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As the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising approaches, the history wars in Ireland still rage

Will poking around in the embers of Irish history rekindle old flames?

The creeping barrage of First World War centenaries moves inexorably on. Gallipoli 2015 is now behind us. In 2016 the French will turn their sights on Verdun while the British target the Somme. In both cases the commemorations will tell us as much about the present as the past, exposing divergent national attitudes on either side of the Channel towards European reconciliation and integration. But the most present-centred anniversaries in 2016 will take place in Ireland. Here, history remains particularly raw.

The Easter Rising of 1916 has become the foundational myth of the modern Irish state. The revolt itself was a quixotic act, involving no more than 1,500 people, and the whole thing was crushed within a week at the cost of 450 lives, more than half of them civilians. But the crass brutality of the British military afterwards, including several thousand arrests and 16 executions, helped turn the “rainbow chasers” into national martyrs. The ruined General Post Office on Sackville Street in Dublin, the rebels’ short-lived headquarters, became the iconic symbol of the rising.

For Irish nationalists Easter 1916 signalled the rebirth of the nation – a stepping stone to Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the 1918 election, the war of independence against Britain from 1919 to 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State. The Easter Rising seemed all the more attractive as a dramatic symbol because the larger story of national liberation was complex and messy. The independence achieved was incomplete, since Ireland was denied both sovereignty and unity. Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 Eire remained part of the British Commonwealth, owing ultimate allegiance to the Crown, while the six largely Protestant counties of the north-east stayed within the United Kingdom as the statelet of Northern Ireland.

The treaty was therefore completely unacceptable to hardline republicans and nationalists. Their opposition sparked a vicious civil war in 1922-23 between former comrades-in-arms, the death toll from which exceeded that of the war of independence against Britain. In this struggle, the iconic equivalent of the GPO of 1916 was the Four Courts, a neoclassical complex on Dublin’s waterfront where the anti-treaty forces had been headquartered. The building was shelled into ruins by government troops using artillery loaned by the British. Although the pro-treaty forces were victorious in 1923, Irish politics for much of the 20th century remained polarised between political parties rooted in the opposing sides during the civil war.

Clinging tight to Easter 1916 – told as a ­heroic saga of national resurrection, of good v evil – has therefore been a convenient, even necessary, narrative in Ireland. But this will be much harder to sustain a century on, as is clear from two recent books by Maurice Walsh and Diarmaid Ferriter, and from others in the pre-centenary literary build-up. For one thing, rich new sources have become available in the past decade or so. In 2003 the Irish government finally opened the records of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), including over 1,700 statements taken in the 1940s and 1950s from veterans of the rising and the war of independence. And in 2014 it started to make available online the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), nearly 300,000 files from veterans of 1916-23 who set down detailed accounts of their service to the state in order to secure pensions or compensation.

These new materials have to be read with care because their authors had every incentive to exaggerate their own importance to make their name or make money. Nevertheless, the BMH and MSPC archives allow historians to construct accounts of the period that move away from a few embalmed leaders and a few streets in Dublin to offer broader social histories of the era, ranging right across the country and highlighting the diversity of individual experience.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an academic ­historian, sticks close to the sources, at times offering perhaps too much detail. But in A Nation and Not a Rabble (Profile Books) he powerfully shows how the mythology has taken shape, digging in the first part through the sedimentary layers of history-writing, and tracing how patterns of commemoration have shifted over time in the third. The middle section, drawing on the rich documentation newly come to light, offers a 200-page analytical narrative entitled “Revolutionary Ireland, 1913-23”.

The title of that section has been chosen with care. Ferriter wants us to appreciate how the conventional nationalist narrative has concealed the pressures for social and economic change pulsating through Ireland in the 1910s. He deliberately begins not with the 1916 rising, nor even in 1914 when the Great War began and Westminster conceded the principle of Irish home rule. Instead his starting point is the Dublin general strike of 1913, the city’s celebrated “lockout”. Ferriter pays particular attention to James Connolly, a nationalist hero today because he was executed by the British in May 1916, sitting, tied to a chair, unable to stand after near-fatal wounds. Yet Connolly was not only a nationalist but a Marxist, one of the leaders of the 1913 lockout; he brought his Irish Citizen Army (ICA) into the rising only late in the day because he believed the rebel leaders were woefully indifferent to the class struggle.

