Posts Tagged ‘ Independence ’

The Easter Rising – The Shot That Fired Us Towards Freedom

April is a wonderful month for the historical celebrant. We’ve already seen the centenary of the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic, the celebration of the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement just across the border to name but a few. But in our own little section of the country, one stands above all, one which has been commemorated in the public eye already with 2,000 people turning out to the GPO on Easter Sunday. But if we were to be pedantic there are still a one or two days to go before its exact anniversary.

The planned Easter Rising was the brainchild of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secretive organisation advocating physical force republicanism, which had been founded in the latter half of the 19th century following the failed rebellion of 1848. Despite their influence, numbers were small and while they could infiltrate, initiating a rebellion was a much harder task. So, when the Ulster unionists created the Ulster Volunteers in 1912 (morphing into the Ulster Volunteer Force by early 1913), the IRB spotted their chance and on the 25th November 1913, the Irish Volunteers were born, and the IRB had an army of men whom they could turn to their own agenda.

Following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914, the IRB Supreme Council met to discuss a rising before the war could end, as well as the acceptance of any assistance the Germans might offer. Over the following years of the war a military council was established, populated by Tom Clarke, Éamonn Ceannt, Seán MacDermott, Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and James Connolly, several of whom held positions in, and therefore exercised some measure of control over, the Volunteers. Plans were underway to undertake another uprising against British rule in the country, though this was against the wishes of both the Volunteers Executive (Eoin MacNeill) and the IRB executive (Denis McCullough) who were opposed to an uprising that lacked popular support.

Easter Sunday of 1916 was eventually decided upon. But, from the beginning, things went against the conspirators. Three days of marching activities around Easter Sunday were designed to alert Volunteers to the date of the uprising and get them into the city under pretence without raising the attention of either MacNeill or more importantly, Dublin Castle. However MacNeill got wind of what they were planning and threatened to “do everything possible short of phoning Dublin Castle” to prevent the rising from going ahead. When plans were revealed to MacNeill about a shipment of guns landing on Irish shores he was placated somewhat, believing their discovery would lead to a Castle crackdown on the Volunteers, in turn pushing popular opinion behind an insurrection. Unfortunately, Roger Casement, who had travelled to Germany to secure the weapons, was put ashore at Tralee and was arrested. Meanwhile, the German ship Aud on which the consignment of guns was being transported was intercepted by the Royal Navy and was scuttled by its Captain. MacNeill thus reverted to his original position, against an insurrection, and cancelled all Volunteer actions for the Sunday. This only postponed the planned rising by a day but, more importantly, vastly reduced the number of Volunteers ready and able in the city.

The result was that only a small number of Volunteers and members of Connolly’s Citizen Army were gathered in Dublin on Easter Sunday and not overly well armed or supplied. Early in the morning of April 24th 1916, a force of around 1,200 men took various positions around Dublin including the General Post Office (GPO, where a young Michael Collins fought alongside Padraig Pearse), Boland’s Mill – under the control of future president of Ireland Eamon de Valera – and the Four Courts, while failing to take the largely undefended Dublin Castle. The GPO was marked out as headquarters; two Republican flags were raised while Pearse read aloud a Proclamation of the Republic. The reason they were successful, despite their lower numbers, is simple – the British were caught unawares, and were un-coordinated on the first day of the insurrection. Soldiers were sent out on foot, several stumbling upon rebel strongholds, and dying in the process. On Tuesday evening, the British were responding more efficiently and martial law was declared. As the rebels failed to take the city’s main train stations, by the end of the week thousands of British soldiers were pouring into the city. Fighting was almost non-existent in many places. The British didn’t need to send troops in as the rebels had chosen several sites along the River Liffey – it was a simple matter of sending a gunboat along the river, shelling the various locations they had taken. Heavy casualties were experienced on the British side at Mount Street, where the commander ordered a frontal attack on the rebel’s position, yielding around 240 men dead or injured, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Battered and bruised, with mounting casualties, Padraig Pearse issued an order for all companies to surrender on Saturday the 29th of April, and surrendered unconditionally to Brigadier-General W.H.M. Lowe. Around the country several other actions had also taken place, in places such as Ashbourne in County Meath, and Enniscorthy. However numbers were low due to Eoin MacNeill’s counter order and they were poorly armed following the failure of the Aud to deliver its cargo, although they had some successes.

