Unionism and the Easter Rising by Ciaran Mc

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Are Unionists capable of commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and engaging with historical narratives anathema to their own?

Yesterday, events to commemorate the Centenary of the Rising were rolled out, in Belfast City Hall, the location of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. Tom Hartley, proposed the idea that all perspectives on the Easter Rising should be heard, inviting Unionists to take part in the commemoration. Ken Wilkinson, the PUP activist, has already threw his hat in the ring and stated, he would not be taking part in such commemorations, “traitors” he referred to those who took part.. Others, like UPRG spokesman, Jackie McDonald, have been a little more cautious in their approach, stating there is a “lack of awareness about historical events.” Maybe education and awareness of historical events, would help understanding, respect, tolerance and our society … “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Do Unionists have a connection to the Easter Rising? Well, it could be argued, yes! Indirectly, they do!

Professor Michael Laffan, the retired UCD history lecturer, rightly states that “without Edward Carson and James Craig, there would have been no Easter Rising.” Whether Unionists accept it or not, the Easter Rising is an ingrained part of their History, the history of why we are, where are are today – it cannot be denied. Although it may not fit their historical narrative of the past, the impact of Unionist resistance to Home Rule, amongst other factors, was a contributory factor to the Rising breaking out on the streets of Dublin in April, 1916.

The violent rhetoric and verbal menace of Edward Carson and Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, during the Home Rule crisis, 1912-14, contributed to a rise in radical Nationalism, giving them a boost, particularly that of the old Fenian tradition whose flame was rekindled. As Unionism increased their resistance, Nationalism was brought in from the cold. Nationalism and in effect revolutionary Nationalism became a reaction to the militancy of Ulster Unionists. This militancy created the Easter Rising.

In opposition to Home Rule, the inflammatory and contemptuous extra parliamentary speeches of the time, the frequent use of the word “force”, the text of the Ulster covenant stating Unionists would oppose Home Rule “by all means necessary”, the Blenheim Demonstration where Bonar Law pre-empted the use of violence, committing the Conservative Party to what Beckett described, an “extreme course”, all created a revolutionary and rancorous atmosphere of the time. Carson’s increasing militant rhetoric culminated in the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1913 (with the encouragement of Bonar Law’s Tory Party), embracing physical force as a political strategy and the reemergence of the gun in Irish politics, triggering a chain of events, that no one could have otherwise foreseen. The open display of militarism through drilling, parading and marching and to have a direct impact across Irish society.

As a direct consequence of the formation of the UVF, the nationalist equivalent, the Irish Volunteers were set up in November 1913, reviving the dormant physical force tradition of Irish Nationalism. The Irish Volunteers, born to defend the right to Home Rule, were to provide a front for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and according to Kathleen Clarke, the wife of Tom, “gave the IRB the chance they had been waiting for.” It was the IRB who infiltrated the Irish Volunteers, scheming behind the back of leader Eoin ManNeill, increasing the probability of a Rising taking place – World War One was to provide the cover, circumstances were exploited by the IRB, who through Carson were revived, they were given their lifeline. Prior to this, the IRB were a grouping on a life support machine – the emergence of the IVF allowed them to breath, whilst simultaneously grow stronger.

The radicalisation of Carsonism, converted many Home Rulers into radical Nationalists. After the Home Rule Bill was suspended in September 1914, some Nationalists, caught up in the time, became disillusioned with Redmond’s constitutional stance, diverting them into more radical groupings. Carsonism, provided the IRB with the opportunity they had so long waited. Patrick Pearse, the future Easter Rising leader, is one example of someone who was radicalised in response to the militancy of Ulster Unionism and the arming of the Ulster Volunteers. He argued that Nationalists should do the same. Carson further exasperated Nationalist sentiments by landing 25,000 weapons in Larne and other ports in April 1914, as Asquith and the British government stood idly by, “the headless chicken variety” according to Historian Maume. The Irish Volunteers reciprocated with the landing of weapons in Howth, July 1914. It seems, Nationalism played “follow the leader”, the leader being Unionism, only for revolutionary Nationalism, to eventually take the lead and rebel.

