Martin Kettle: Ireland's Bertie Ahern Making A Mistake In Planning For 1916 Anniversary

Roundup: Talking About History

Steaming towards Guy Fawkes's 400th, with Trafalgar's 200th in our wake, there is little purpose in regretting humankind's preoccupation with anniversaries. To do so is almost as pointless as to regret the existence of humankind itself. But it is surely not pointless to hope that both humankind and its anniversaries can be set to more constructive than destructive purposes.

This is specially true of anniversaries at the heart of a nation's foundation myths. There was a striking example of that this week in Ireland. Last Friday, speaking at his Fianna Fail annual conference in Killarney, prime minister Bertie Ahern electrified party supporters with a surprise announcement. From next year, he told them, the Irish army would resume its long discontinued Easter military parade down O'Connell Street, past the Dublin GPO building, focal point of the 1916 rising that led to the existence of the Irish republic itself. And not just that. Eleven years ahead of the event, the taoiseach announced that he is setting up a governmental 1916 centenary committee to prepare for the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

It may be tempting to regard all this as both obscure and premature, even by the standards of modern anniversary-mania. But Ireland is a country where history matters - and whose history inescapably involves Britain too. And there are few events more potent than those of 1916. So a dismissive response misses both the immediate political significance of Ahern's announcement and its wider echoing cultural implications.

For the Irish premier's move is largely about his party's determination to reclaim the history, traditions and symbols of republicanism from Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. As Ahern himself put it: "The Irish people need to reclaim the spirit of 1916, which is not the property of those who have abused and debased the title of republicanism." The revived Easter military parade, he went on, would assert that the Irish defence forces are "the only legitimate army of the Irish people, the true successors of the volunteers (of 1916)".

There is a very immediate reason why Ahern is doing all this. For years, Sinn Fein has been systematically appropriat ing the militant milestones of an Irish state whose legitimacy it has never recognised. This year it claimed ownership of the centenary of the original - and unrecognisably different - Sinn Fein movement of Arthur Griffith. Next year it aims to annex the 90th anniversary of the socialist James Connolly and to serve it up in a heady cocktail mixed with the 25th anniversary of the IRA hunger strikes. But the biggest target of all is control of the centenary of 1916 itself. To allow Sinn Fein to colonise the events of Easter 2016 as its own would be an existential challenge to the very republic itself. Given the characteristically relentless way in which Sinn Fein already has that goal in its sights, Ahern had no alternative but to act.

Inevitably, Ahern has less elevated motives too. Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party in the north and is slowly also becoming a significant minority player in the south, where support for Fianna Fail is languishing. In that context, Ahern's announcement is about pushing Sinn Fein back to the margins by calling its bluff over its claims to be the authentic voice of 1916. After all, Sinn Fein still does not recognise the state or its armed forces as the legitimate political and military institutions of the Irish republic proclaimed in 1916.

But Ahern and Fianna Fail - and even Ireland itself - pay a price for again embracing the legacy of 1916. That legacy is not just the sentimental heroic nationalist myth so intoxicating to the Irish diaspora. It is also the legacy of a state born in martyrdom and violence, created around the romance of the deed, whose origins are steeped in the pseudoreligious cult of the transformative blood sacrifice and purging authenticity of the acts of a committed minority that al-Qaida or Hamas could recognise. Sinn Fein is not the only Irish party that roots its conscience in this violent past. So, to some degree, do most of the republic's main parties, and certainly Fianna Fail - formed to fight the 1921 treaty - whose name means "soldiers of destiny". This is one reason why Irish politics remain exceptional in Europe.

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