This day, 21 January, is seen as a day of great significance in the history of Ireland. Two things happened on 21 January, 1919. In the aftermath of the huge electoral victory by Sinn Féin in December 1918, the first Dáil Éireann convened and announced Irish independence. On the same day, Dan Breen and other IRA volunteers ambushed two RIC men accompanying a supply of gelignite in Tipperary. Both RIC men were shot dead; the gelignite was stored but eventually in Breen’s words “rotted” and was never used.
The meeting of the first Dáil is obviously of huge significance. For the first time, duly elected representatives of the people of Ireland, north, south, east and west, declared Ireland’s right to an independent government of Irish people for Irish people. The ambush at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary is seen as the first shots of what some call the War of Independence, others the Black and Tan War. In fact there were killings of RIC men prior to 21 January but history likes these things to be neat and tidy.
Over the weekend, descendants of the two RIC men killed have made a claim for them to be formally remembered, alongside the IRA men. The argument is that these were Irishmen too, doing the job of keeping the peace, and that the tears of their families were as real as those of any republicans killed during the war that was starting.
This is in line with the argument that has resulted in the names of British soldiers who were Irishmen being inscribed on the wall at Glasnevin cemetery, along with republicans who fought against them in 1916.
Is this the compassionate, all-embracing thing to do? Is this a sign of Ireland’s maturity that it laments the death of all its children?
The wobble in this argument becomes apparent when we take it to its logical extension. We honour those who fought for Irish independence but we honour those who fought against Irish independence. Extend that further and German soldiers who died in the First and Second World Wars should have their names inscribed on British war memorials, and vice versa. War is a brutal and hideous thing, and all who died suffered equally and should be remembered equally.
That makes a lot of sense if you are a pacifist and see violent conflict, in all situations, as inexcusable. Most Irish people, like most people throughout the world, are not pacifists. They believe that sometimes violence is essential to achieve their political goals. To honour them and equally to honour the men who fought against Irish independence simply doesn’t make sense. To present it as national maturity, able to embrace all the children of the nation, is a con.
So too is the way that many historians conveniently ignore the fact that the first Dáil, which convened one hundred years ago today, expressed the wishes of the Irish people throughout the country to govern themselves. Those who frustrated those wishes were patently the enemies of democracy.