Monthly Archives: March 2016

State 1916 Commemoration: insulting the living and the dead

The hugely successful 19th century Irish theatrical impresario Dion Boucicault once said, “What the audience wants is spectacle, and by God I will give them that”.

That same thinking seems to have formed the basis of the state’s supposed commemoration of the 1916 Revolution.

“Let them have spectacle” is the new “Let them eat cake”. By God, spectacle is what they got, those who could see the giant screens, excluded as they were from the theatre that was O’Connell Street and the GPO. The barriers preventing them from being close to the action might well have borne signs stating “No riff-raff”, since that was what was intended.

O’Connell Street and the GPO were to be the exclusive preserve of the Irish political class, the self-styled ‘elite’ – politicians, both former and current; judges and lawyers; senior state functionaries; corporate kings and bankers; other wealthy individuals; and of course the propaganda wing of state, the media. In an attempt to attach some credibility to proceedings, relatives of 1916 revolutionaries were allowed to apply as supplicants for tickets from some committee or other, or not – a position some of us chose to adopt.

In my case it is because it stretches credibility beyond its limits to have dictating the nature of the state commemoration a prime minister (‘acting’ since the recent election) who has attempted since coming to office in 2011 to submerge the commemoration of the seminal event in modern Irish history, the 1916 Revolution which led to independence and self-government, in a sea of other often minor-by-comparison commemorations, a decade of them no less. Imagine, the state’s launch video for the 1916-2016 commemoration did not have a single image of a 1916 leader but featured a singer (Bono) and a queen (English)!

But the acting prime minister’s party, Fine Gael, has previous form. It is the 1930s iteration of the counter-revolutionary party Cumann na nGaedheal, whose central mission was to obliterate, via the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and a brutal civil war, the Irish Republic fought for in 1916 and sustained up to 1921. It morphed into Fine Gael in 1933 when the remnants of Cumann na nGaedheal joined forces with the fascist Blueshirts. Fine Gael has never moved from that counter-revolutionary corporatist-fascist ideology. During its kleptocratic five-year term since 2011 it forced the most swingeing austerity, often on the most economically vulnerable in society, while transferring huge amounts of wealth to the already wealthy.

In stark contrast, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic promised universal suffrage, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all citizens, to pursue prosperity and happiness for all, in a resolutely anti-sectarian, sovereign republic, owned by the people. Those ideas and ideals are anathema to Fine Gael values, and to those of its equally right-wing alternative, Fianna Fáil, as history shows.

And so to the commemoration (even if we can only see it on a screen).

In the first place, this ‘centenary commemoration’ was a month early. Instead of holding it on the actual anniversary, 24th April, the government chose to stick with tradition and hold it on Easter Sunday, thus tying it to a Christian religious feast. The revolution actually began on Easter Monday, not Sunday, 1916, but hey, let’s not be pedantic about that. Its association with Easter down through the years has been a handy way of associating the Catholic church with the revolution that that church opposed tooth and nail.

Being monarchic in its structures and practices, the Catholic church has always been antagonistic to Enlightenment secular republicanism and to the concept of the egalitarian and democratic republic.

That is why the counter-revolution played into the church’s hands, allowing for the creation of a state that combined Catholic theocracy with plutocracy and oligarchy, the so-called Free State. By creating a false official history, propagated in Catholic schools, the republican basis of the 1916 Revolution was extinguished in favour of one that presented it as having been a Catholic nationalist rising, not a progressive revolution.

That must have made it easy for the one clergyman called on to read the prayer during yesterday’s event. The Irish Defence Forces’ Head Chaplain is, of course, a Catholic priest. He delivered a heavily politicised prayer which very inappropriately at an event marking 1916 slyly referenced the Troubles. We can take that to mean the recent Troubles. Besides that, it was as if all present in O’Connell Street and beyond the barriers in Riff-Raff Street were Catholics, rather than people of all religions and none.