Ferriter’s socio-economic take on 1916 is hardly novel: Sean O’Casey, one of Connolly’s aides, developed it in his 1926 play The Plough and the Stars – the Plough constellation being the symbol on the ICA’s banner. But Ferriter makes the experience of workers, and also women, central to his account of a period in which revolution and not just nationalism was in the air. Less than  a year after the Easter Rising, the tsarist regime in Russia – Europe’s most brutal autocracy – collapsed in a couple of weeks and by the end of 1917 the Bolsheviks had seized power, inspiring leftist movements across the globe.

Drawing on the BMH and a rich variety of other archives, Ferriter explores the grass-roots experience of Ireland’s revolutionary decade. The “land war” in the spring of 1920, for instance, was the worst such agitation against big landlords since the 1880s, spreading from the west across 16 counties. For impoverished tenants, economic rights were as important as national liberation, yet that whole issue has been downplayed in conventional nationalist accounts.

Maurice Walsh’s Bitter Freedom (Faber & Faber) concentrates on 1918-23, the period from Sinn Fein’s election victory to the end of the civil war. A journalist by training, Walsh is less interested than Ferriter in historiography and memory. He does not dissect the sources but uses them to compose a vivid narrative with a reporter’s ear and eye for a telling anecdote or revealing vignette. He offers, for instance, a chilling impression of how law and order progressively broke down. In the 1900s local members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) functioned, rather banally, as “a one-man government agency” – making sure the pubs closed on time, collecting statistics about animal disease, registering new owners of horses and cars, and so on. Although an Irish policeman, unlike a British “bobby”, was trained to use firearms, he rarely had to deal with actual violence apart from bar-room brawls. Historically most officers in the RIC had been Protestant and most constables Catholic, but by the 1900s many Catholics had been promoted from the ranks, while men with strong sectarian views from either side of the religious divide were excluded.

Yet the Easter Rising exposed a fundamental tension between the RIC’s ingrained local familiarity and its basic loyalty to the crown: after 1916 it became progressively harder to be “Irish” and also “royal”. First came local ostracism, as members of the RIC were barred from social events and sports teams or shunned as dates. By 1919 they had become the targets of threatening letters or occasional shootings. Isolated rural police stations were closed and constables moved into fortified barracks in larger towns. Whereas in 1914 there had been roughly 1,400 police stations dotted around Ireland, by the mid-1920 almost a third lay abandoned and burned.

As British rule crumbled, an alternative government took shape. In the UK general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats in the House of Commons but, honouring the party manifesto pledge, the MPs did not take up their seats in Westminster, convening instead at the Mansion House in Dublin as the Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland). Even after being declared illegal by the British in September 1919, the Dail continued to develop as what Walsh terms “a virtual republic”, gradually taking over the functions of government.

Nowhere was this process more evident than in the success of the Dail’s network of courts. These started out as local arbitration hearings about land disputes or sheep rust­ling, held in schoolrooms, farmhouses and even barns. They soon developed into a rival system of justice, from a high court downwards, with the full apparatus of judges and clerks, summonses and arrest warrants. Banned by the British, the Dail courts had to operate in secret, their functionaries often on the run. One leading figure, the barrister Kevin O’Shiel, travelled the country posing as a quack salesman for a heat-rub ointment. The underground courts were popular – dispensing prompt, simple justice free from legal gobbledegook and archaic procedure –
and their reach spread during 1920 as intimidation and violence gradually closed down the British courts system. Republican justice proved a sharp riposte to London’s claims that Sinn Fein was merely a bunch of thugs and gunmen. As the Daily Mail put it in July 1920, “the futility of trying to govern a people against its will is demonstrated by what happens at the Sinn Fein courts”.

 

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In line with other recent books on the 1916 era, Walsh moves beyond ingrained Irish exceptionalism to set the story in an international context. At the start he summons up the ubiquity of Bolshevist revolution, quoting Mussolini (“The whole earth trembles”), but he is more interested in the global appeal of the then US president, Woodrow Wilson. Walsh is surely right to situate Ireland’s struggle for independence within the larger nationalist moment of 1918-20, when protest against imperial rule spread across Europe and beyond, and the Paris Peace Conference became the global forum for nationalist leaders to plead their cause. As Walsh notes, Wilson was their hero because he voiced the imprecise but inspiring slogan of “self-determination”. Here, Walsh says, we can see “the beginnings of the Americanisation of the whole world”.

