The irony in commemoration

I left Belfast a week or so before Easter, and so I missed the annual commemorations in which Republicans remember the 1916 Rising and honor those who have fallen in the cause of ending British rule in Ireland. The YouTube video embedded above is an excellent example of the kind of official commemoration that Sinn Fein participates in and helps orchestrate. In watching the video it’s easy to pick out the faces of many of the party’s luminaries and well-known supporters amongst the ranks of marchers.

The pageantry is all there: bands, honor guard and color party in paramilitary attire, re-enactors wearing the uniforms and carrying the (dummy one supposes) weapons of the Rising, dramatic recitations of fiery speeches from the past.

What I find fascinating about these events (like the annual national Hunger Strike commemoration which I attended in 2010 in the village of Bellaghy) is the unacknowledged irony with which what has become a status quo political movement deploys the language of revolution and parades the images of generations of dead revolutionaries.

As a partner in the Stormont regime Sinn Fein administers British rule in Northern Ireland. This is a simple statement of fact. And yet the party apparently feels no contradiction between this present and the revolutionary past it celebrates and claims as its own. The party’s critics call this deep hypocrisy and naked cynicism. The party’s supporters argue that the revolution has entered a new phase in which the foundations of British rule are being systematically eroded from within the political system itself, both north and south of the border.

As an outsider I can’t, and won’t, try to argue which of these perspectives is the more honest or accurate. Frankly I believe there is truth in both assessments. Either way it is smart politics. But as an outsider I can’t help but be struck by the contradictions on display in commemorations like this. If you watch the first few minutes of the video above, you will hear the words that Patrick Pearse in 1915 directed to the “Defenders of the Realm” when he delivered his famous oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Today, for the moment, those Defenders of the Realm include Sinn Fein. A cynic might count them among Pearse’s “purchased half.” And Ireland still holds the graves of her Fenian dead.

Tiochfaidh ar la*?

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It occurs to me that those of you who have been reading this blog over the last month would likely come to the conclusion that pretty much everyone I’ve talked to paints a dismal picture of the future, that pessimism rules the day. I’d say that’s true for the lion’s share of people that I meet, with two significant exceptions.

The first is that segment of society for whom the Troubles were little more than a nuisance. These are generally middle and upper-middle class Unionists whose social class and leafy residential districts kept them largely outside the killing zones that were working class neighborhoods and the rural countryside. It’s not that these folks are optimistic. Some are concerned that things could go off again, but they seem to assume that if it does they will again be able to stand on the sidelines as the other people bear the brunt of whatever should come.

The other group is unabashedly optimistic. These are the members and supporters of Sinn Fein.  They see themselves poised for the success. The party continues to gain influence and authority in the North. While some may argue that the Northern electorate is becoming alienated from the political system, Sinn Fein activists are energetic, disciplined, and committed. Even some traditionally Loyalist areas are now voting for SF candidates, activists tell me, because they know that SF is responsive to the needs of the working class community in a way that Unionist parties are not.  And even if some in the Nationalist community would prefer not to support Sinn Fein, the party has skillfully quashed the rise of any politically viable Republican alternative. It is one of the secrets to their success over the last 20 years.

Sinn Fein supporters see the very real possibility that they will hold the balance of political power in the South after the next set of elections six weeks or so from now, if not actually be the party in government. In short, from their perspective, 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising and the declaration of the Irish Republic, may be the year in which the movement will achieve through politics what it has never been able to accomplish through force of arms, all 32 Irish counties governed by one Republican party. Under such a scenario the border between the North and the South, they argue, will be effectively meaningless. With both Stormont and Leinster House in Sinn Fein hands, the country will be de facto united even if it remains partitioned on paper. And once that happens, the constitutional question will be resolved as a matter of course.

Given this scenario, it’s no wonder that Sinn Fein’s supporters express optimism for the future. The goal, they believe is in sight. United Ireland is an inevitability. It’s only a matter of time.

