Up until now, the events of the 1916 Rising have been examined primarily from the Irish side, with very little analysis of the event from the British perspective.
For the British, the Rising was a “calamity,” the Irish Times reports. “The Rising precipitated the independence of one corner of the UK, led on to the partition of Ireland and the Troubles and emboldened British colonies elsewhere to seek their freedom, in turn hastening the end of the British empire.”
A new documentary entitled ‘The Enemy Files’, airing Monday in Ireland on RTÉ One, will tell the story of the Easter Rising from the British side.
The film is presented by former British cabinet minister turned broadcaster Michael Portillo.
Portillo, who was defense secretary during the Canary Wharf bombings of 1996 which ended the IRA ceasefire, graduated from Cambrige with a degree in history but says he is no expert on the Easter Rising.
According to the Irish Times, he was hired for the film to bring a British politician’s perspective of the time and to extricate the context from a “century’s worth of debris that has accumulated on top of this issue.”
The title of the documentary comes from the “enemy files” which are the British cabinet papers, intelligence dispatches. diaries and memoirs from British soldiers from the period.
The Rising was the result of a monumental failure of intelligence on the part of the British secret service.
The British had intercepted telegrams between the German embassy in the US and Berlin stating that a Rising would happen on Easter weekend 1916. But despite this intelligence, nothing was done.
Major buildings in Dublin were left nearly undefended and Chief secretary Augustine Birrell and commander-in- chief in Ireland Sir Lovick Friend remained in London on the date in question.
Portillo believes that Birrell had become complacent.
“He has been in the job for eight years and I think he has a genuine affection for Ireland and a genuine understanding of Ireland.
“This leads him to believe that the Irish are not going to rise up,” Portillo says.
“He is so firm in that belief that it overcomes all evidence to the contrary.
“He simply dismisses it because it doesn’t fit with his view which is derived from his intuition about the Irish people.”
However, there were no easy solutions for the British once the rebels decided the rise up. If the British has round up all potential rebel leaders, this would have only led to another dilemma as Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers, had issued a warning that any attempt to clamp down on them would lead to military action.
Says Portillo: “I would have made the same mistake or I would have made a different mistake. But probably all the options would have been a mistake.”
Portillo also examines the actions of British prime minister Herbert Asquith who basically washed his hands of the whole affair and let Gen John Maxwell handle it.
He says that by 1916, Asquith was worn down by the burdens of office and lacked the firmness of purpose needed to deal with the aftermath.
“Asquith never settles on any policy at all. It is not that he orders the executions, but it is that he doesn’t stop them. He never gets his mind around the idea that there is any political price to be paid.”
He believes that in the context of the time, because the rebels had killed 115 British soldiers and had dealings with Germany, Britain’s enemy, the executions of the 16 leaders could be justified. However, the situation demanded a political response at the time which was largely absent.
Portillo believes that the reference in the Proclamation to “our gallant allies in Europe,” meaning Germany, was added by Patrick Pearse to provoke the British.
“How do you expect the British not to shoot people who refer to the gallant allies? It is not central to declaring independence for Ireland.
“The whole thing makes sense without having to mention Germany at all. If you pursue this theory that Patrick Pearse wanted martyrdom, then you know this is all part of it.”
Portillo compares the 1916 Rising to a “farce on a state” where nothing goes right, yet it turned out to be a significant moment in history.
“It is difficult to predict what are the things that are going to change the fate of nations,” he says.