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A Terrible Beauty: Ireland’s Easter Rebellion

A Terrible Beauty: The 1916 Easter Rebellion

Dispatches From The Edge

March 22, 2016

 

“Poblacht na hEireann”: The speaker of these words, standing on the front steps of Dublin’s General Post Office and reading from a proclamation, the ink was barely dry, of the “provisional government of the Irish Republic” was the poet Padraig Pearse. It was just after noon on April 24, 1916, the opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.

 

It is a hundred years since some 750 men and women threw up barricades and seized strong points in downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe a 1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the post office in flames, the streets blackened by shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.

 

And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history, a “failure” that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost a half-century later.

 

Anniversaries—particularly centennials—are equal parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from them is always a tricky business. And, while 1916 is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.

 

Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The “lamps,” as the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and steeped in almost inconceivable death. Shortly after the last Irish rebel was shot, the British launched the battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 would die in the first hour of that battle, and, by the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.

 

Europe is still at war, in some ways influenced by the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan. Italian Special Forces are stalking Islamists in Libya. French warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.

 

And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed wire is once again being unrolled, not to make killing zones out of the no man’s land between trenches, but to block the floods of refugees generated by European—and American—armies and proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.

 

In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost. The British and French between them secretly sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in. Indeed, that was the whole idea. There would never be enough Frenchmen or Englishmen to rule the Levant, but with Shiites, Sunnis and Christians busily trying to tear out one another’s throats, they wouldn’t notice the well dressed bankers on the sidelines—“tut tutting” the lack of civilized behavior and counting their money.

 

The Irish of 1916 understood that gambit, after all, they were its first victims.

 

Ireland was a colony long before the great powers divided up the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the strategies that kept the island poor, backward and profitable were transplanted elsewhere. Religious divisions kept India largely docile. Tribal and religious divisions made it possible to rule Nigeria. Ethnic conflict short-circuited resistance in Kenya and South Africa. Division by sect worked well in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

 

For Ireland was the great laboratory of colonialism where the English experimented with ways to keep a grip over the population. Culture, religion, language and kinship were all grist for the mill. And when all else failed, Ireland was a short sail across the Irish Sea: kill all the lab rats and start anew.

 

The fact that the English had been in Ireland for 747 years by 1916 was relevant. The Irish call the occupation “the long sorrow,” and it had made them a bit bonkers. Picking a fight in the middle of a war with one of the most powerful empires in human history doesn’t seem like a terribly rational thing to do (and, in truth, there were many Irish who agreed that it was a doomed endeavor.).

 

The European left denounced the Easter rising, mostly because they couldn’t make much sense of it. What was a disciplined Marxist intellectual and trade union leader like James Connolly doing taking up arms with mystic nationalists like Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett? One of the few radicals to get it was V.I. Lenin, who called criticism of the rebellion “monstrously pedantic.”

 

What both Connolly and Lenin understood was that the uprising reflected a society profoundly distorted by colonialism. Unlike in the rest of Europe, in Ireland different classes and viewpoints could find common ground precisely because they had one similar experience: no matter what their education, no matter what their resources, in the end they were Irish, and treated in everyway as inferior by their overlords.

 

Most of the European left was suspicious of nationalism in general because it blurred the lines between oppressed and oppressors and undermined the analysis that class was the great fault line. But as the world would discover a half-century later, nationalism was an ideology that united the many against the few. In the end, it would create its own problems and raise up its own monsters, but for the vast majority of the colonial world it was an essential ingredient of national liberation.

 

The Easter rebellion was not the first anti-colonial uprising. The American threw off the English in 1783; the Greeks drove out the Turks in 1832. India’s great Sepoy rebellion almost succeeded in driving the British out of the sub-continent in 1857. There were others as well.

 

But there was a special drama to the idea of a revolution in the heart of an empire, and it was the drama more than the act that drew the world’s attention. The Times of London blamed the Easter rising for the 1919 unrest in India, where the British Army massacred 380 Sikh civilians at Amristsan. How the Irish were responsible for this, the Times never bothered to explain.

 

But the Irish saw the connection, if somewhat differently than did the Times. Roger Casement, a leader of the 1916 rebellion who was executed for treason in August of that year, said that the cause of Ireland was also the cause of India, because the Easter rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilizations of the earth.”

 

As a rising it was a failure, in part because the entire affair was carried out in secret. Probably no more than a dozen or so people knew that it was going to happen. When the Irish Volunteer Force and the Irish Citizens Army marched up to the Post Office, most of the passersby—including the English ones—thought it was just the “boys” out having a little fun by provoking the authorities again.