*”Our day will come,” an Irish language slogan beloved of Republicans. Kind of the equivalent of the phrase which traditionally ends the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

A first shot at final thoughts

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Today was my last working day in Belfast. Tomorrow I head back down to Dublin in advance of my flight home Friday. So this is as good a time as any to start trying to makes sense of some of what I think I’ve learned as a result of the time I’ve spent this time around.

There is a clear sense of relief that the horrors of the past are for the time being over. But many of the people that I talked to expect trouble to return, and only hope that the next time it isn’t as bad as what came before. And everyone I talked to who thinks things will “kickoff” again are equally convinced that it is the other side that will be responsible when it happens. Loyalists in South Armagh are convinced that it will be the Republicans. Republicans in Tyrone are certain the Loyalists will be the first to go back on the offensive.

People genuinely want a better life for their children and grandchildren. Maintaining the peace is central to those wishes, and everyone appears to know and acknowledge it. What is more difficult to understand, however, is that this common desire still doesn’t seem to provide the common ground that will make the peace sustainable. Working class Protestants and working class Catholics (for want of better labels) know that they share many of the same problems, and yet it is the differences between them that they seem to focus upon.

Case in point: Catholics resent the Protestant tradition of marching bands, July 12th bonfires, and the embracing of the Union flag, seeing each of these as obstacles to overcoming divisions between the communities. Protestants, at least in the working class (or what a respectable middle-class Unionist crassly referred to as the “benefits class”) see these as vital parts of their culture and identity which should be accepted as such by their Catholic neighbors. “Let us do our thing and let them do their thing and everyone leaves each other alone,” is how one of the fellows who showed me around the Loyalist neighborhood of Sandy Row this morning put it. This would be all well and good if Catholics didn’t view Loyalist parades through their neighborhoods the same way that Klan marches are viewed by African Americans.

Likewise, these Protestants resent what they believe is the privileged position the Irish language enjoys in the schools and they see displays of the Irish tricolor on St. Patrick’s Day as deliberate political provocation since there’s already a St. Patrick’s Cross flag (which can, not uncoincidentally, be seen as the red cross part of the British Union flag). Nationalists see calls for keeping the tricolor out of the festivities as tantamount to denying the Irishness of the holiday.

Symbols that each side embraces as indelible markers of culture, identity, and community are almost fully rejected by the others, which sees them as artificial, divisive, and intentionally provocative. No one seems to know how to bridge the divide of identity in a way that would acceptable across communities. Attempts to create new, “neutral” institutions that everyone can support, like the introduction of professional ice hockey to Belfast (a sport that no one plays and few actually care much about but has the virtue of not “belonging” to either community) is a case in point.

In short, no one really trusts the other side to keep the peace. And so they wait, hoping for the best but unconvinced that the present calm will last.

 

The curse of long memories

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Looking out over the fields of County Tyrone from atop the Hill of the O’Neill, an ancient seat of military and political power, Dungannon.

 

As we drove through the County Tyrone countryside this morning, my contact kept pointing out spots in the landscape where nearly 400 years ago early chapters in this region’s long story of violent conflict unfolded.  Like South Armagh, the peacefulness of the surroundings belies the brutal reality of what happened here during the most recent 30 years or so of war.

This was one of the most active areas of violence, behind only Belfast and South Armagh in terms of the numbers of casualties. Given the much smaller population compared to Belfast, in per capita terms the impact was just as traumatic. My contact described the brutality of the attacks against civilian targets as approaching the genocidal.

Today the area is calm, with much less of the raw hostility that bubbles so close to the surface in the close confines of Belfast. Out in the countryside, as my contact put it, people have room to keep out of each other’s way if they so choose.  But for all the space, these are still small communities. People will recognize old enemies when they pass, and nod in acknowledgment. But the pain of the past is not forgotten, time has not erased the memories of family members killed or wounded, families torn apart, or livelihoods lost.

They let things lie, my contact said, because for now it is all over. But make no mistake. If things start up again, he said, “scores will be settled.” No one here is clamoring for that, but in a place where long memory can conjure up recollections of 400-year-old injuries, the wounds of the recent past may as well have happened yesterday.