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Commemorating what? And why?

Padraig Yeates

My father joined the British army in January 1941 to escape unemployment in Dublin and see the world. They sent him to Omagh. On March 17th, 1941 he was deployed with his comrades on the streets of this little Tyrone town with a loaded rifle in his hands and the prospect, for the first time in his life, of having to shoot someone. He was acting in aid of the civil power, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to ensure that any attempt by the nationalist population to stage a St Patrick’s Day Parade would be suppressed. At Easter he was deployed again. This time it was to ensure there was no attempt to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, which was of course being celebrated simultaneously by the national army on the streets of Dublin a little over a hundred miles down the road. I cite this bit of family history to show that commemoration can mean different things to different people and can even mean different things to the same people, depending on small but important details such as location and terms of employment.

I am old enough to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, which had a significant impact on me as a young member of the Republican movement. It was a year that saw a revival of interest in the writings of James Connolly. Their publication influenced not just a younger generation of republicans, but trade unionists, Labour Party activists and people on the left generally. This renewed interest was not always welcome. Éamonn Mac Thomáis, a leading member of Sinn Féin at the time, hung a banner on the party’s headquarters at 30 Gardiner Place, Dublin, to remind younger members where their true allegiance lay. It bore the legend: “We Serve Neither Queen nor Kremlin”, invoking the memory of Connolly’s banner on Liberty Hall fifty years earlier that proclaimed “We serve Neither King nor Kaiser”. To be honest some of us were neutral on the side of the Kremlin in 1966, just as Connolly had been neutral on the side of the Kaiser in 1916. Whatever thoughts Éamonn hoped to inspire in those of us in danger of being seduced by communism he certainly inspired a café proprietor down the road to put up another banner announcing “We Serve Hot Soup”. We should never underestimate the power of the commercial imperative to override politically inspired good intentions, or indeed bad intentions.

Ironically it was the civil rights movement, which theoretically had no domestic political baggage whatsoever ‑ being inspired by the example of American civil rights campaigners ‑ which provided a culvert for ancient legacies to reinvigorate militant unionism and militant nationalism in Northern Ireland. In the process some hard bought-advances against sectarianism were lost; perhaps the most serious political casualty was the Northern Ireland Labour Party. We still do not fully understand the processes by which these half-forgotten and often inchoate traditions regenerate themselves with frightening rapidity when conditions are ripe, but we need to find out a lot more urgently than we need to address most other aspects of commemoration in the current decade of centenaries, especially if events in Eastern Europe are anything to go by.

There are of course other culprits. An unfortunate characteristic of British governments dealing with Irish problems has been a tendency to let things drift without ever quite letting go. The British army held the ring for almost thirty years; preventing balkanisation on the one hand and, on the other, facilitating mutual exhaustion until rival sectarian camps reconstituted themselves to reach a mutually acceptable political accommodation, albeit over three thousand deaths later. Which raises the question, who, outside its own ranks, will commemorate that army’s role in the recent Troubles? But that takes us to questions of amnesties and historical inquiry teams and “on-the-runs” ‑ whether you can commemorate anything at all when the dead, the maimed and the bereaved are still very much with us.

One of the few positive outcomes from this lethally long process has been the survival of the trade union movement as a coherent non-sectarian force in the North. Not that we should overrate this. I recently spoke with a group of loyalist and republican ex-prisoners about the 1913 Lockout. It was the loyalists who had the readiest appreciation of the issues involved because most of them had once been in unionised jobs, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the start of the Troubles. This collective experience was not shared by the republican prisoners, who all hailed from west of the Bann and had either never had a regular job or were never employed in a unionised workplace.

One thing both groups did share, besides an exposure to organised violence, was that almost all of them are now unemployed. A few had short-term contracts in community-based initiatives, which had inducted them, temporarily at least, into the peace process industry. Most are too old to revert to their previous ways but they are not too old to pass on those traditions to a younger generation should they so choose. And, unlike British army personnel, they have nowhere else to go home to.

I suspect that, like a lot of people of my age and background, at any given time I have two sets of commemorations in my head. One is personal and private: the other is public and utilitarian. I want to mention the first briefly because it affects my attitude towards some aspects of the second. I joined the Republican movement as a teenager and spent the best years of my life there. Between 1971 and 1982 nine people I knew well died violent deaths and another died on hunger strike. Others served prison sentences. Looking back, more in anger than in sorrow, I believe all of them suffered unnecessarily and all of them were victims of destructive mythologies that promoted public goals and private agendas that were often neither achievable nor desirable. (Can I add that I believe the same is true of militant loyalism, which appears to me to have even more atavistic roots than militant nationalism?) This is not to say that these men were blameless or had not themselves in some cases committed serious acts of violence.

