The sense that Irish society would struggle to contain a decade of centenaries marking significant events that occurred between 1912 and 1923 including the suffrage movement, the 1913 Lockout, the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish war of independence, the Irish civil war and the foundation of the Irish Free State, was appeased somewhat by the successful commemorations that took place throughout 2016.
The term 1916 is shorthand for rebellion, resistance, revolution, yet as a nation we have struggled to contextualise impending centenaries as neatly. Historians and others have repeatedly warned that conversations surrounding the war of independence and the civil war in particular will untangle narratives that we have yet to face ourselves.
The complexities of commemorating, well, complexities, was exposed last week when the Irish government defended, and then deferred, a commemoration of pre-independence police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan police (DMP). The makeup of the RIC was bolstered by British recruits, particularly the Black and Tans, known for their brutality, and the Auxiliaries, a paramilitary unit made up of former British army officers. To say these entities are much maligned in Ireland would be putting it mildly.
All of this is occurring in a shifting environment of Irish nationalism and patriotism, tied to the decade of centenaries itself, a parallel social revolution in women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, the invisible but real border dividing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland becoming central to European politics, and how Brexit has energised the prospect of a united Ireland.
This period of centenaries is discussed in broad, tonal terms: it’s complicated and dark. Participation in their commemoration comes with appeals for maturity, tolerance, respect and inclusion. But we’ve talked less about the actual details of that past. In 2016, the reframing of the events of the Easter Rising as the aspirations of an egalitarian society, including a reinvigorated feminist subtext, may have offered something of a false epiphany.
As various politicians spoke out against the RIC/DMP commemoration and some indicated they would boycott such events, the government scrambled to clarify. Its defence was that people were missing a nuanced point. “The RIC/DMP commemoration is not a celebration,” the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, tweeted before the event was called off. “It’s about remembering our history, not condoning what happened. We will also remember the terrible burning of Cork, Balbriggan, partition and the atrocities of the Civil War. We should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.” Naturally, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Varadkar has a tendency to enflame the reaction to controversies of his government’s own making by scolding even reasonable detractors. His subsequent assessment of the controversy as a setback for Irish unity appears to place the blame on the controversy that resulted from the mishandling of the event, rather than the mishandling itself. It was obvious that attempting to commemorate entities containing groups that remain despised in Ireland, such as the Black and Tans, was always going to require a degree of nuance and invention that the proposed event in Dublin Castle was never going to provide.
One of Varadkar’s favourite targets, Sinn Féin, was also gifted an open goal. “It is those who resisted British rule in Ireland during the Tan War and citizens that suffered at the hands of the those that maintained British rule who the state should be commemorating,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stated, “not the RIC or the Black and Tans.”
Until Brexit, the aspiration of a united Ireland was viewed in the Republic as unrealistic and even romantic. Despite positioning themselves as supporters of such a prospect, the Republic’s main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, now have to balance their derision of Sinn Féin with their own enthusiasm for Sinn Féin’s main policy. Previously, the unspoken aspect of deriding Sinn Féin was that a united Ireland was the ultimate fantasy.
Now that the prospect of Irish unity has exited the dream-space, snapped into reality by how Brexit will so irreparably damage Northern Ireland that even unionists might vote to become part of a new, hypothetical all-Ireland entity, Sinn Féin is primed to expose any cracks in its rivals’ republican credentials. These credentials were bolstered by Varadkar and his deputy, Simon Coveney’s, green-jersey-wearing throughout the Brexit debacle, but are perhaps a little flimsy when they wander into a situation of accidentally memorialising the Black and Tans. While Sinn Féin may not immediately manage to translate the ongoing rise in Irish nationalism – particularly among young people – into electoral success, the party is very much on the front foot with regards to renewed aspirations for a united Ireland, sentiment-wise.
There are many legacies of the horrors of colonialism in Ireland, but perhaps the most insidious of all is deference. Many Irish people simultaneously hold an anti-authoritarian streak alongside a tendency towards obedience. But there are moments, illustrated by last week’s events, where it’s clear that particular types of reconciliation need to be collectively agreed upon, and not via instruction or directive from on high.
The current period of centenaries was preceded by Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland in 2011, and by an Ireland-England Six Nations rugby match at Croke Park in 2007 when God Save the Queen was played for the first time at the Gaelic Athletic Association grounds, the site of a massacre by members of the RIC and the Auxiliaries in 1920 – another forthcoming centenary. Throughout these events, Irish people displayed what was needed: maturity and respect. But since 2016, we’ve had four years of dealing with ignorance and disregard towards Ireland, as English nationalism triumphed in the form of Brexit. This changes the atmosphere and makes deferential steps, such as commemorating the RIC, much more difficult to take. It’s one thing to negotiate a complex past, another thing entirely to do so during a complex present.
• Una Mullally is a columnist for the Irish Times