Some may argue that the Rising was no success and when considered as a military operation it was a failure, in and of itself. After all they did little more than the uprisings of their ancestors, capturing several buildings or areas for a few days before relinquishing them to British troops following the surrender. Indeed had they captured Dublin Castle – they had failed to press on after attacking the guardroom to take the castle, which was lightly guarded – then success on the field may have been more of a possibility. The Republican motto during these years was ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. But the fact of the matter is that the reasoning behind this was flawed, and that the rebellion was doomed from the beginning. The rebels undoubtedly believed that the best time to strike was while England was at war elsewhere, preoccupied and unable to really defend herself on yet another frontier. However, the opposite was true. Faced with a greater threat in the form of the main German line, England would always strike hard and fast to ensure Ireland remained under her thumb, to get rid of any unnecessary distractions and also to counter any threat of Germany using the island of Ireland as a base to strike out from.

And yet a success it was, with a bit of luck, due to the events and the reaction it spawned. Before the Rising, constitutional republicanism in the form of Home Rule had the support of the people in going about their aims peacefully. The rebels had some support – reports of crowds of people lining the streets as they were marched to barracks, spitting on the captured prisoners, are over-exaggerated – however this support was minimal at best. The decision to execute the ringleaders would change both public opinion and Ireland’s destiny. Fifteen were executed for their part in the events including the seven members of the IRB military council, who were also the seven signatories on the Proclamation. As the poet W.B. Yeats remarked afterwards, ‘All changed, changed utterly.’ Public opinion, noting the British occupation of the city and the executions of Republicans for their part in the events, began to turn considerably away from Home Rule and towards a more radical solution to British rule in Ireland. Sinn Féin benefited the most from this sway and when the Conscription Crisis of 1918 was added into the mix the result was a landslide victory for the party during the December elections to the British parliament. This public support was of huge importance during the War of Independence, fought between 1919 and 1921. Those who fought against the British army required the help of locals – in hiding them from troops, feeding them while on the run and relying on them not to give their positions away. Locals also ferried messages, information and sometimes weapons through the countryside and towns, often under the unsuspecting noses of the British army. Considering the eventual success of the war, and the handing back of the 26 counties to the control of the Irish people for the first time in centuries, then the rising can be certainly considerable an unqualified success, albeit in a way not entirely foreseen or intended. And it also was during the Easter Rising that Michael Collins received an eye-opener, alongside the education of Frongoch prison camp. Collins noted the futility in engaging the British in open warfare and taking open, hard-defended positions, and would use this experience when forming his guerrilla flying columns during the War of Independence, whose job it was to suddenly attack British soldiers, disappearing just as quickly.

In the following years, the rebels and their actions entered into the national and Republican consciousness, their graves becoming a national monument, the text of the Proclamation being taught in schools, and military and civil parades held on the anniversary each year. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Rising, Roibéárd Ó Faracháin, head of programming with RTÉ, was very clear about the insurrection’s importance to the country. “While still seeking historical truth,” he said, “the emphasis will be on homage, on salutation.” All hasn’t been rosy, however, and during the Troubles the Irish government discontinued the yearly parade, and even proscribed the celebration in 1976, and an official endorsement wasn’t returned until 1996. Controversy still rises each time the yearly plans to commemorate the Rising are brought forth, and will surely only deepen as the centenary of the event fast approaches. But despite the different ways historians, revisionists, journalists and the ordinary men and women of Ireland approach 1916, its impact on shaping our country can never be underestimated or, indeed, forgotten.

The ‘Scottish Question’

‘The Debatable Lands of history’, wrote Norman MacCaig of the hills and valleys of the Scottish Borders, which signal the dividing point between the two historic nations of England and Scotland. Whilst the geographic boundary may no longer be in question, the debate over the constitutional boundaries within the United Kingdom is very much to the fore in both Edinburgh and London.

On gaining an overall majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections – an impressive feat in a system which utilises proportional representation – the Scottish National Party (SNP), under First Minister Alex Salmond, pledged that there would be a referendum on Scotland’s future in the UK within four years. Since then, the ‘Scottish Question’ has taken on a renewed impetus, as politicians, journalists, civic groups, and the public have engaged in the debate over independence for Scotland.

