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Stephen Collins: Decade of commemorations stoking cult of violence

There is an increasingly one-sided presentation of the struggle for independence

Brian Stanley’s offensive tweet about IRA killings in 1979 has rightly drawn widespread condemnation but it should also prompt a wider assessment of the way the State-sponsored decade of commemorations is breathing new life into the cult of violence which has bedevilled this country for more than a century.

The increasingly one-sided presentation of what happened during the struggle for independence 100 years ago is helping to craft a narrative in which the population is being encouraged to believe a version of the past in which independence was achieved solely by violent acts. That in turn underpins Sinn Féin’s support for violence in more recent times and its current drive for Irish unity.

The thinking behind the decade of commemorations project was to give people a sense of pride in the creation of the independent Irish State, along with an open minded recognition of the complex motivations that drove the actions of people on all sides of the struggle.

Glorification of past violence, with little attempt to put it in the wider political context of the times, is having a direct impact on current politics

That approach worked well in the initial stages, with the centenary of the 1916 Rising being marked in a way that did not cast the memory of all those Irish men who died in the first World War as being enemies of their country. There were moving ceremonies to recognise the sacrifice of those who died in both conflicts.


The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011, and her respectful bow in the Garden of Remembrance to the 1916 leaders, followed by her attendance at a ceremony at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge to honour the fallen of the first World War, appeared to open a new chapter in mutual understanding not just between Ireland and the UK but between the different traditions on this island.

However, the promise of a more tolerant and nuanced appreciation of the past has withered in more recent times as the omens for the future become ever more ominous. The ongoing succession of commemorative events for the violent actions that took place during the War of Independence has become increasingly narrow with State broadcaster RTÉ churning out successive programme reinforcing a cowboys-and-Indians version of history.

Glorification of past violence, with little attempt to put it in the wider political context of the times, is having a direct impact on current politics. Young people with no memory of the murder and mayhem of the more recent Troubles are being conditioned to buy into the republican narrative which claims that the violence of the 1969-1997 period was not only justified but in direct succession from violent activities of an earlier era.

Many countries have a founding myth that involves a distortion of historical events that led to their birth

Evidence of the potential impact of warped historical understanding on current events has been provided by our neighbours in the UK. The decision of the British electorate to vote for Brexit has been widely portrayed by Irish commentators as absurd nostalgia for long departed days of imperial grandeur. While the Brexit vote was far more complex than that, there is little doubt that a simplistic version of history played its part in the decision. In particular, the genuinely heroic British defiance of Hitler and defence of democracy in 1940 was used as a persuasive argument in favour of a disastrous withdrawal from Europe in 2016.

Yet the real lesson of the act of self-harm that the people of the UK have perpetrated on themselves appears to have been entirely lost on this side of the Irish Sea. While we are now inclined to regard ourselves as modern Europeans, who would never do anything as foolish as the British to imperil our new-found economic fortune, we seem to be growing increasingly attached to a comic book version of this country’s story as 700 years of unending oppression.

Just look at the way the attempt by former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to commemorate members of the Royal Irish Constabulary killed during events of a century ago was distorted and misrepresented. The vitriolic opposition to the planned commemoration revealed an ugly level of ignorance and intolerance which went well beyond the ranks of Sinn Féin. It showed that much of the widely trumpeted respect for all traditions on the island is mere lip service.

It can be argued that many countries have a founding myth that involves a distortion of historical events that led to their birth. But the example of the UK shows that giving overdue importance to the past, even genuine past glories, can do serious damage in the present. The price the British people will have to pay for Brexit, including the potential break-up of their union, will begin to become clearer after January 1st.

The price this country may ultimately pay for wallowing in a warped and violence-glorifying version of history could be even greater. In current politics there are two competing visions of Ireland’s future. One is of a shared island in which all traditions are respected while the other is that of a forced unity regardless of the human and economic cost. On present trends we are heading for the latter scenario, sanctioned by a simplistic, blood soaked reading of history.