But worse than that, the absence of even an ecumenical prayer instead lumped all of the dead revolutionaries in together, as if Protestants, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, etc., had not formed part of the revolutionary forces along with Catholics, which of course they did. What of it that the inspiration for 1916 came directly from the United Irishmen of the 1790s, all initially of the Protestant faith, or that the 1914 gunrunning into Howth and Kilcoole was almost entirely a Protestant enterprise from start to finish? A Catholic prayer will be good enough for them, and they should count themselves lucky.

What does that say, in this centenary year, to the Protestants of Ireland, north of the border as well as south of it? We know that the Irish Republic of 1916 was proclaimed as a 32-county Republic belonging to all of the people. And we know that if the border is to be obliterated that we must negotiate with northern Protestants, not all of whom are unionists, as well as northern Catholics, not all of whom are republicans or Irish nationalists. But this state refuses to honour Protestant patriots of 1916 in an appropriate way – by acknowledging their existence or their immense contribution. That reveals the ingrained partitionist mindset that delights in a Catholic state on one side of the border and a Protestant state on the other. But this is the 21st century, time moves on, attitudes change, what seems fixed in stone shifts. That, though, doesn’t apply to Fine Gael, and only to a slight degree with Fianna Fáil.

The Proclamation was read. Yes, it was uncensored. Those passages which address issues that have real relevance to the plight of so many of our people today – sovereignty, equal rights and opportunities, happiness, prosperity, control of national resources – were read in full, without the slightest evidence of even a solitary embarrassed blush among the serried ranks of the political class. Perhaps they have inbuilt auditory filters, or perhaps sociopathy is part of their make-up.

Of course the acting prime minister couldn’t resist one more stab in the back for the revolutionaries of 1916. Rather than allow the customary wreath to be laid at the GPO in their honour he had to continue with one of Fine Gael’s much-contested methods of diminishing the men and women of 1916, something that smacks by now of extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In directing the president, Michael D Higgins, to lay the wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland, the acting prime minister added ‘for all of the dead of 1916’, thus including the British forces who were sent to suppress the revolution by all means including murder of civilians and the levelling of the heart of one of the great cities of Europe using artillery.

By that action, the acting prime minister destroyed the notion that this was a commemoration directed at the men and women of 1916, and rendered it into nothing more than a very expensive fraud, a sham, a charade. No other prime minister in the history of independent Ireland has plumbed those depths, has offered such a gratuitous insult to the men and women of 1916 or to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who had assembled in Dublin to honour those men and women. The acting prime minister should be driven from office for that one act.

As for the defence forces, they were great. Most of us admire the role they usually play in the world as peace-keepers, less so the drift in the direction of active involvement with NATO and with US invasions of people with whom we Irish have no argument but have much empathy for their suffering. The same applies to the units from various first-responders too. No criticism is intended of any of them.

No, this is about the failings of the political class, and the failure of the government led by Fine Gael to demonstrate any respect for the revolutionaries or the cause of independence and a proper, modern, enlightened republic that they put their lives on the line to achieve for our benefit and not theirs.

And this is about the insults the government and the political class including the media offered in the run-up to and on what purported to be a 1916 centenary commemoration, to both the living and the dead.

What the audience didn’t need was the sight of the political class making a spectacle of itself. But perhaps we did need to see that, in its ugly naked elitism.

Couldn’t happen in a true republic. So let’s create one. That is the best honour we could pay those men and women of 1916. And it is the best thing we could do for ourselves and the generations still to come.

 

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Moore Street reprieved, but let’s revisit the Carlton site

The relatives of 1916 leaders and supporters won a significant battle on March 18th in the High Court to save Moore Street and the 1916 GPO Battlefield Site when Judge Max Barrett ruled that the National Monument covered far more of the Moore Street terrace and the adjoining lanes and buildings than the four buildings designated as such by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

That was a great victory, but it needs to be consolidated. The path is open for the Minister to appeal that judgement to the Supreme Court. Given that a very rational and fine judgement on the Lissadell right-of-way case by High Court Judge Bryan McMahon was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Susan Denham who had a previous professional relationship with Lissadell owner Constance Cassidy but failed to recuse herself, it would be a mistake to place too much faith in that court particularly when it comes to property rights versus the public good.