In many ways, “unionism gave the kiss of life to Irish revolutionaries”, the events that Carson triggered, would have appalled him. Carson and the increasingly militancy of Ulster Unionism, during the period 1912-14, helped lay the foundation for what was to become the Easter Rising. Without Carson, the extra parliamentary nature of resistance, the militancy of the UVF, the Rising may never have happened – are Unionists willing to accept this view, that Unionism was a contributor? Are they willing to accept, their history is intermingled with that of Nationalist / Republican history? Instead of “us” and “their” history, would it not be wiser to talk about “our” history? By failing to connect with periods of history, we are doing a disservice to history! I agree with Gustave Flaubert when he states, “Our ignorance of History causes us to slander our own times.” With such a divisive past, it is ever possible for us to move on?



24 Responses to Unionism and the Easter Rising by Ciaran Mc

  1. Iolar October 27, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    According to General Richard Haking, the first day of the Battle of Loos was the bloodiest day of World War 1. Loos was the name of an old French mining town and the battle does not feature as often as do the names of the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele.

    On September 25th, 1915, some 75,000 British soldiers rose from their trenches under the cover of a gas cloud the British swore they would never use. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists some 10,240 British deaths including 8,500 who fell on the battlefield of Loos.

    Patrick McGill’s, ‘The Great Push’ begins with a memorable line.

    “The justice of the cause which endeavours to achieve its object by the murdering and maiming of Mankind is apt to be doubted by a man who has come through a bayonet charge. The dead lying on the fields seem to ask, ‘Why has this been done to us?” War, he would later write, was “an approved licence for brotherly mutilation”.

    The question is cui bono?

    • Ciaran Mc October 27, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

      Interesting post lolar – the question you pose at the end is one that is often forgotten – who benefited? the rhetorical answer, “small nations”, “their freedom” frustrates me – Ireland, as a “small nation” suffered as opposed to benefitted. For centuries previous, the British Empire, colonised these small nations, denied them freedoms and enslaved their peoples – in 1914, the British changed – they became protectors of democracy, of freedoms …. Or did they? Or, was their prestige, power and strength at risk?

      WW1, the war to end all wars, was exactly, not that – many of those who sacrificed their lives – why did they so? Patriotism? Cannon folder? Youth? Inexperience? Adventure? To prevent Home Rule? To secure Home Rule? I often wonder, if many of the soldiers knew what they were going to face, would they have joined up? One things for certain, the British Army propaganda machine successfully functioned before, during and after the war – and John Redmond only served to enhance it!

  2. Cushy Glen October 27, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    I think it is fair to claim that the success of the Ulster Unionists in 1912 & onwards in defying London with the threat of armed insurrection inspired nationalists to believe they could do the same. Sadly for the nationalists they were not so well connected with the Tory establishment as the Unionists of the time were & didn’t get off scot free..

    Perhaps this point needs made more forcefully & the leaders of modern day unionism asked to Dublin to be formally thanked for their predecessors actions that led to the rising in 1916?

    • Ciaran Mc October 27, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

      CG, I agree – Unionsts need to accept their part in creating the atmosphere for the Rising, however embarrassing or divisive this may be – we often hear Unionists criticise what the Easter Rebels did, yet no criticism is aimed at the the actions of Carson, Craig, Crawford, Bonar Law, FE Smith et al. Some unionists wants to knit pick history and be selective of events that fits their historical narrative – to reach out beyond this can only serve to allow us to develop a shared history, a history to learn from, not use as a political weapon! I feel unionist engagement in the Rising commemoration and Nationalist engagement in commemorating the Somme can only help understanding, tolerance, respect and allow society to move forward!

  3. sarah m October 27, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    excellent article!