 

But secrets don’t make for successful revolutions. The plotters imagined that their example would fire the whole of Ireland, but by the time most the Irish had found out about it, it was over. It was not even an overly bloody affair. There were about 3,000 casualties and 485 deaths, many of them civilians. Of the combatants, the British lost 151, the rebels 83, including the 16 executed in the coming weeks. It devastated a square mile of downtown Dublin, and, when the British troops marched the rebels through the streets after their surrender, crowds spit on the rebels.

 

But as the firing squads did their work day after day, the sentiment began to shift. Connolly was so badly wounded he could not stand, so they tied him to a chair and shot him. The authorities also refused to release the executed leaders to their families, burying them in quicklime instead. Some 3,439 men and 79 women were arrested and imprisoned. Almost 2,000 were sent to internment camps, and 98 were given death sentences. Another 100 received long prison sentences.

 

All of this did not go down well with the public, and the authorities were forced to call off more executions. Plus, the idea of an “Irish Republic” was not going to go away, no matter how many people were shot, hanged or imprisoned.

 

The Easter rising was certainly an awkward affair. Pearse called it a “blood sacrifice,” which makes the rebellion sound uncomfortably close to the Catholic Church’s motto that “The blood of the martyrs is the seat of the church.” And, yet, that is the nature of things like the Easter rising. 1916 churned up all of the ideologies, divisions, and prejudices that colonialism had crafted over hundreds of years, making for some very odd bedfellows. Those who dreamed of re-constituting the ancient kingdom of Meath manned barricades with students of Karl Marx. Illiterate tenant farmers took up arms with Countess Markievicz, who counseled women to “leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”

 

Some of those divisions have not gone away. There will be at least two celebrations of the Easter rising. The establishment parties—Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Labour Party—have organized events leading up to the main commemoration March 27. Sinn Fein, representing the bulk of the Irish left, will have its own celebration. There are several small splinter groups that will present their own particular story of the Easter rising.

 

And if you want to be part of it, you can go on the Internet and buy a “genuine” Easter Rebellion T-shirt from “Eire Apparent.”

Everything is for sale, even revolution.

 

In some ways, 1916 was about Ireland and its long, strange history. But 1916 is also about the willingness of human beings to resist, sometimes against almost hopeless odds. There is nothing special or uniquely Irish about that.

 

In the short run, the Easter rebellion executed the people who might have prevented the 1922-23 civil war between republicans and nationalists that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. The Free State was independent and self-governing, but still part of the empire, while the British had lopped off Northern Ireland to keep as its own. Ireland did not become truly independent until 1937.

 

In the long run, however, the Easter rising made continued British rule in Ireland impossible. In that sense, Pearse was right: the blood sacrifice had worked.

 

Does the centennial mean anything for today’s Europe? It may. Like the Europe of 1916, the Europe of 2016 is dominated by a few at the expense of the many. The colonialism of empires has been replaced by the colonialism of banks and finance. The British occupation impoverished the Irish, but they were not so very different than today’s Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese—and yes, Irish—who have seen their living standards degraded and their young exported, all to “repay” banks from which they never borrowed anything. Do most Europeans really control their lives today any more than the Irish did in 1916?

 

How different is today’s “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—from Whitehall in 1916? The latter came unasked into Ireland, the former dominates the economic and political life of the European Union.

 

In his poem, “Easter Week 1916,” the poet William Butler Yeats called the rising the birth of “a terrible beauty.” And so it was. But Pearse’s oration at the graveside of the old Fenian warrior Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa may be more relevant: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming. Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Elections and Austerity

Irish Voters to Grade Austerity

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 17, 2016

 

What looked like a smooth path to electoral victory for the Irish government has suddenly turned rocky, and the Fine Gael-Labour coalition is scrambling to keep its majority in the 166-seat Dail. A series of missteps by Fine Gael’s Taoiseach [prime minister] Enda Kenney, and a sharply critical report of the 2008 Irish “bailout,” has introduced an element of volatility into the Feb. 26 vote that may end in a victory by an interesting, if fragile, coalition of leftists and independents.

 

The center-right Fine Gael and center-left Labour Party currently hold 99 seats, but few observers see them maintaining their majority. Fine Gael has dropped from 30 percent several months ago to 26 percent today, and Labour is only polling at 9 percent. That will not translate into enough seats to control the Dail, and putting together a ruling coalition will be tricky, particularly when polls indicate that the independent bloc that has picked up 3 percent and is now the number one vote getter. In general, the independents are left or left-leaning.