And so, the campaign to save Moore Street and the Battlefield Site will need to continue. But it also needs to be expanded to imagine a very different use for the entire Carlton site on which the developer wants to put yet another shopping mall, as if we didn’t already have a surplus of those, and as if that was the most appropriate use of such an important site.

The Carlton site has stood derelict since 1999, a 17-year blot on the capitol’s premier street which has no doubt led to the degradation of most of the northern end of both sides of that street. It includes the Art Deco fascade of the Carlton Cinema. Fifteen years ago the idea was mooted that the Abbey Theatre should be relocated to the Carlton Cinema but was rejected. That proposal needs to be revisited. What better way to revitalise that part of O’Connell Street than to have the Abbey with a newly built theatre and that existing Art Deco street frontage. There is space enough to accommodate a new Peacock Theatre and all of the facilities that the National Theatre should have.

But there is more space on the entire site to accommodate other imaginative uses, ones that would tie in with a properly preserved and rehabilitated 1916 Revolution Quarter on Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield site which would no doubt draw large numbers of both tourists and those who live here, and that would also fit with the relocated National Theatre.

Why not a national dance centre encompassing not only traditional dance but also contemporary forms and even classical ballet which has never been properly encouraged here? Why not a national music centre, again not limited solely to traditional forms but including explorations into its effect on music in places the Irish emigrated to, and into fusions within world music? Why not  a Gaelic language centre that might also explore the effect of that native language on the English we speak and write today, Hiberno-English, a unique form of English that writers have used to produce so much work of literary merit over the past century? Why not a poets’ corner, a space for poets to meet and commune with one another, and to perform or read for the public?

Once we stop thinking of that site as a commercial site but one which would be used for the public good – for education, inquiry, leisure and pleasure, and exploration of national heritage and culture – then the possibilities are many.

If we were to really open our imaginations, and to think of Ireland’s place in the world today and into the future, then other possible uses for some of that site’s space open up to us.

Given our history of involvement with Enlightenment republicanism since the eighteenth century, why not a global centre for the study and promotion of the democratic republic as the ideal model of governance? That would tie into the GPO and the Battlefield Site. But then we would have to construct such a republic for ourselves first. We could do that if we had the will. We certainly have the template and will this year commemorate those who passed it on to us. It is up to us.

One more idea, and it too stems from a failure on our part, in this case our supposed neutrality. But it also stems from recent history and the negotiations to find some way to end conflict on this island and to find an accommodation between two communities, unionist and nationalist, and two States, Irish and British, whatever the imperfections in that project that some may point to.

We have never properly defined our neutrality, and that has allowed recent governments to facilitate the US through their use of Shannon Airport in waging wars on peoples with whom we Irish have no argument. But we do have a reputation around the world, particularly among non-aligned nations – most of them former colonies as we are, a reputation built not only on our defence force’s record as peace-keepers in many conflict zones and on our usually principled record at the UN but also our perceived position as anti-imperialist and opposed to colonialism.

We need to properly define our neutrality in the place that matters – a new constitution fit for a republic. We need to enhance that by committing to the pursuit of peaceful resolution of conflict, also in the constitution. Having done that, we might then set up a centre for that purpose, and locate it on that important site in O’Connell Street. Apart from the good that we could do in building peace, and we certainly have people with experience in conflict resolution and facilitation available, we would establish our own position as refusing co-option into war but being in active in the pursuit of peace, our best guarantee of sustainable national independence in a conflict-ridden world in which those services are badly needed.

Others may have different ideas of the uses that the Carlton site could be used for, but the important consideration is the turning of a commercial site into a civic site on our main thoroughfare and putting that civic space to work for the public good.

