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A Letter From Ireland – October 2014

Have you ever been (figuratively) stabbed in the back? Probably, so you know how it feels. That’s what I imagined after picking up the newspaper and reading that one-time Irish leader John Bruton brashly declared the actions of those who marched out at Eastertide in April, 1916 and who, three years later, fought a thirty-month War for Independence, were participants in events that were “completely unnecessary.” He then stated that honouring Britain’s passage of Ireland’s Home-Rule bill [1914] should rank on a par with any planned 1916 celebration. Talk about revisionism and second-guessing.
In defence of his remarks, the former Fine Gael taoiseach extolled the efforts of his old political hero John Redmond and the now defunct [1918] Irish Parliamentary Party. Both were instrumental in the passage of Britain’s Home-Rule legislation granting Ireland “some limited” independence, but only after the end of the war [WWI].
I was dumbstruck and angered at Burton’s comments. In retort, I concur with the opinion of Diarmuid Ferriter, UCD history professor, who’s stated, “There is no evidence that Britain was prepared to settle the Irish question until it was forced to do it.” Yes, 1916 and beyond certainly did force England’s tyrannical hand.
[This is not the time or place to launch into a justification of Easter 1916 and its leaderships’ motives for resorting to revolution in striking for Irish freedom. But suffice it to say; with England’s history of broken promises coupled with the then-present state of Irish political and social unrest, Ireland’s revolutionary cabal had little choice.]
Returning to my newspaper, what would provoke a former Irish taoiseach to discredit the Easter Rebellion? Weren’t the roots of Fine Gael embedded in the years 1916-1922? Weren’t its founding fathers Pro-Treaty Irish luminaries such as Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Richard Mulcahy and W.T. Cosgrave? I somehow doubt these iconic men would’ve ever uttered the words “completely unnecessary” when describing these two historic, watershed events of 1916-1922.
RTÉ broadcaster and journalist George Hook, speaking at this year’s August Michael Collins Commemoration in West Cork, clearly refuted Bruton’s ethereal remarks. In his address to a rain-dampened crowd, he said, “1916 was the starting point for the modern Irish State.” He continued by restating that Fine Gael had its founding in the events of 1916 and beyond. Later, Hook made the point that the philosophy and ideals of the men/women of 1916 fashioned the very foundation of today’s Fine Gael party. Our origins “…are deeply and irrevocably rooted in 1916.”
Too bad John Bruton wasn’t present to hear Hook. You’d never guess he’d become such a ‘turncoat,’ but I must say, there was something ‘strange’ about the man I first met some two decades ago. It was in the mid-1990s. Back then, I’d the nagging impression he was likely just another political grandee, but certainly not a traitor to Irish republicanism. If he’d been so declarative then, he mightn’t have ‘escaped’ West Cork with his dignity intact.
Certainly, that first encounter with Mr. Bruton was innocent enough. The occasion was the 70th-something anniversary of Michael Collins’s death at Béal na mBláth cross, near Bandon. A warm August sun shone down on a large crowd of some five or six thousand Collins’s admirers. It was a fine Sunday afternoon. A local band played. Uniformed members of the Defence Forces were on hand. Sadly though, only two former Volunteers of the old IRA were present. [In the old days, hundreds would have lined out on this lonely stretch of country road in West Cork.]
There, on the small platform built into a hillside, hard by the stone cross marking where
Michael might have died, sat the invited dignitaries…among them was himself, John Bruton. It was the first time in a dozen years that Fine Gael was in Government, but this commemoration had always been one of their signature events.
Standing in the road with the others, I couldn’t help but notice that as the VIPs spoke, the taoiseach, instead of focusing his attention on the individual presenters, constantly turned sideways in his chair, scanning the assembled crowd, as if he was looking for someone. Afterwards, we shook hands and exchanged a few words, but clearly, Bruton’s heart wasn’t in it. He kept looking at his watch, anxious to go.
From that day forward, I was never one of his keen supporters. His tenure as taoiseach was unremarkable and Bruton was often criticised for being too pro-unionists. In fact, his political predecessor once referred to him as “John Unionist.” Despite this admonition, Bruton did take a strong stance against the British government’s position of opposing talks with Sinn Féin during its mid-1990s ceasefire. [Bruton’s government failed to gain re-election in 1997, but as a strong supporter of European integration, he eventually became EU ambassador to the United States in 2004.]
Now, today, in trying to puzzle out his seemly anti-republican/pro-nationalistic stance, Bruton appears to be befuddled. Isn’t it odd he’s elected to discredit the violence wrought by the men/women of the old IRA who were then fighting for Irish independence in Ireland? Instead, he’s carefully chosen to ignore the brutality and bloodshed of the First War…a war supported by John Redmond and his IPP cronies who’d urged over 200,000 Irishmen to enlist in the British army and fight on European soil…a tragedy that claimed the lives of some 50,000 Irish while earning them not a scintilla of Irish freedom.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the Irish government and people like John Bruton are casting about in ambivalent waters. Afraid they may be seen as politically incorrect, they hedge their bets. Instead of declaring 1916/the War for Independence the major Irish event of ‘The Decade of Centenaries’, they focus instead on other 1914 events: the Battle of the Somme, the passage of Home Rule and the Dublin Lock-Out…almost to the exclusion of the 1916 Rebellion.
Nevertheless, it’s my fervent hope that Ireland comes to its senses and stops this dithering. Up ‘16, no Royals & Éire Abú. Cathal

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