Sunday, March 27, 2016
Easter Rising: it is time to apologise to the Irish
One hundred years ago, the Irish people fought for independence from the British. But now bygones are bygones: we have too much in common to quarrel
Irish rebels are executed after the uprising
All nations make catastrophic mistakes, and one of Britain’s was in its relations with Ireland and the handling of the Easter Rising a century ago.
The extent of the damage can be gauged by the fact that it has only been in the last five years, with the Queen's visit to Ireland and President Higgin's reciprocal visit here, that anything approaching normal relations has been achieved.
The tragedy of this is that our two countries are interwoven by ties of culture, language, history and, above all, family; and for us to have spent most of the 20th century in deep estrangement when it is clear how much the British and Irish people have in common with each other has harmed us both.
There is nothing more contemptible than politicians seeking approval by apologising for wrongs committed by previous generations: but the wrongs the British did Ireland, and their consequences, require an apology, and the centenary of the Rising is the time to make it.
The Irish are said to have a long memory for grudges: but in my experience of that country over the last 30 years this applies only to a few disaffected bigots.
Like us, most Irish are forward-looking, ambitious and determined. Like us – and this is the great change in recent years – they are an increasingly secular people, having shaken off the domination of the Catholic church, as they proved last year in legalising same-sex marriage.
Irish rebels lying in wait on a roof getting ready to fire during the Easter Rising, 1916
Sadly, too many in Ireland today had their lives and outlooks shaped by the mythology of the Rising, used in the repressive era of de Valera to indoctrinate those not born at the time. Ireland is putting that in perspective, a process for which it deserves the highest respect and congratulation: but we all need to remember the Easter Rising, why it happened, who was to blame, and how we interpret its influence.
A distinguished Irishman said to me not long ago that if we choose to leave the EU, so Ireland would have to, given the volume of trade between us.
Gladstone saw in 1886 that Ireland’s demand for Home Rule was legitimate and unanswerable. That year, and in 1893, Parliament threw the demand out.
There had only been a Union since 1801; but in that period the British Empire had expanded, and the proposal that Ireland might rule itself (though not in foreign or defence policy) was regarded as undermining that project. In 1912 Asquith brought in a third Home Rule Bill: and because the House of Lords had lost its veto, it was certain to pass.
However, its implementation was postponed when the Great War broke out in 1914.
This was not lightly done: but Ulster was on the verge of civil war, since it did not believe assurances that the rights of the Protestant minority would be guaranteed under Home Rule, and the government did not want to fight on two fronts. Also, many Catholic nationalists readily joined the British Army to fight the Kaiser.
Children collect firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising Photo: Getty
However a minority, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, saw an opportunity to overthrow British rule while the war was on. They were further provoked by the threat of conscription as the war became worse for Britain. Despite some of those in on the secret urging restraint, the rebellion started at Easter 1916, in Dublin and elsewhere.
Loathing of Britain, fostered before independence by the Black and Tans, reached the point in 1945 where de Valera could sign a book of condolence on Hitler’s death and still not outrage his followers.
The war on the Western Front was not going well, and the British were in no mood to treat rebels with leniency when the nation was in peril. Artillery attacked rebel positions, notably in the General Post Office, with ferocity. That much was understandable, but the aftermath was disastrous.
The leaders were tried by court-martial and 14 of them executed by firing squad in early May; another, Sir Roger Casement, was tried for treason and hanged.
Britain was well aware of the pressure it was under from the war: but it made no allowances for Irish rage at 30 years of being treated like naughty, incompetent children. With hindsight, locking up the rebel leaders and releasing them within 18 months – which is what happened to the rank and file – would have calmed the situation.
Instead, execution made martyrs and encouraged violent republicanism. The brutality of Sinn Fein replaced Moderate Irish nationalism. Instead of Home Rule to keep Ireland within the United Kingdom, a Free State and then a Republic were set up, with Britain as a sworn enemy to many.
Extremists and moderates clashed in Ireland’s own civil war; the country was partitioned; the mood led to Protestants being driven almost out of the Free State, and Catholics being treated as second-class citizens in Ulster. Loathing of Britain, fostered before independence by the Black and Tans, reached the point in 1945 where de Valera could sign a book of condolence on Hitler’s death and still not outrage his followers.
If the idea persists anywhere in Ireland that the British feel happy about the way earlier generations of them patronised, infantilised and sought to control the Irish, then we must disabuse our cousins there of it once and for all.
One should not have to say that we see the Irish as our equals and our blood brothers, but one says it for the avoidance of doubt.
The rapprochement of the State visits might, perhaps, continue by Ireland acknowledging our shared heritage and joining the Commonwealth, like many nations for whom the Queen is not head of state, but with whom we share values. Bygones should be bygones: we have too much in common to quarrel.
Many Britons now can understand how the Irish felt a century ago. We, too, want to govern ourselves,and determine our own future without the controls a foreign power. A distinguished Irishman said to me not long ago that if we choose to leave the EU, so Ireland would have to, given the volume of trade between us.
I am not sure that follows: but what we have in common remains so powerful that, if we do leave, our first bilateral deal should be with our Irish cousins. Potentially, we have no better friend on earth: on this sombre centenary, let us recall that apparent paradox above all else.