Yet this debate is by no means a new one. Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom was a subject of discourse for much of the 20th century. ‘There will be a Scottish Parliament’, declared the late Donald Dewar, and in 1997 Scots were given the chance to decide for themselves in a referendum on the matter in which almost 75% of Scottish voters agreed with him. This was not the first time Scots were presented with a referendum on their future. A referendum was held in 1979, with a majority again in favour. However, the referendum had been subject to the “40% rule”, i.e., requiring 40% of the whole electorate to vote in favour rather than a simple majority.

The successful devolution referendum in 1997 was on the back of nearly twenty years of Conservative rule in Britain. During those years, the delegation of Conservative MPs crossing the Tweed to Westminster was uniformly minimal, prompting many to question the mandate held by Westminster over Scottish affairs. Margaret Thatcher’s governance, moreover, alienated many in Scotland. In 2012, there are only two Conservative MPs representing Scottish seats. David Cameron’s Conservative government finds little support north of the border. The conditions which fostered burgeoning support for devolution in the run-up to 1997 are being mirrored in the political climate in which the current debate exists, and Salmond is keenly aware of this.

David Cameron took an early foray into the debate, attempting to call Salmond’s bluff. “If Alex Salmond wants a referendum, why wait?”, Cameron told the Commons in January. This proved to be a costly error. The SNP Government hit back with claims of Westminster interference in Scottish democracy, a sentiment that many Scots found themselves agreeing with. In a matter of such historical importance for Scots, a Tory Prime Minister callously urging “get on with it” from London did little to help the unionist position in Scotland.

The debate has been further tipped in favour of independence by the manner in which it has been argued against. The argument to a large extent has thus far centred on why Scots can’t go it alone, rather than being built on a positive argument for the Union. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, partners in the coalition Westminster government, have been amongst those eager to stress some of the apparent gaps in the finer details of the independence plan, such as the armed forces, currency, and border control.

These details are undoubtedly important, yet such a focus is detrimental to their stance in that it fails to set the unionist position on any positive footing. Salmond has seized this opportunity to hold ownership over the language of positivity. He told a London audience in January that an independent Scotland would be a “progressive beacon of social democracy” based upon “universal values of fairness”. Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour party, has long understood that the best way for her party to garner support for the union is on those very values which Salmond espoused. Nevertheless, Labour have failed to effectively convey this.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, recently sought to rectify this in a visit to Scotland.

I support Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, not because I think Scotland is too poor or too weak to break away. But for a profoundly different reason: Because I believe that Scotland as part of the United Kingdom is better for the working people of Scotland, and better for the working people of the United Kingdom as a whole.

He cited the NHS and the history of British Labour as being a shared success, with the rallying cry: “let’s confront the real divide in Britain… between the haves and the have-nots.” A strong speech, but given his party’s failure to competently confront that very divide as Opposition in the Commons, its sentiment was all but lost.

Yet there is another aspect to the ‘Scottish Question’, away from the tit-for-tat politics of the debate. Miliband attempted to conjure a shared identity in his appeal to Scots, and both Cameron and Clegg respectively have reiterated those “common values”. Yet a uniqueness of culture and identity is something that we cannot ignore in the question over Scottish independence. This, it must be stressed, is something aside from nationality (the recent calls, for example, for expat Scots to be included in the referendum electorate was folly; an electorate should not be defined along ethnic lines). The Economist recently chided those in Scotland who seek independence as anti-English. Conversely, a fairer political relationship between the two countries could, as Salmond has argued, help cultural bonds between the two nations to prosper.

There are, undoubtedly, shared identities within the United Kingdom. Yet, since the end of the Second World War, there has been a growing sense of a re-defined Scottish identity in its own right. This expressed itself partly through the formation of the Scottish Parliament at the end of 20th century. The political and constitutional make-up was reconstructed to reflect the changed needs and wants of Scotland. The independence referendum, including the devo-plus and devo-max options (which involve a much greater transfer of power from Westminster to Edinburgh), offers the chance for this process to continue. The referendum will further empower Scots to re-define their cultural identity.

As the debate rages on, opinion polls fluctuate in levels of support for either side. When it boils down to it, there will be many Scots – in spite of the political to-and-fro, the arguments over the economy, and bickering over North Sea Oil – who find themselves having left the polling station having placed a cross in the “yes” box. Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1926 work, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, hinted as to why this will be the case:

 I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur

Extremes meet – it’s the only way I ken

To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt

That damns the vast majority o’ men.

There is an element of this appeal which can only be described as a hedonistic leap of faith, allowing a break from MacDiarmid’s “cursed conceit of being right”. The ‘Scottish Question’ may yet find an answer.