Resistance — even armed resistance — is not violence if its object is to end violence and restore peace, to stop the slave master and set free those in chains.
We are quite some time removed from the events of Easter week 1916 in Dublin and further still from the 1798 rising of the United Irishmen. Our memory of physical force Irish Republicanism is of course the Troubles; over three decades of bloody mayhem in the occupied counties and a prolonged Provisional Irish Republican Army bombing campaign across England. Thanks to the success of the British narrative, the enduring image of the Provisional IRA’s armed struggle is one of terrorism and barbaric, meaningless violence directed against civilians and the forces of law and order in the British state. Such was and is the triumph of London’s control over the story of its Irish colonial adventure that in the United Kingdom the IRA and the whole Republican movement have been indelibly marked with unapproachable horror — unforgivable sin. But this is not a fair assessment of Republicanism, the armed struggle, or indeed the history of civic resistance to British rule in Ireland.
Before continuing, however, it is important to stress that the following is not a defence of violence or an excuse for the murder. While war is, as Bismarck said, diplomacy by other means, it is always ugly. As a last resort armed conflict robs every belligerent of his or her innocent. There are no righteous victims among those who fall with a weapon in their grasp. An Irish Republican will defend the actions of the IRA and the conduct of Republican volunteers, pointing to collusion between the British security forces and loyalist paramilitary murder squads, the deliberate killing of Catholic civilians by British soldiers, and routine human rights violations during internment — but never were the Provos blameless. Anthony McIntyre, an IRA prisoner in Long Kesh for eighteen years, says:
This was a war. There is always collateral damage in war. There are always war crimes, and the IRA committed war crimes.
But to describe this war as ‘terrorism’ is mere propaganda, to write it off as ‘mindless’ is a mistake. The struggle for Irish freedom was itself — from before Wolfe Tone — a response to British violence and terror. Regardless of our modern sensibilities and civilised tastes, the Republican answer to the occupation and brutalisation of Ireland by a genocidal foreign power was always rational. Sure, it was cold and calculated — at time pitiless and without mercy — but never mindless, never random, never a case of simple hatred or retribution. From the formation of the United Irishmen by Protestant Republicans in Belfast in 1791, through the Fenian rising, to the establishment of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, resistance and rebellion in Ireland were rooted firmly in a political and intellectual tradition of the analysis of history, culture, and the nature of Ireland’s cruel oppression.
From its first stirrings it was a rejection of the sectarianism foisted on Irish men and Irish women by the British imperial project with its relentless war on Catholicism and Catholics, its programmatic ethnic cleansing, judicial and extra-judicial murder, and its plantation of loyal British populations on Irish soil. At his trial in Dublin, the father of Irish Republicanism, the Protestant lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone demonstrated his understanding of the vicious nature of Britain’s domination of his country when he set before the military court his thinking and objective:
…to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country — these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter — these were my means.
England — the never failing source of all our political evils — as Ireland learned through bitter and hard experience century after century was not a power with which it could negotiate. At no time in the history of British ‘involvement’ in Ireland was the Crown or its government willing to compromise, willing to relinquish any part of its possession of Ireland and the Irish people. Following the Battle of Kinsale and the subsequent flight of the old Gaelic nobility — solidified in the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne and the imposition of the penal laws — England’s policy was destruction. Between 1601 and 1922 Britain’s objective in Ireland was complete domination — the destruction of the Irish language, the removal of its religion and its rich cultural heritage. Three hundred years of unforgiving cultural genocide aided by economic negligence, starvation, deportation, and executions.
By Easter 1916, following the abject humiliation of the Dublin workers and their families — some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the industrialised world — in 1913 and with the threat of conscription to yet another British imperial war, it dawned on men like James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse and women like Elizabeth O’ Farrell and Constance Markievicz that England would listen to nothing but the rifle. “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” proclaimed Pearse at the GPO,
In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
Of course he was summoning the dead — the dead generations from which Ireland inherited her birthright of nationhood and resistance, her inalienable right to breathe free. What nation in the history of human civilisation had not been required to assert its right to exist with force of arms? Was not Britain up to its neck in defending genocidal Belgium’s right to be free from the Kaiser? What moral enormity was Ireland committing by behaving like every other free and civilised nation? For five days in April 1916 the Irish Republic was real. It had been realised by the raising of the green, white, and orange over the city of Dublin, over the proud and beating heart of Éire. Yet, even at this, England did not talk. No compromise was possible. Dublin was completely destroyed and the most courageous men of that generation were tried and executed by yet another British firing squad. But this was only the beginning. England had gifted Ireland the martyrs, the lifeblood of a gentle people who would become as uncompromising and as hard as their enemies.
It was not mindless violence but memory and conviction that produced men like Volunteer Bobby Sands, a beautiful son of Ireland who could rise so far above the hate and bile of Britain to absorb within his body — within his soul — all the fight of a nation. On hunger strike in Long Kesh over sixty-six days he bore the torment of Ireland and transformed it, with his death on 5 May 1981, into a Crucifixion — a Passion, Death, and Resurrection — no empire could defeat. He became for Ireland a rock not cut of human hands that ensured the destruction of Britain’s feet of clay. In the days that followed he was joined in glory by Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Michael Devine. On 20 August 1981, with the death of the last of the ten, Britain knew it could not win, their heroism and unflinching love for freedom paved the way for peace and for unification.
When the union flag descends for the last time from over Ireland it won’t be Lloyd George, Churchill, or Thatcher who is remembered. Soon their names will be a distant memory — a bloody nightmare — in Ireland. As the border evaporates and as the Irish flag is raised over every corner of Ireland it will be Sands, Connolly, Pearse, Robert Emmet, and Wolfe Tone who are remembered — who are loved and celebrated. And never, not for a single moment, were their efforts the efforts of vicious men; the deeds of mindless criminals. On his deathbed Wolfe Tone could see Bobby Sands, precisely because he imagined the struggle and the men and women who he had inspired to end it. The Easter Rising, the hunger strikes, the Maze Prison, the Good Friday Agreement, and unification are all a single train of thought reaching back to the first moment Ireland realised it had to fight.