I mention this private aspect of commemoration because that experience affects my attitude to many aspects of commemoration today, as I am sure it does a lot of other people; many of whom cannot speak with any degree of freedom about their past. In my case it has led to a particular aversion to the militarist elements of commemoration and the fascination some people, including academics, have with politically inspired violence.

It has also led me to think more about motivation and its importance in understanding the past, even though this is often the most difficult aspect to recapture. People do not always explain the reasons for their actions honestly, even to themselves; and yet without motivation we can have no meaningful explanations for what happened. The thought precedes the act. The quality of the thought processes is a different matter.

I think motivation has a profound effect on how people reflect on their past, especially those who have had bad experiences. Perpetrators of violence are no more immune from problems of alcoholism, marriage break-up, mental break down, suicide or homelessness than their victims; nor are their families. Sometimes a parent, a sibling, a daughter or a son can be worse affected by their acts than the perpetrator. For combatants who have had bad experiences almost the only positive they can draw from them is the belief that they did the right thing, according to their own lights, at the time. That can be crucial in how they deal with the fallout. For them the past is not an entertaining historical playground where they can exercise their curiosity, nor is it a potentially cathartic experience, as it may be for some victims. Often the best way of dealing with it is not to go there in the first place. Commemoration is not for everyone.

Ironically some of those most drawn to commemoration have very tangential links with the past events concerned. A recent article in The Irish Times (February 18th, 2014) reported that exiled Circassians in Turkey were using the Winter Olympics at Sochi to highlight the fact that the Russian government had never apologised for killing or deporting half a million of their people to Turkey in the 1860s. A paragraph in the article refers to sixty-four-year-old Rengin Yurdakul, who lives in Istanbul, telling the reporter how she was haunted by her ancestors’ forced deportation from present-day Sochi during the Russian-Caucasian war. “My parents and grandparents were born in Turkey. I don’t even speak the language of my ancestors but I feel a deep pain – I feel that I’m Circassian; it’s who I am”. I could have expressed similar feelings fifty years ago, but looking back I now realise that my alienation had a lot more to do with problems of teenage angst in Birmingham and the search for an identity than it had to do with anything that happened in Ireland in 1913, 1916, or any other year you care to mention.

People find all sorts of ways to escape their own problems and solving the problems of the world is a quite popular choice. Drugs and drink can sometimes be a less dangerous escape route than trying to retrieve a preconceived mythical past, especially if it is at the risk of colliding with people engaged on the same quest from the other side of the fence. Many such fugitives from the present are particularly ill-equipped to examine the past in a rational, let alone constructive way, which makes it all the more important for the wider community to do the job. I wonder if Rengin Yurdakul had been able to visit Sochi when she was young, as I was able to go to Dublin and Belfast, would she still feel the same way about her Circassian identity?

Getting back to the present, the public and the utilitarian: I suppose my main hope in 2013 was that the ways in which we commemorated the lockout would contribute to the successful conclusion of the 100 years’ war over union recognition in Ireland. I admit this was a triumph of hope over experience, but we should never undervalue hope.

So I came to this commemoration with three main objectives:
1. To raise awareness of the importance of collective bargaining as a civil right and as a mechanism for increasing working peoples’ share of the wealth they produce; thus promoting greater social equity in advanced capitalist economies.
2. Involving as many people as possible in the commemorative process, helping them to understand the past in a meaningful way on their own terms and
3. Challenging the dominant, nationalist-centred narrative of Irish history, which usually represents the 1913 Lockout as little more than a curtain-raiser for 1916. As already outlined, I did so partly for personal reasons but, more importantly, I did so because the nationalist narrative marginalises some profound issues central to the 1913 lockout that revolve around questions of class, gender, ideology ‑ secular and spiritual – and social justice.