  4. James Gallagher October 27, 2015 at 6:59 pm #

    I’m encouraged that this article, in effect, reinforces my long-held opinion that the actions of the Unionists with respect to Home Rule and during the period 1912-1914, in particular 1914, triggered the IRB’s need to do something. The discrimination by the British Government against the Nationalist-Catholic Irish could no longer be tolerated. It’s no wonder that Constitutional Nationalism changed rapidly to Revolutionary Nationalism from 1910 to 1914. In my humble view, 1914 was the critical year that prompted a commitment to a Rising. The Bachelors Walk and Curragh Mutiny incidents in 1914, without penalty from the Government, added fuel to the fire. The assistance of, and prodding by, Irish America also had a hand in identifying the time element. Sad to say that, today, Ireland is neither Gaelic nor free.

    Jim Gallagher

    • Ciaran Mc October 29, 2015 at 6:42 pm #

      James, I agree with your sentiments – Curragh affair and Larne gunrunning illustrated to Unionists that their extra parliamentary tactics were working, as the government were damaged beyond repair, after these events – the government did nothing to prevent unionists acting in such treasonous ways! Any credibility Asquith and the Liberals had, faded and within Nationalists ranks, all was gone after the Batchelor’s Walk incident! This event added to the radicalisation of many and propelled them into accepting the use of / threat of violence, as a means to justify their actions. Carson, really did start something, that he lost control of and society ended up out of control as a result of!

  5. billy October 27, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    ime sure ken will come round when jackie explains theres grants on the go for this.

  6. jessica October 27, 2015 at 8:42 pm #

    I wonder what parties will reaffirm their commitment to achieving a permanent national government representative of the whole people of Ireland?

    Will Sinn Fein remain the only republican party on this island or will the other parties be inspired by the occasion, step up with valour and discipline and prove themselves worthy of holding the office for which they have provisional stewardship?

    • billy October 27, 2015 at 11:08 pm #

      think that was covered in the internal settlement of the gfa.

      • jessica October 28, 2015 at 9:44 am #

        “think that was covered in the internal settlement of the gfa.”

        Then billy, it needs to be implemented in full and not left on the shelf or rewritten as unionists would prefer.

        • billy October 28, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

          even implemented in full it still cant bring about a united ireland,have you ever read it.

          • jessica October 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

            “I wonder what parties will reaffirm their commitment to achieving a permanent national government representative of the whole people of Ireland?
            Will Sinn Fein remain the only republican party on this island or will the other parties be inspired by the occasion, step up with valour and discipline and prove themselves worthy of holding the office for which they have provisional stewardship?”

            “think that was covered in the internal settlement of the gfa.”
            “even implemented in full it still cant bring about a united ireland,have you ever read it.”

            Then what i referred to in my post was hardly covered in the internal settlement of the gfa as you claimed billy.

  7. Seamas Og October 28, 2015 at 12:50 am #

    An interesting piece which could also give rise to the question by rejecting to learn about History are Unionist politicians forever doomed to repeat it? In the sense that accepting the points of this article we can say Unionists created the climate for political violence by ignoring the democratic and political path in the early 1900s. During the decades of Unionist misrule at Stormont they again created the climate where political violence festered, indeed it was the attacks by Unionist state forces on those marching for Civil Rights and attacks on Catholic areas that arguably created the rise of the Provisional IRA. Just as they had done circa 1912 Unionist politicians arguably gave the impetus for Republican violence in 1969. How ironic that they always claim their innocence in the terms of the events of the conflict, as lets be honest their rhetoric has caused many young men to take up arms on whichever side they were. Even now they preach about 2 killings allegedly linked to the IRA and act repulsed at ‘terrorism’ yet stand shoulder to shoulder on platforms with loyalists who allegedly since their ‘ceasefire’ have killed over 30 people and terrorise their own community through criminal activity. Lets not forget the cry of the Civil Rights movement was British Rights for British Citizens and look at how they met that with violence through their state forces, I would also question have they delivered these rights fully to the Protestant people who vote for them especially in ‘working class areas’. Perhaps Unionist politicians run down the memory and role of the Easter Rising in 1916 in shaping Ireland’s history as they can’t face the truth of the role they have played in creating the climate for violent Republicanism to emerge. The truth is so many events claimed by either side have actually helped to create the current political states of this island and are a part of a shared history all sides should acknowledge and study not in isolation but collectively. When I hear Unionists politicians preach about the history of this Island and democracy and will of the people, I can’t help but be amazed at them and think of the words of a very famous and influential man they love to preach about when he said ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.

