro level. But it involved increased and new taxation and cuts in spending. The taxes weren’t popular – the Universal Social Charge and the property tax in particular – against a background of public disgruntlement over bailing out the banks and not burning-the- bondholders. But they were accepted, given the general public recognition of the need to bridge the gap between government income and expenditure. The spending cuts were more controversial and proved critical.

In effect the Troika suggested the figures but not the details, which were left to the government . It was an opportunity. Sensitivity and political acumen – “cop on” – were needed. Neither were forthcoming. The cuts, particularly in Health, were ham-fisted, indicating a government woefully out of touch. Many discretionary medical cards were challenged or discontinued while vital home help and carers programmes were among those cut back. The mantra that cuts should be universal (why?) rang hollow against the simultaneous protection of sacred cows like Old Age Pensions, and Child Benefit (pruned slightly, but not taxed or means tested). And elsewhere the government showed itself no better than its predecessor.

There was still a chance had the lessons of 2014 been absorbed. But the sole strategy adopted was to plough on, lecturing on the need for stability to sustain the recovery which not all felt, while tinkering with taxation and benefits, Meanwhile issues of public concern (homelessness, crime and sick people on hospital trolleys) were ignored. Irish Water capped it all, becoming a lightning rod for public discontent. Water charges were an austerity too far, the institution itself perceived as an overpriced, overmanned new quango. The charges issue could have been solved – and buried – with some tactical thinking and minor adjustments in revenue elsewhere. Instead it became one of the issues which buried the government. Bon Chance!

20/3/16