“Oh, words are lightly spoken, said Pearse to Connolly.” This is a line from W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Rose Tree.” It is not, though, something always practised by the establishment in our 26-county republic.
Their words are carefully chosen to deliver a message. Moreover, what they say and how is frequently designed to influence the popular understanding of today, or to alter how people view seminal events of the past.
There is a well-thought-out rationale for this. It is geared towards directing and dictating a narrative. To put it bluntly, the intention is to create a story that suits the aims and policies of the ruling class.
Last month’s centenary of the first Dáil and the IRA action in Solloghodbeg provided yet another example of this. Mainstream media coverage revealed a clear determination by the establishment not only to reinterpret the past but also to create a revised text, an Authorised Version, for the days to come.
RTE reported Solloghodbeg as the place where “two Irish policemen were killed,” giving the impression that the RIC was a normal civilian police force. The Irish Times went even further in its editorial, describing the ambush as “controversial at the time and there are still divided views about its justification,” before going on to lament the “brutality of the killings.”
While nobody should rejoice at violent death, it would be difficult to fit these highly tendentious accounts into a celebration of an incident for long recognised as the first shots of a war fought for independence—moreover, a struggle against what was at the time the world’s mightiest empire.
There is undoubtedly a need to challenge and correct these pejorative interpretations of seminal events in our history. However, doing so in adequate detail will have to be left to another time. It is important, nevertheless, to reflect on the underlying message being promoted by the establishment. It is also necessary to recognise the risks arising from this attempted manipulation of history, as other sinister elements may well seek to stamp their own interpretation on the story.
In the first instance, Ireland’s elite is undoubtedly nervous. Domestically, there are difficulties thrown up by Brexit and the Dublin government’s dependence on Brussels in relation to the issue. There is then the recent gloomy economic prognosis published by the International Monetary Fund, which shows a slowing down in the EU and warns that “policy space for countries is more limited than in 2008.”¹ And rumbling away in the background is the potential for a threatening fall-out from global disruption brought about by an unstable US president.
In the present era the Irish ruling class is not as secure as it may appear to be. Set against the wider macro-backdrop outlined above are other serious and well-known issues. There is a housing emergency, a dysfunctional health service with an increasingly militant work force, and thousands of workers struggling to get by on poverty wages. Meanwhile the long-term future of the northern six-county state is in doubt, adding to overall anxiety among the South’s elite.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that those in power would prefer if people were not to reflect positively on radical alternatives to the status quo. In particular there is a determination to ensure that people do not look favourably on institutional change initiated by grass-roots activists. By traducing the reputation of those who launched the War of Independence they hope to distract attention from its revolutionary potential, something that was crushed by reactionary elements embedded within the struggle at that time.
There is, moreover, an additional factor to be considered when the establishment and its media meddle with a long-held view of a historical event. There is, after all, a deep-seated residual respect in much of Ireland for those who fought the Black and Tans. Trying to undo this may well open the door to other unscrupulous propagandists, happy to exploit the credibility gap created by heavy-handed revisionism.
Much of the Trump phenomenon in the United States, for example, has been based on accusations that the mainstream media produce fake news. Containing a germ of truth, this claim has allowed him to promote an even bigger lie.
The tactic is not new. The cry of Lügenpresse (lying press) was heard throughout 1930s Germany.
At a time when significant political change is in the offing, it becomes all the more important that a clear and progressive analysis is promoted energetically.
Consider two events held on the same day last month, one organised by the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum in Dublin, the other convened by a pan-nationalist coalition in Belfast.
On 26 January a large crowd attended “Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland,” in what was described as a conference of civic nationalism in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. The audience heard that Northern nationalists are now looking at “new constitutional and political horizons.” The platform was occupied by senior figures from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, and the SDLP. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how these four parties could agree on a future Ireland that any progressive or socialist would, or indeed could, be comfortable with.
Indeed it is a moot point whether the two Southern parties would even support an end to partition. Donnacha Ó Beacháin, associate professor of law and government at DCU, wrote recently in the Times (London) of a private meeting in Cork during August 1975 at which the British foreign secretary, James Callaghan, sought the opinion of his Irish counterpart, Garret Fitzgerald, and Jack Lynch, leader of Fianna Fáil, on a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the North after a fixed period. Both opposed the idea as “highly dangerous.”² There is little evidence that either party has changed its outlook in the meantime.
As the Belfast event was taking place, hundreds of delegates from a wide range of organisations as well as individuals gathered in Liberty Hall in Dublin. Those attending this event celebrated the first Dáil Éireann and acknowledged the role of those who fought in the War of Independence. Throughout the day trade unionists and members of community, youth and women’s groups mixed with political activists and celebrated the progressive Democratic Programme of the first Dáil.
They also agreed on the basis for a new Democratic Programme for 21st-Century Ireland and called for the building of a People’s Dáil.³ While there was unanimous agreement on the need for continuing discussion and debate, the delegates were unambiguous in their support for a republic in which “all the means of producing the necessities of life, including the control of capital, all natural resources, both land and sea, should be owned and controlled by and for the people of Ireland.”
Before the event ended, delegates supported a motion condemning the attempt by the United States and the European Union to encourage a coup against the democratically elected government of Venezuela.
It hardly needs stating which event was graced by the mainstream media and which event was not. In spite of this, a clear and unambiguous message emerged from the Liberty Hall conference, and those present now have the task of promoting it. By doing so they can ensure that all in this country will change, and change utterly—and for the better.
- Gita Gopinath, “A weakening global expansion amid growing risks,” IMF Blog, 21 January 2019 (https://bit.ly/2Hqcr7n).
- Donnacha Ó Beacháin, “Irish elite does not want reunification, Times, 1 January 2019 (https://bit.ly/2FUAYQ7).
- Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, Democratic Programme for a New Century (https://bit.ly/2tJuqv5).