Initially I was naive enough to think the lockout centenary could be used to embarrass the Irish Government into enacting legislation enshrining collective bargaining. After all it is in the Programme for Government, thanks to the Labour Party, and workers in most other EU states, including the United Kingdom, enjoy this right. However I have learned that it is a mistake to underestimate the power and tenacity of those opposed to giving workers any opportunity to improve their lot. These employers are particularly determined not to concede anything to the young, the low-paid, women, migrants, the temporary, the part-time, the atypical, in other words the most vulnerable members of the workforce. Opposition to including the lockout centenary in the St Patrick’s Day parade in March 2013 and the tenacity with which the Dublin City Centre Business Association tried to marginalise a state commemoration of Bloody Sunday in O’Connell Street last August were sharp reminders that commemoration is only welcome to some people if it generates income and not if it poses awkward questions.

IBEC and employers generally were silent, rather than overtly hostile, in the centenary year. This is understandable, if disappointing. In a state that does not recognise the right of workers to freedom of association in the workplace, to the complementary rights of representation and collective bargaining, why tempt providence by engaging in debate and drawing public attention to the issue? Better to let trade unions have their day out, declaim the injustices of the past, acclaim their fallen heroes and then let silence and amnesia do the rest. Let us hope they are wrong.

Apparently legislation will be presented to the Dáil in the current session to address problems regarding registered employment agreements, but the fact that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has decided (on February 6th, 2014) to lodge a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights about the lack of collective bargaining rights in Ireland suggests that many affiliates have given up on Coalition Government promises. That very act, sparked by Supreme Court judgements striking down the old architecture of registered employment agreements and employment rights orders, shows the past can catch up on us if we reject its lessons. From their behaviour to date we have to conclude that members of the Irish Supreme Court are not students of history, at least not where industrial relations are concerned, or of the long-term consequences of treating people in the workplace as mere commodities.

But there have been positive developments from the lockout centenary. One has been the 1913 Tapestry Project, which involved over two hundred and fifty people, of all ages and from all backgrounds in creating a unique work of art in a way encapsulating “people’s history”. Another has been the growth of local community-based history groups. Some of these were set up specifically to commemorate the lockout, such as the highly successful Dun Laoghaire Committee. In other places such as East Wall, Marino and Stoneybatter, already existing groups benefited immensely from the centenary because it had a resonance for working class communities exploring their own local heritage. Still others had unlikely origins, such as the Men’s Shed Movement in Loughlinstown. This popular history phenomenon is important because it facilitates new alliances within communities that bring trade union activists, public representatives, academics, artists, members of social agencies both statutory and voluntary, churches and local businesses together in search of a new sense of common identity. There is enormous potential in how such groups reimagine and reinterpret their past; especially as so many of the issues raised by the lockout are pertinent today. Of course there are also the dangers of reigniting destructive myths, as I’ve suggested above and, speaking of which, I think the time has come for yet another look at Irish militarism.

As I mentioned earlier I have a particular interest in challenging the predominant nationalist and loyalist narratives of the past, especially the implicit militarism that stalks so many of our centenaries, including the lockout. Traditional definitions of militarism emphasise its institutional character as something that exists primarily within the prevailing power structures of the state and among its elites. For example militarism is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as the “glorification of the ideals of a professional military class” and the “predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state”. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “Military attitudes or ideals; the attachment of undue importance to military values and military strength; the policy of maintaining a strong military capability”.

Such definitions allow Irish people to distance themselves from the phenomenon by characterising us as a peace-loving nation forced to fight a patriotic war against the militarist juggernaut of the British army and RIC, subsequently augmented by the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries and B Specials. This is not to deny the ethos of these organisations reflected the militarist values of important sections of the British establishment but, whatever we think of them, all were lawfully constituted by democratic governments and were, at least theoretically, answerable to them. By contrast the Irish Volunteers were only retrospectively placed under the authority of Dáil Éireann and, with the partial exception of the GHQ staff and Dublin Brigade of the IRA, were even less answerable in practical terms to their notional political masters than the enemy formations they confronted. Accepting that the IRA had legitimacy as a national army seeking to enforce the popular mandate of the 1918 general election from mid-1920 until early 1922, even this slender thread of democratic legitimacy was lost where the anti-Treaty forces were concerned once they decided to reject the outcome of the Treaty debate and the subsequent general election in the newly constituted Irish Free State. The volunteer oath of subsequent decades would recognise the army council of the IRA as the legitimate government of the Irish Republic. You cannot get much more militarist than that.

