Revolutionary Remembrance: 2016 Party Politics

Plenty of talk over the last week or so about the commemoration of 1916, which has rapidly become a party political discussion, as Ireland’s Dail entities draw battle lines over how the event should be properly remembered in 2016.

Who owns 1916?  It is a tired question, with a plain answer. And that answer is not “Fine Gael through Michael Collins”, or “Labour through James Connolly”, or “Fianna Fail through De Valera” or “Sinn Fein through various people” as much as these entities seem willing to frame the whole debate like that is the issue. The Easter Rising and its remembrance, as corny as it sounds, belongs to anyone who wants a piece of it, in a modern democratic society.

And a modern democratic society has a democratically elected government, and you would expect that popularly chosen government to be the one to take charge. But, alas, the work that the Fine Gael and Labour coalition has thus far done has been lacklustre where it has existed at all. Committees with no firm decisions, more military parades, a dalliance with the idea of inviting the British royal family over and then this eye-raisingly bland video.

It’s all been just kind of weak, and I suppose there are many reasons for that. For one thing, FG/Lab has bigger things it has to be focusing on, not least the monumental challenge of Ireland’s finances and all of the infinite number of issues associated with it. No one is going to look back on this government 50 years from now and judge it on its 1916 centenary commemoration policy. And so, it has fallen to the sidelines, in a manner that indicates a lack of care.

And there is a tiredness there too I feel, a tiredness of having to deal with protest groups made up of descendants acting like a new aristocracy decrying every move, of bleating about Moore Street (still not seeing a lot of that directed at the DCC, like it should be), of historians criticising, of just being unable to come with anything that will come close to pleasing everybody. Everything costs and nothing fully satisfies. This is the way it is. Some political opponents claim that Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are embarrassed by the Easter Rising, but I see more fatigue than mortification, a feeling that the government just wants this all to be done. The Rising ignites passions, and that can be a headache to confront, especially in an election year.

And that is also a reality that must be faced up to if we are all being fully honest, which is that this could all turn out to not be Fine Gael or Labour’s problem, potentially. The current Dail must face re-election before April 3rd next year, coincidently the last day of the Easter Rising. An election will probably be called a fair bit before that, before the end of this year most likely, and the result of that election is very much up in the air. Fine Gael may still emerge the largest party, but Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail look likely to not be far behind, with a Labour implosion very much imminent. We can talk hung parliaments till the cows come home, but suffice to say that nobody has a firm idea just who is going to be in government, minority or otherwise, when the actual centenary comes around.

So, to see Sinn Fein making their own separate plans, and sucking in unworthy figures of standing like James Connolly Heron, is interesting. Their plans could yet become government plans in time for next year. For the moment, they are simply what many are crying out for: a pro-active approach to the commemoration, with variety and colour. Audio visual displays, year long exhibits, dawn vigils, this is what so many want to see. Even given my personal distaste for Sinn Fein and their politics, even I must say that I am impressed by the depth of the plans, though maybe they simply look good next to the morass of the government initiatives. Enda Kenny and company got bogged down in a poorly thought out idea of getting the British royal family over for the occasion, and even that has been dropped from their proposed itinerary. Sinn Fein have actually given (some of them anyway) the people what they want (I suppose that is somewhat fitting though, Sinn Fein being a party that has become very accustomed to telling people what they want to hear). In so doing, they have been handed the opportunity to look like a party that is actually capable of taking the lead.

Fianna Fail is now jumping on that separatist bandwagon as well, and who else to lead the rush than Eamon O’Cuiv, naturally. Amid cries that they don’t want any partisanship brought to the fore of the Rising commemoration, Fianna Fail seems happy to do just that. And again, why wouldn’t they? The sitting government is giving them ample opportunity to overtake their own plans.

So, what would I want? In a perfect world, where reasonable financial backing wouldn’t be an issue? In terms of parades and the like, something in the form of a 1966 redux. Less celebration but same geographical scope. Why limit things to Dublin? Spread the Defence Forces out, get local schools to do up things. Don’t go all Paddy’s Day on it, but introduce an element of artistry and cultural awareness to all of the proceedings. There would be no lack of volunteers.

Do exhibits. Loads of them, everywhere that’s important and more besides. The government should have been the ones booking out the Ambassador Theatre, and they should have done it ages ago. Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, get their museums involved too.

Do specials things. Do light shows, do vigils, do re-enactments. Make a festival of it, and if things veer into too much of a celebratory mood than can be entirely comfortable, at least it will be better than the maudlin funeral procession we are likely to face up to in reality.

Get RTE, TV3, UTV Ireland and TG4 involved too. Documentaries. Fiction. Debates, between politicians and academics. Extend to other channels, radio, internet, social media, even if such an effort has to be government led.

And get the whole thing into schools as well, perhaps the most important place. Expanded classes on the Rising at all levels. Projects and reports. Questions in the exams. A fair and balanced look at what exactly occurred in 1916 and how it has come to affect this country. Get that learning and discussion going in the classrooms today, to feed a proper spirit of historical remembrance in the future. Now, when the Rising is in the national consciousness in a way it hasn’t been in a long time, is the perfect moment to do so.

What we’ll get instead of all that, at this point anyway, is an expanded military parade through Dublin and little besides, at least from the government. Sinn Fein, and probably Fianna Fail as well over time, look set to wrest control of the Rising commemoration from the elected government, simply by virtue of being more enthusiastic and diverse in their approach than the government has been. This isn’t right, not for the pursuit of proper revolutionary remembrance, but it is the reality of what is happening. And I have little faith that the government of Enda Kenny and Joan Burton will be able, or willing, to really do anything about it.

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