Re-imagining the Carlton site in this way, and presenting the arguments for so doing, and campaigning in favour of that approach, would provide the campaign to save Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield Site with an important defensive mechanism – that it is not just the historic quarter that should be saved for the public good, but the entire site for the same reason. The entire project needs to be revisited not just by planning authorities but by government, and possibly by the EU.

That could buy much-needed time in the event that the High Court decision is overturned or materially altered in a way that would compromise Moore Street and the GPO Battlefield Site.

But given the importance of developing the Carlton site in the best way for the city and for the people, we should consider that approach anyway, and let commercial development take place elsewhere.

 

 


Call for fixed-term government must be resisted

Following the change in the parliamentary landscape as a result of the general election results various suggestions have been thrown about by bewildered members of the political class – political parties, journalists, commentators, academics and so on – who seem unable to understand why their template for parliamentary stability and the preservation of their status-quo was not followed by the electorate.

Rather than face up to the shift in public opinion away from government by one monolithic party or the other, it is the system that is at fault, they say. Something has broken in the system and in order to get back to the old stability it is necessary to tinker with the system. That is in part where this talk of ‘reform’ comes from, although there are other good reasons to talk about reform of a parliamentary system that is anything but democratic, and in too many ways is dysfunctional.

The most worrying suggestion so far is that we need to move to a fixed-term election system – that governments should be able look to a full five year term other than in extraordinary circumstances such as, perhaps, a successful no-confidence motion although these have been exceedingly rare in the history of this State.

Any talk of fixed-term government must be scotched.

If this is a republic, and the evidence including the absence of a constitutional definition of Ireland as a republic does not support that claim, then power ultimately rests with the citizens. But the political class immediately tempers that with the claim that it is a representative democracy and that once the citizens have done their electoral duty and selected a set of TDs for each constituency power no longer resides with the citizens but with their representatives, the elected TDs. In other words, other than in the minute pressure that individual citizens may apply to a particular TD or set of TDs, the citizens are redundant to the exercise of power between elections.

That doesn’t sit well with Cicero’s assertion over two thousand years ago that the republic is owned by the people. Nether does it sit well with the assertion in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the centenary of which we commemorate this year, which states “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”.

One of the authors of the Proclamation was Patrick Pearse. In one of his most important political writings, The Sovereign People, written in 1916, Pearse had this to say “And I come back again to this: that the people are the nation; the whole people, all its men and women; and that laws made or acts done by anybody purporting to represent the people but not really authorised by the people, either expressly or impliedly, to represent them and to act for them do not bind the people; are a usurpation, an impertinence, a nullity”.

That is the nub of the argument against fixed-term government. It should go without saying, based on our experience, that most pre-election manifestos contain as much fiction as fact, and perhaps more of the former than of the latter. And we know from experience that much of what is included in policies legislated on by any government during its term emanate from sources outside government, including, as we also know, from EU institutions and from corporate lobbyists, and others. There is no shortage of evidence of this during the terms in office of the past two administrations, one Fianna Fáil led, the other Fine Gael led.

In a republic, if it is indeed a republic, the people must have the power to force a government from office when that government offends against the democratic wishes of a majority of citizens. Whether the people choose to exercise that power, and how, are separate issues, but that threat must exist in a democratic republic. It is the most solid bulwark against tyrannical rule. The notion of fixed-term government weakens that bulwark.

Far from trying to consolidate power in the hands of the political class, we should, if we really want to live in a republic, find ways to assert our position as the ‘sovereign’. We should have available to us the power to recall TDs who transgress against their mandate, and we should also have the power to bring down government when that is necessary, perhaps through petition or plebiscite, or through mass mobilisation of citizens. It can be done.

Democracy is that important. We should never hand it over to the political class for safe-keeping. Their interests are not our interests. We should have learned that by now.

We must resist the notion of fixed-term government. The Left must take the lead in that battle for more democratic control, not less.

 


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