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.