Lisbon Referendum:

Vote 1916 for a better Europe

6 September 2009 – Presseurop

A new poster by anti-Lisbon Treaty group Coir with portraits of James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke, three of the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter rebellion against British rule, accompanied by the slogan “They won your freedom, don’t throw it away” has Ireland’s pro-Lisbon establishment in a patriotic lather. Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret Fitzgerald has accused the organization, a spin-off of anti-abortion group SPUC, of seeking “to abuse the memory…of our 1916 leaders...in aid of their own xenophobic campaign.” Tremulously noting that his father fought alongside these enemies of British imperialism, he writes “…my father spoke of the need to go beyond securing political independence from Britain by forging closer links with the rest of Europe.”

He is echoed by Eoin Ryan, a former minister of Fianna Fail, Ireland’s ruling party, who has declared “outrageous” a hypothesis aired by Nigel Farage, the outgoing leader of British eurosceptic party Ukip, that the men and women who took part in the Easter rebellion would have been against the treaty. “…our revolutionary heroes…believed passionately in Ireland as a European nation that would belong to strong international bodies,” he says, not before summoning up the memory of his grandfather, also present at Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO), the rebels’ HQ, in 1916.

While it’s toe-curling to see Coir’s holy joes lament socialist leader James Connolly and an English nationalist like Farage suck up to an Irish audience on a rebellion that would be one of the first nails in the coffin of 20th century British imperialism, it’s also ironic to hear leading architects of the crisis-ridden, disillusioned state that is contemporary Ireland reclaim a revolutionary tradition their governments have ever been at a pains to bury, particularly in the form it took in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Unlike the leaders of the 1916 rising, who reasoned that strife between Irish Catholics and Protestants was “carefully fostered by an alien government” (ie Britain), Garret Fitzgerald, as one of the leading proponents of the concept of “two traditions”, absolved Britain as party to the conflict and established a misanthropic orthodoxy that depoliticised the Troubles to a question of cultural hard-wiring, as if Irish nationalism and unionism were only incompatible operating systems like Macs and PC’s and not contrary world views. In doing so he did much to legitimise the Northern Unionist dominated statelet, one whose sectarian foundations Eoin Ryan’s Fianna Fail party later ratified when relinquishing the Irish Republic’s claim to the territory in 1999. A far cry from the 1916 leaders’ assertion of sovereignity over the entire island, but this doesn't matter, since their call for freedom from the Empire has been reduced to a spot of romantic cobblers.

Voided of its emancipatory content, 1916 then becomes easy game for Irish or even English chauvinists with widely different agendas, so on this score, Fitzgerald and Ryan are right to be appalled by Coir and Ukip’s opportunism. But in repackaging 1916 as a blow struck on the way to a more "efficient" EU, these descendants of Irish revolutionaries inadvertently expose the utter absence of idealism and passion that characterises not just the modern Irish state in the throes of bust but also the technocrat treaty they are urging the electorate to endorse. With a recent Irish Times poll suggesting that only 46% of the electorate intends to vote Yes to Lisbon, and a staggering 25% still undecided, this Punch and Judy sideshow that pits Yes and No camps ventriloquilsing with Pearse, Clarke and Connolly handpuppets, demonstrates the hollowness of all sides concerned.

Gerry Feehily