 

The country is in the middle of an economic “boom,” but that is a relative term. Ireland is still reeling from years of European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed austerity that doubled the rate of childhood poverty and saddled working people with onerous taxes, painful rate hikes and high unemployment. Wages have fallen 15 percent. Since 2008, almost 500,000 Irish—the majority of them young and educated—have emigrated from the country in search of jobs.

 

The government’s trouble began in December, when torrential rains swamped parts of the country and Kenny slow response to the disaster angered rural voters. Flood victims blamed the government for failing to invest in flood control, an infrastructure improvement that fell victim to the austerity regime.

 

Then the Fine Gael-Labour coalition was hit with a double whammy: a report by in-house auditors for the European Union and an Irish parliamentary study of the collapse of Irish banks from 2008 to 2010. The EU study found that the European Central Bank (ECB) had pressured the Irish government not to impose losses on “senior bondholders” and, instead, put the burden on taxpayers. According to the parliamentary study, the ECB threatened to withdraw emergency support for Irish banks—thus crashing the economy—if wealthy bondholders were forced to take losses. All of this came as news to most of the Irish.

 

The center-right Fianna Fail Party was in power when the great crash came in 2008, a crash that had nothing to do with government spending or debt, but was instead, the result of real estate speculation by banks and financial institutions. Irish land values jumped 800 percent, which should have warned the banks that a bubble was inflating. But the bondholders, speculators and banks did nothing because they were making enormous amounts of money. When the bubble popped, Irish taxpayers were forced to pick up the $67 billion tab.

 

Fianna Fail was crushed in the 2011 election, losing two-thirds of their deputies, and Fine Gael-Labour took over.

 

Part of the government’s problem is that for the past five years it has been saying that it had no choice but to enforce the savage austerity regime of the ECB, but it is now trying to take credit for the recent improvement of the economy.

 

The coalition’s mantra has been “stay the course”, good times are ahead. The term the government is using is “fiscal space,” or the estimated amount of money that will be available for investment if Ireland continued its economic recovery. According to Fine Gael that figure would be $12 billion between 2017 and 2021.

 

First, no one understood “fiscal space,” a term used by the IMF. Even Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton, a Labour Party leader, called it “a new kind of ‘F’ word” and said voters hadn’t a clue what it meant. Asked to define it, Kenny said the Irish voters wouldn’t understand it, a statement that managed to insult everyone. The government subsequently knocked the figure down to $10 billion, and the opposition said it was more like $8 billion.

 

And while Fine Gael is taking credit for the economy, critics are pointing out that it wasn’t austerity, but a fall in world oil prices and a decline in the value of the euro that favors Ireland’s export industry, that got the economy going.

 

Finally Kenny muffed a question about whether Fine Gael might consider a coalition with Fianna Fail because the Labour Party was dropping in the polls and might not hold its 33 seats. This enraged Labour, and Kenny had to mend fences and pledge that Fine Gael would never go into a government with Fianna Fail.

 

In short, the government is looking inept, and it is taking fire for its shift from “we had no choice in applying the austerity” to “we take all the credit for the current situation.” Fintan O’Toole, the sharp-tongued columnist for the Irish Times and author of “Ship Of Fools,” chronicling the financial greed that led to the 2008 meltdown, wrote of the government, “If you had no power, you can claim no credit; if you did have power, you have to account for how unjustly you used it.”

 

Behind the cover of “It’s not our fault,” the government cut funds for caregivers, threw people off of National Health, cut support for the disabled, support for education, and did nothing about rising homelessness. As O’Toole points out, the improvements in the economy were because of oil prices, low interest rates and the falling euro, all “entirely outside the control of the Irish government.”

 

In any case, the country is still deeply in debt and, while the jobless rate is no longer 15 percent, it is still just below 10 percent.

 

The Dail is a motley affair, with a host of small parties and a bloc of independents. Currently Fine Gael has 66 seats and Labour 33. The center-right Fianna Fail (that inched up slightly in recent polls) has 21, and the leftist Sinn Fein has 14. The latter dropped three points in the poll from 20 percent to 17 percent. Other left parties include the Social Democrats, the Anti-Austerity Party, and there is a mix of mainly leftists in the independent bloc. The centrist Greens are showing some growth, as is the small rightist Renva Party.

 

Right now various stripes of the left hold 41 seats, a figure that is likely to go up in the coming elections. To control the Dail requires 80 seats, but if the independents do well, Sinn Fein holds its own, and Labour jumps ship, an anti-austerity coalition is possible.

 

In the end it may be a hung parliament, with no bloc of parties able to cobble together an effective government. Kenny may double cross Labour and join with Fianna Fail. But whoever takes over, the policies of austerity have been deeply discredited during this election and anyone who tries to “stay the course” is in for stormy weather.

 

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