I think Walsh, like other latter-day historians, exaggerates what has been called “the Wilsonian moment”. The president failed to deliver on the hopes he had aroused, and nationalist dreams soon evaporated, from Egypt to India. But, in the Irish case, Walsh’s allusions to the global tide of Americanisation highlight the limits of freedom in “a flawed revolution”, because modernity seemed to pass Ireland by until at least the 1960s. This was a theme developed eloquently last year by Roy Foster in his book Vivid Faces, about the rise and decline of the “revolutionary generation” of 1916 – the ’68ers of their day. One of them lamented four decades later how “the phoenix of our youth has fluttered to earth such a miserable old hen I have no heart for it”. The authoritarian Ireland that emerged from the civil war was a far cry from their youthful dreams: politically conservative, sexually repressed, in thrall to the Catholic priesthood.
Yet, Walsh notes, the post-independence order “was not merely imposed on an unwilling population. It suited many people that the country should be run this way.” After years of anarchy, they were ready to pay a high price for order. As Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter, 1916”, “Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart.”

Thinking of Ireland comparatively, the country was distinctive among national revolutions of the era in at least three important respects. First, a serious national rising took place during the war – in fact, right in the middle – rather than at the end, amid the turmoil of 1918. The latter was the pattern across central and eastern Europe, resulting in new states such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Second, Ireland’s war of independence was waged successfully against a victor power, not – as in the Balkans or the Baltic states – against one of the defeated empires. This was part of the global appeal of the Irish struggle, not least in the United States, where it could easily be enfolded into the American saga of 1776 and all that. And yet, third, the victor imperial power hung on in the north-east of the country – not just for a few years but right up to the present day. Hence, for hardline republican nationalists, then and now, the continuing affront of an unfinished revolution.

Of course, there have been huge changes within Ulster and in British-Irish relations since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 helped end thirty years of “the Troubles”. But the peace process remains fragile. Poking around in the embers of history could easily rekindle old flames. The island of Ireland will mark two contrasting centenaries in 2016. One is the Easter Rising on 24 April, the other the first day of the Somme on 1  July – a sacred day in the calendar of Ulster Unionists. On that dreadful morning in 1916 the 36th (Ulster) Division went “over the top” near Thiepval, penetrating further than any other unit in the British army, but then was forced back. It suffered over 5,000 casualties – a third of the division’s strength. For decades, fervent unionists commemorated Ulster’s “blood sacrifice” in the struggle for peace and freedom against the Hun, in contrast to the treacherous “stab in the back” inflicted at Easter in Dublin. The Thiepval story is still depicted today on murals in east Belfast and around the Shankill Road. Marking the First Day of the Somme remains largely a sectarian act of memory: Protestant Ulster’s counterblast to the Irish republican 1916.

At the time of the 50th anniversary, in 1966, only loyalists commemorated the first day of the Somme, while nationalists remembered the Easter Rising. Their rival versions of history played a part in fuelling the Troubles. Yet, as Diarmaid Ferriter reminds us, some 200,000 Irishmen, Catholic as well as Protestant, from all over the island, fought in the British army during the First World War. Since 1998 the idea that 1914-18 was “our war” has gained currency south of the border and has been acknowledged by British and Irish leaders through various joint ceremonies in London, Dublin and on the Western Front.

Perhaps in 2016, a century on, the history wars will have abated and Ireland’s two ­centenaries can be commemorated in tandem and without pain. Might it now be enough, as Yeats mused about the men of 1916, simply “To know they dreamed and are dead”, consigning them reverently to history? Or perhaps the embers of the past will be rekindled again? After the election last month of Dublin’s first ever Sinn Fein lord mayor, the centenary celebrations will be under republican control: their plans, announced in 2014, include 3D projections on to the rebuilt General Post Office: “Watch as the GPO comes under shell fire and catches fire, see the rebels escape and their last stand. Witness the trials and experience the executions . . .”

A general election must take place in the Republic of Ireland by 9 April 2016. It may prove irresistible to play politics with ­history, as Sinn Fein goads its rivals to flaunt their nationalist credentials and show that Easter is still Rising. In that case, to borrow once more from Yeats, the “terrible beauty” of 1916 will continue to define the political landscape and haunt our contemporary imagination.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

David Reynolds and Ronan Fanning adiscuss the Easter Rising with the New Statesman assistant editor Michael Prodger at Cambridge Literary Festival on Saturday 9 April 2016 at 7:30pm

Sebastian Barry returns to his Man Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, set during the 1916 Rising, in a conversation with New Statesman culture editor Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 10 April 2016 at 5:30pm

Easter 1916: From the New Statesman Archive, an anthology of archive pieces about the events of Easter 1916, is out now. Get your copy now, priced only £0.99.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

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May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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