Speech by FELIX M LARKIN at the
University College Dublin Law Society
on the motion
‘This House believes 1916 is worth commemorating’
President John F. Kennedy, speaking in 1963, said that ‘a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but by the men it honours, the men it remembers’. Now the men of 1916 may have been men of high ideals, but their actions were profoundly undemocratic and morally suspect. By commemorating them we signal approval of what they did, and thus we associate ourselves as a nation with values and modes of behaviour which today we emphatically reject, and we are right to reject them. For this reason, I believe that commemorating 1916 is perverse, both hypocritical and potentially dangerous.
The Rising had no popular mandate. The distinguished UCD historian, F.X. Martin, writing in 1966 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary, characterised it as ‘a conspiracy of a conspiracy of a minority’. He wrote that ‘the Easter Rising was a coup d’état against the British Government, it ran flat counter to the wishes of Redmond and the majority of Irish Nationalists, it was a mutiny against MacNeill and the constitution of the Irish Volunteers, and it usurped the powers of the IRB [the Irish Republican Brotherhood]’.
And the case against the Rising on democratic grounds had been eloquently stated by Eoin MacNeill in a memorandum that he circulated to his fellow officers in the Irish Volunteers in February 1916, two months before the Rising. MacNeill wrote, and I quote:
We believe that the consensus we hold among us [on national matters] is right as far as it goes ... [It is] our duty to so act that our country itself, i.e. the Irish nation, shall learn, as far as may be secured, to think in the same way ... In other words, if we are right, it is our duty to get our country on our side, and not to be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong.
He concluded as follows:
I am definitely opposed to any proposal that may come forward involving insurrection. I have no doubt at all that my consent to any such proposal ... would make me false to my country besides involving me in the guilt of murder.
Here is a clear statement of the reasons why MacNeill opposed the Rising and sought to stop it, and it explains the problems that the Rising presents for the democrat and the theologian – then and now.
This brings me to the moral argument. There are, traditionally, five criteria which, taken together, would justify revolution. The first is just cause. In the context of 1916, the government would have to have been an oppressive tyranny. Second, violence must be the last resort: there should be no other option for getting rid of the tyranny. Third, there should be proportionality between the evil caused by the revolt and the evil that it aims to replace. Fourth, there should be a reasonable prospect of success – and fifth, the action should have the approval of the community at large. It is, frankly, doubtful whether even one of these criteria was met when the men of 1916 marched out on that Easter Monday. Indeed, in an important book just published, Violence, Politics and Catholicism in Ireland, the Irish Jesuit-historian, Fr Oliver Rafferty, states categorically that at no time in the past two hundred years did conditions exist in Ireland that would have justified revolutionary violence under the terms of Catholic moral teaching.
I accept, of course, that the UK parliament had denied the will of the Irish people for some form of self-government, but the Irish people since O’Connell’s time had chosen electorally to pursue their goal of self-government by constitutional means. The support for those who advocated other means – for example, Young Ireland in 1848 and the Fenians in 1866 – had been derisory. The men of 1916 thus flouted the will of the Irish people as regards the means by which they wished to pursue the goal of self-government.
Some will say that, in the general election of 1918, the Irish people gave its approval in retrospect to the Easter Rising. But history isn’t as simple as that. The 1918 election was won in Ireland by the Sinn Féin party which had no hand, act or part in the 1916 Rising and was after 1917 a much broader coalition of advanced nationalists than the IRB cabal that had brought about the Rising. Moreover, the Sinn Féin triumph in December 1918 was boosted by the anti-conscription campaign earlier in 1918. So there is no clear line of descent from 1916 to 1918.
In any event, the claim of ‘retrospective endorsement’ of the Rising brings us into dangerous political territory. The sophistry of thus attempting to justify the Rising leaves it open to any crackpot movement to claim that its actions are justified by imagined or hoped-for retrospective vindication. That is precisely what successive generations of republican subversives here in Ireland have argued in defence of their armed campaigns since 1922. This legacy of political violence bequeathed to us by the men of 1916 is, in my view, another reason why we should not, and I will not, commemorate the Rising.
OTHER GUEST SPEAKERS: Ambassador Dominic Chilcott (UK), Kevin Myers, John Green, Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, Mary Condren & Patsy McGarry.