Good Friday Agreement of 1998 must change how we commemorate the 1916 Rising

The rebellion of Easter Week 1916 was a formative event in Irish history. But it was only one such event, writes John Bruton.

The enactment of Home Rule in 1914 after 40 years of peaceful agitation, the meeting of the first Dáil in 1919, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the constitutions of 1922 and 1937, and the declaration of the Republic in 1949, were also formative events which shaped the independence we now enjoy.

But so also was the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was endorsed overwhelmingly through referenda in all of Ireland. It accepted the principle of consent by the people of Northern Ireland to a change in their status. That was an important and game-changing act of self-determination by all the Irish people. It removed the grounds for conflict within Ireland and with Britain.

The ratification of the 1998 agreement liberates us from the burden of the adversarial approach to history that predominated for so long. The conflict is now over and there is no need to poke at its embers.

The monument to Daniel O’Connell unscathed amid the destruction of the Easter Rising. But like the buildings around it, the system of constitutional nationalism he inspired would soon also be vanquished to history. Picture: Sean Sexton/Getty Images Picture: James Flynn/APX

This should influence the 1916 commemorations in the following way.

We must accept that those who initiated the Rising did so with high idealism, and a sense of self-sacrifice. It was, however, a violent action, involving loss of life, of innocent life, as was fully anticipated by its initiators.

We must now commemorate 1916 in a way that visibly respects all past sincere differences, and does not glorify violence retrospectively.

I believe aspects of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of 1916, in 1966, romanticised violence and that this provided fuel to later republican violence. That threat has not completely disappeared.

But how can one remember 1916, without glorifying the methods used in the conflict? My proposal has been that, as part of the overall commemoration, all who died violently in Ireland in and around Easter week 1916, on whatever side or none, be remembered individually, and by name.

Naturally, a major focus should be on the Volunteers who died, and on their executed leaders. They took the initiative in the conflict.

But we must also remember, by name, those who did NOT volunteer to put their lives at risk, the civilians who were killed by both sides, the (unarmed) Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) members who were killed, and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) members who were killed.

Nor should we forget the British army soldiers killed on the streets of Dublin (many of whom were Irish, but also those who were not).

That would be a sign that, for this generation, the conflict is truly over.

If we only remember one side in what was in some respects a civil war, we are telling ourselves that the war is not really over at all.

The flag-raising ceremony to mark the start of 2016 state ceremonial programme at at Dublin Castle on January 1, was attended by the President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD, Lord Mayor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, Tánaiste Joan Burton TD and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys. Picture: James Flynn/APX

We should remind ourselves that many of these casualties, whether Irishborn or not, would have left orphaned children, and some of those who died were children themselves.

It would be good, a century later, to remember them all. This approach would put a focus on the cost of violence, the loss of life and the suffering, as well as the bereavement of every relative left behind, of whatever side or none.

From a religious and ethical perspective, all these lives, taken away in 1916, were equally valued and valuable. There should be no hierarchy of victims, in this or any other conflict.

If the focus is on remembering by name the Volunteers who died, and failing to remember by name on every occasion the others who died, we are creating a hierarchy of victims.

If descendants are to be honoured, the descendants of all the victims should be.

It is worth adding that the families of the DMP, RIC, and army casualties, who continued to live in Ireland, felt, over the last 100 years, that the loss they suffered was less recognised by their fellow Irish people, because they had died on the “wrong side”. A century later, that one-sidedness should not be perpetuated.

The grave of Head Constable William Rowe in Castlehyde, Co Cork. John Bruton welcomes plans to commemorate his name, and those of all police and soliders killed in 1916, as well as those of the rebels. Picture: Denis Minihane

As I said earlier, the commemoration in 2016 should be different in every way from that in 1966, for one very simple and obvious reason.

The approval of the Good Friday Agreement, in referenda on both sides of the border in 1998, was an all-Ireland act of self-determination which democratically and peacefully removed any remaining cause of conflict. The commemoration this year should reflect that legal and political reality. To continue to commemorate 1916 in the same way as might have been done before 1998, would be to deny what was achieved by the peace process.

That would be a grave mistake.

I welcome the fact that a Commemorative Wall is to be erected in Glasnevin Cemetery bearing the names of all who died in the 1916 rebellion, regardless of the side (or none) they were on, of whether they were bearing arms or not. I understand that, on the centenary years of their deaths, those who were killed in the War of Independence and the Civil War will be added to the Wall. That is good.

But, in light of the Good Friday Agreement, we should go further.

The State should invite a descendant of every casualty of political violence in Ireland in 1916, whatever side or none they were on, to a Commemoration, on the inclusive model of the National Day of Commemoration.

It should then do the same for all the victims of the War of Independence, and the Civil War, in each year that those centenaries occur.

This will remind future generations of the true price of warfare, so they will value the peace we have achieved through the Good Friday Agreement.

John Bruton is an ex-taoiseach, former Fine Gael leader, and former EU ambassador to the United States.

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