Poor Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan have had a rough fortnight of it. Since they announced in early January that the state was holding a commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and the Black & Tans, a sizeable chunk of the Irish public have registered their disgust.
City mayors, county councils, political parties, trade unions and the general public all voiced opposition to the proposal to commemorate these colonial forces of occupation. The backlash now appears to have assisted in propelling us towards an election, to be held most likely around mid-February.
The essence of the controversy lies in the state attempting to push historical revisionism one step too far. But this was not a new process. Moves towards normalizing the relationship between Britain and Ireland can be traced back to 2007 when Ireland played England in an “historic” rugby match in Croke Park and then to the visit of Elizabeth Windsor in 2011.
On both occasions, the fact that Britain continues to claim jurisdiction over six Irish counties was glossed over and normalized. The trials and tribulations of the past were now over, and all was now well.
Less than five years later in the fallout of Brexit, this was proven to be nothing more than nonsense. The partition of Ireland was the key stumbling block in a swift and seamless Brexit. It remains an issue at this point, with the prospect of trade across the border being curtailed a continues talking point in the establishment media.
Revisionism has existed in Irish academia since the 1970s. It arose as part of a campaign by pro-British elements to undermine the campaign of the Provisional IRA by attacking the ideological and historical basis of Irish nationalism and republicanism. In recent years, however, there has been a concerted move around the “decade of centenaries” (2013-2023) to intensify the campaign of revisionism by the state.
The first step in this process was to commemorate Irishmen who had fought in the British Army during the First World War. The idea was to draw an equivalence between those who fought in an imperial war to “defend little Belgium” and to gain Home Rule, with those who opposed the war and instead took on the might of the British empire in Dublin during 1916.
Having successfully elevated those who were duped into fighting for Britain to the same level as those who fought an anti-colonial struggle, the next logical step was to commemorate British soldiers. And this is what occurred in 2016, when we were told by the state and its mouthpieces in the mainstream media that we must commemorate the British soldiers who flooded into Dublin in April 1916 to suppress the rising.
The Fine Gael party managed to conceal this treachery among the larger commemorating for the Irish Volunteers. Besides, many communities were focused on holding their own local events. But even here, the discourse of remembering “both sides” and “all those who died”, as though the rising was a war between equally equipped states, had begun to permeate down.
However, something changed this time when the RIC and Black & Tans were set to be commemorated. But what? Well, two things at least.
In 2016, the Fine Gael government had just recently won an election and was able to project a sort of legitimacy to the public, despite it being a minority government. Although it had implemented austerity policies since taking power in 2011, it was able to deflect blame onto Fianna Fáil for “creating the mess” initially. Fine Gael portrayed itself as “fiscally responsible” and the party of “prudence”.
Since 2016, however, and without the excuse of the recession to fall back on any longer, Fine Gael has demonstrated nothing like fiscal prudence. The massive cost overrun in the National Children’s Hospital is but one example. But it has also failed monumentally to address the crises in housing and health despite constantly trumpeting the fact that the “books have been balanced” and a “rainy day fund” now exists.
This sheer ineptitude, coupled with scandals involving expenses and fraudulent by Fine Gael TDs, and the sneering classist arrogance of its leaders, has seen sections of the public call for an end to the party’s tenure in power. The idea that the Irish should commemorate their oppressors seems to have been the final nail in the coffin.
With any luck, this sentiment will impact on the upcoming election, although the disorganized state of the left and Sinn Féin’s readiness to jump into power with the right do not bode well in terms of mobilizing a strong working-class and disaffected middle-class turnout.
But to return to the question of revisionism; the key difference in manifesting huge levels of hostility to this commemoration and attempt at revisionism is the collective memory of the Irish people and their folklore. The name “Black & Tan” still jars with people and during the furore many of those who opposed the event referred to stories their grandparents had recounted to them of Black & Tan barbarism.
Many rural Fine Gael TDs, especially, received dozens of calls and emails from the public voicing their opposition, and it is in rural Ireland that the parties of the centre-right consider many of their seats in Leinster House to be safe bets.
Despite the attempts of Charlie Flanagan and many establishment hacks and historians to muddy the waters by branding the RIC an “ordinary police force”, the public knew better. The suppressive element of the RIC right through the nineteenth century was recalled as was the baton charge of the DMP on workers during the 1913 Lockout; what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
Fine Gael, whose TDs have often been drawn from the West-British tradition, attempted to insult the intelligence of the Irish public. Gladly they failed. It is now necessary, in the wake of this commemorative insult being “deferred”, to push for a full cancellation.
Posted on behalf of Irish Branch, Celtic League (14 January 2020)