Why John Bruton is totally right to question Easter 1916


The near hysterical reaction to former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) John Bruton's questioning of the necessity for the 1916 Rising is revealing in itself.

It has been so over the top, so apoplectic, that it brings to mind the old William Shakespeare line about someone who protests too much. Methinks that when someone gets that upset it's usually because they're hiding something.

What Bruton's critics are hiding, of course, is the niggling doubt that has always been at the heart of the approved history of the 1916 Rising.

Since the legislation for Home Rule in Ireland had already been passed two years earlier, what was the point? Was all the blood letting it set off, both then and in the years that followed, right down to The Troubles of the recent past, really worth it?

Even to raise that question is still unacceptable in some circles in Ireland. That explains the vitriol and derision that has been heaped on Bruton.

What he is suggesting is so unthinkable, so treacherous, so undermining of everything they believe in that his critics have lashed out against it.

Most of the enraged comment is coming from the Republican rearguard here -- Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, historians of a traditional Nationalist view, descendants of those who "fought for Ireland."

Bruton's questioning has even made many of his former colleagues in Fine Gael and Labor uneasy. It's much easier for them to echo the simplistic myths about 1916 as they prepare for the centenary celebrations that will be held here in two years and which they want to "own" as much as everyone else.

But Bruton has a point. And whether one agrees with him or not, what he is saying is worthy of discussion. One hundred years after the 1916 Rising we should be mature enough now to deal with the reality of what happened back then rather than myth.

Propagating the 1916 myth was, as many of you will remember from school, a key part of the business of building the nation. History teaching in Irish schools over the decades that followed depicted the 1916 leaders as saintly visionaries who knew what the Irish people wanted before they did themselves (which got over the inconvenient fact that their actions had no democratic mandate).

The fact is that in the early 1900s, after a century of peace, Ireland was very much embedded in the British Empire, something the vast majority of Irish people accepted and even approved of -- as seen in the ecstatic welcome the British royals got when they visited here.

Irish people valued the connection because of the economic opportunities and jobs it offered at all levels; many Irish were part of business and administration in other parts of the Empire around the world. Dublin was a major European city at the time, bigger and more important than Berlin, for example.

Around the same time there was also a growth in interest in Irish culture and the Irish language among some people, but these people were a relatively small, intellectual minority. There was also a much more general growing desire for more control of our own affairs, through Home Rule, which was passed by the Parliament at Westminster in 1914, but not implemented immediately because of the outbreak of the First World War.

Despite the complication of the Unionists in the North who opposed it, there was a widespread expectation that the postponed implementation of Home Rule would become a reality in some form in the years after the war. The legislation had been passed, after all.

It is this wider background that explains the astonishment, bewilderment and resentment of people in Dublin when the 1916 Rising happened. The Dubliners who jeered the revolutionaries were simply reflecting the general view that it was mad.

Some 200,000 Irish went to fight in the British Army in the First World War, "in defense of small nations," and with Home Rule to look forward to when it was all over.

But while they were away the 1916 Rising happened and everything changed because of the catastrophic way the British dealt with that, executing the leaders. As we all know, that led to a drastic shift in public opinion in Ireland, and the War of Independence and the Treaty followed giving us independence in the south (with a few imperial strings still attached).

The question Bruton has asked is whether this freedom might have been achieved without all the bloodshed? The honest answer is we don't know because we can't know how quickly Home Rule would have arrived.

Nor can we know how quickly Dominion status would have evolved. Or what the Unionists would have got up to.

It is certainly arguable, as Bruton has done, that although it might have taken a few decades longer we would have ended up in much the same situation as we are now, perhaps remaining part of the Commonwealth if that is what we decided.

There are those who now dismiss what was on offer under Home Rule as being of little value, like a glorified local council. That is simply not accurate, and it also does not allow for the likelihood that the situation would have evolved as it did elsewhere (Australia, Canada etc).