  8. Séamus Ó Néill October 28, 2015 at 6:58 am #

    From the mid fifteenth century when the first planters arrived here they have been a garrison force with an extant siege mentality.Every day of existence seems to be one of prejudice and insecurity compounded by a ,not unwarranted ,distrust of the English..Behind every rattling bush is a fenian ready to pounce.They have a very myopic outlook and an almost maniacal obsession to ,if not rewrite history, then to distort it beyond recognition. In 1914,securing 25,000 guns from Germany to fight the British ( whom they claim to be )….Is that not traitorous or treasonous .Was the UWC murderous strike in 1974 not traitorous.
    No ,I’m sorry, but until they ,themselves ,learn our shared history…..learn how sectarianism and racism was used by the English and their own cynical pseudo-politicians, learn that we have more to unite than separate us….then any invitations will be instantly dismissed

  9. Oriel27 October 28, 2015 at 9:11 am #

    Great article Jude

    interesting debate, I notice the puppets in RTE are having an simultaneous interactive show with Nolan and the BBC in a couple of weeks discussing the chances of an All Ireland etc. I cant help feel its another attempt to preserve the status-quo by the establishment. ..

    Yes of course Unionists have a big part in the 1916 commemorations, its their heritage too ! (heritage can be good or bad).
    They split the country, they created the artificial state. They began the war.

    The unionists were a very organised force back then. My own father 15 years ago, found a Monaghan UVF Dixie badge in the spud ridge. Its currently on display in Monaghan Museum.

    The UVF in my own county were very determined to prevent home rule.


    • Jude Collins October 28, 2015 at 9:31 am #

      Not mine, Oriel – all credit to Ciaran Mc

  10. John Mitchell October 28, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    Great article and excellent angle to take the Easter Rebellion debate – be interesting to hear Unionist views on it – Neill, are you there? No getting away from the fact, unionists have a part to play in the rebellion and coming to terms with that can only help!

  11. Gearoid October 28, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

    Excellent analysis Jude – enjoy reading the historical perspective and how Carson and his elk cannot deny the claim, they brought the threat of violence and radicalisation of society! In last paragraph, some interesting questions posed – would be good to hear political unionisms answers to these – but I’m unsure they would entertain them as denial is their justification!

    • Jude Collins October 29, 2015 at 11:17 am #

      It was Daniel wot dun it, Gearoid – but thanks anyway.

    • neill October 30, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

      Unionists threatened violence and Republicans committed violence that perhaps is the subtle difference..

      As we know the south was not a very friendly place if you were a unionist don’t think anybody could possibly argue with that.

      • jessica October 30, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

        “Unionists threatened violence and Republicans committed violence that perhaps is the subtle difference..”

        That’s the spirit neill. After all, you are the master race.

        • Jude Collins October 30, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

          Jessica – I said to neill that I would try to pull people up from simple abuse. I think this is a bit near to just that. If you’re going to fault someone, offer reasons for faulting them. I value neill’s contributions AND yours but I’d like them to deal with the issues.

          • jessica October 31, 2015 at 7:03 am #

            Neill, apologies for any offense caused.

            My issues would be that unionism did not simply make threats as your comment implies, they acted on them and from what I have learned from this site, brought in weapons prior to the 1916 uprising and again in 1960s prior to the 1969 so many believe unionism actually started the trouble at least in the last century .

            Do you deny these events took place or was bringing in weapons along with rivers of blood speeches just part of the harmless threats?