It can of course be argued that the formation of the national army by Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy also lacked democratic legitimacy and that elements of its officer corps owed their primary allegiance to the IRB. That army only became effectively answerable to the new Free State in 1924 when Mulcahy resigned from the Cabinet in the wake of the army mutiny and the primacy of the civilian executive was finally established. Whether this would have happened if Collins had lived we will never know but I believe that most of the evidence in the period leading up to his death suggests otherwise. So the threat of “militarism” lurked threateningly on both sides of the political divide in the early days of the Free State.

I think we need a simpler, broader definition of militarism if we are to have an honest debate about the role of group violence in Irish society. I would suggest militarism can be defined as “rule by any self-elected armed group over any community, or any attempt by such a group to impose its will, values and objectives on any community”. This definition applies equally to mediaeval warlords, modern paramilitaries and drug gangs. I am not equating these groups morally, but I am saying that militarism manifests itself most powerfully when armed groups assume leadership roles in communities that are usually under threat or in a process of disintegration. Whether we are talking about the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century, parts of West Belfast in the 1970s or parts of west Dublin today I believe we are dealing with the same fundamental phenomenon. We have far more experience of this type of militarism than we like to admit, yet we celebrate it ad infinitum once it is detached from the here and now and transplanted to the fairytale world of flying columns circa 1920.

Of course armies and soldiers do not necessarily equate with militarism any more than mass civilian activity necessarily equates with democracy. To return to family history, by an odd symmetry, the last time my father carried a loaded gun on the street was in Brussels in 1944, when the allied garrison was mobilised to prevent an angry mob, led by communists and socialists, from hanging the collaborationist government from the nearest lamp-posts. The Supreme Allied Command did not want the already grave logistical problems it faced in Belgium and northern France aggravated by the administrative chaos that would ensue from the liquidation of the Belgian government, however guilty some of its members might have been of war crimes.

Were the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers manifestations of militarism? By my definition yes, they were, although their origins, composition and objectives were different. The UVF was a top-down project that had a lot in common with the elitist projects covered by more traditional definitions of militarism, but it also invoked wider militarist values in order to defy a democratically elected government. The ICA was initially a bottom-up defensive response by workers to police brutality. It assumed more distinctly militarist characteristics under Connolly’s direction from 1914 onwards. In some respects the Irish Volunteers is a crossbred organisation in terms of its origins between the UVF and ICA, but it was essentially the creation of an elitist revolutionary conspiracy that operated in the Blanquist tradition from which Fenianism and Bolshevism drew inspiration. Like the UVF, the Irish Volunteers met the traditional definition of militarism briefly during the period when it was controlled by John Redmond and could be seen as an armed expression of the Home Rule elite in waiting; ready to assert their birthright against the rival claims of the loyalist elite and its paramilitary force.

After Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech in September 1914 the Irish Volunteers reverted to militarist type by asserting the primacy of the group, its values and its interests over wider society. I would further argue that the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Belfast pogroms and, of course the Civil War, all qualify as manifestations of militarism based on self-elected, activist minorities seeking to control and direct events on both sides of the sectarian divide. In some respects the “truce” of 1921-22 marked the high water mark of militarism on this island. By contrast, however unpalatable it might be, I do not believe we can regard the B-Specials as a manifestation of militarism, although initial personnel were drawn from the ranks of the old UVF, because they were answerable to a democratically elected government. The flaws in the B-Specials lie within the deeper tragedy of a flawed northern Irish state and its attitude towards a very large nationalist minority whose members were regarded as the enemy within, and treated accordingly. 

Another unpalatable aspect of this perspective on modern Irish history, for those with a blind spot where militarism is concerned, is that many of the most effective forms of democratic mass action during the decade of centenaries, such as the general strike against conscription in 1918, the motor permits dispute, the munitions strike and the brief flowering of the Munster soviets in the War of Independence were basically democratic in nature, were led by elements of the labour movement and succeeded with relatively little violence. The Dáil courts were another example of popular democracy in action. The anti-conscription campaign of 1918 was the most complete victory ever won by Irish nationalists against British rule ‑ and no one died. By contrast the general strike against militarism in 1922 failed because, by then, the public space was firmly occupied by armed organisations both self-elected and operating on behalf of the new Free State which, at that point as we have seen, had even shakier democratic credentials than the Second Dáil.

I think if these centenaries are worth reflecting on at all we have to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the places where we have come from and the societies we have created. Above all we have to ask if either the Free State, or Northern Ireland, were projects worth the effort, not to mention the blood shed to create them.

This is not to engage in the usual condemnation of early twentieth century militant nationalism or republicanism to which the thirty-year sectarian conflict in the North has given rise. It has been cogently argued by historians as conservative as Ronan Fanning in his recent book The Fatal Path and his review of Charles Townshend’s The Republic for the Dublin Review of Books that the British government would not have conceded anything beyond the 1914 Home Rule settlement without the Easter Rising and War of Independence. There were real gains made by militant nationalists in this period that significantly affected the development of Ireland in the twentieth century for good and for ill.

The question is who were the chief beneficiaries of the gains made by militant nationalists in 1921-22? The answer is of course members of the new political elite, who consolidated their position by reaching accommodations with the incumbent social and economic establishment. Their successors within the political establishment now want, very understandably, to bask in the reflected glory of their forbears. If there is one temptation we need to resist it is the desire to recreate the past in our own image. We particularly need to resist allowing current ruling elites to do so. It is only by turning the spotlight on those who failed to benefit from the new dispensation that we can identify and rectify at least some of the shortcomings of the Irish revolution. The commemoration of the lockout allowed us to do that, particularly by examining the plight of the working urban poor and the dynamics of class warfare.

For people such as my parents, born in the Dublin tenements in 1911 and 1912 I think the answer to the question whether the struggle for independence was worth it is a resounding No. My mother had to work from the age of eight after both her parents died as a result of the Spanish influenza pandemic. My father had any potential affinity for the new Free State beaten out of him by the Christian Brothers when he was sent to an industrial school for mitching. My parents voted with their feet, as did hundreds of thousands of others and, of all those marginalised by Irish society, none have been more marginalised than the people for whom there was no place on the island.

So, if you are standing as I am in a place where you feel a deep antipathy towards the status quo, what do you want to commemorate? More particularly what do you want to salvage from a past that is cluttered with a lot of historical irrelevancies and, worse still, expensive cul de sacs?

Choices about what we choose to remember are important. I believe that the 1798 centenary played a significant role in moulding the mentality of the generation that assumed leadership of the nationalist movement when the Home Rule project faltered. Likewise the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising fostered the revival of militant nationalism and loyalism in the 1960s. This is not to deny the crucial role that the civil rights movement and subsequent state repression played in the escalation of conflict from 1968 onwards.

My own hope is that the commemoration of the lockout will help foster the growing revival of interest in social solidarity values based on common interests rather than the reaffirmation of faith in failed shibboleths. But mythologies are hard to kill. There are still a lot of people who believe there was a general strike in 1913, just as there are those who believe the Dublin workers would have won if they had not been betrayed by the British TUC. Even more people, including professional historians, continue to ignore the important role played by the British government, albeit inadvertently and out of self-interest, in reviving the trade union movement during the First World War, despite the important lessons these events have for us today ‑ especially for those on the left.

The similarities between today and 1913 are obvious. We have seen the immiseration of hundreds of thousands in the past six years. We have seen social and economic inequality increase, unemployment soar, particularly for the young, and mass emigration return as an escape route for all but the elderly, the sick, the infirm and the unemployable. We are told all this misery is necessary to pay for the mistakes of wealthy elites which remain even more blissfully immune from the repercussions of their actions than in previous generations.

For all the obstacles they faced in 1913 leaders such as Larkin and Connolly enjoyed one great advantage over their putative successors today. They had a credible vision of the future called socialism. Some of its advocates were reformists, some were revolutionaries, but all believed socialism was morally and materially superior to capitalism. They also believed history was on their side.

That certainty no longer exists, but the examples of social solidarity provided by 1913 and the institutional architecture of the labour movement remain. What the left in Ireland needs today is to agree common objectives such as free health care, free education, free childcare, a unified sustainable occupational pension scheme and the clearance of the housing lists. Then work out a road map of how to get there.

The lockout centenary will not save the labour movement but it has provided an opportunity for it to reflect with some pride on its past and, more importantly, on the need for a new, coherent vision to replace Murphyism. By contrast, continued glorification of the Somme, or the GPO, is a self-indulgence we cannot afford.

I wish to thank Caitriona Crowe, and Katherine O’Donnell for reading earlier drafts of this paper: Caitriona for pointers on the War of Independence and Katherine for her comprehensive comments, particularly in the section on militarism.
24/04/2014

Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918 and A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921. - See more at: http://www.drb.ie/ESSAYS/breaking-the-union#sthash.NmMt3ZsI.dpuf

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