Past is once more of romantic significance

Posted By: August 23, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News( Belfast). Saturday, August 22, 2015

 PERIOD DRAMA: Sinn Fein may be behind in the polls but it is miles ahead when it comes to re-enactments as proved with the burial of Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa 
While the 1916 Rising started a day late, the 2016 Rising has begun a year early. Next year’s rising, of course, will not be against the British. Oh dear no, it will be an election-based rising between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin to claim ownership of the soul of Ireland (or one of the two souls of Ireland, since both parties now believe there are two nations on the island.) 

The first shots (political, not military) have already been fired and there will be no outbreak of peace until the last vote has been counted. Although Irish elections have always contained a resonance of the past (or in The North, just the past without the resonance), more recent political contests have tended to focus on future promises. 

However, with next year’s elections, north and south, coinciding with the 1916 centenary, the past is once more of romantic significance. The 2016 Rising began three weeks ago with two separate re-enactments, by Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, of the burial of Fenian leader, O’Donovan Rossa. (I could have sworn both parties have argued against dragging us back to the past.) 

Sinn Féin’s re-enactment included the entire funeral procession, with a cast of thousands in full period costume. They even had a priest conducting the ceremony – well, an actor playing the part of the priest. (You would know he was an actor, because he was far too young to be a priest these days.) Sinn Féin may be behind in the polls, but they are miles ahead in re-enactments.

(No, you may not ask who or what was in the coffin and it would be most insensitive of you to wonder if it contained Stormont’s Programme for Government.)

The Fine Gael event was an official government ceremony, but since Fine Gael is in government, they will reap any political benefits. However, it largely backfired, because many media images tended to inter-marry the two events.On television, Gerry Adams looked like a member of the Dublin government and President Michael D Higgins could well have been part of the Sinn Féin event.

The decision by both parties to re-enact rather than commemorate the funeral was odd. Rossa’s funeral was notable for Pearse’s oration, which included the line that Ireland unfree will never be at peace.

You will have your own view on what constitutes national freedom, but it would appear reasonable to suggest that, by Pearse’s definition, Ireland remains unfree, both in terms of British rule and rule from Berlin and Brussels. So how do both parties square that with the peace process? 

(Ireland has always believed that while practising rebels are thugs and criminals, lapsed paramilitaries from the previous generation are heroes. Those of a century ago are saints and anyone before that 

was an angel. Think of it as an Irish historical hierarchy.)

It was even more peculiar for Fine Gael to engage in any form of re-enactment. Did they just decide to compete with Sinn Féin? It led to two peace-advocating parties eulogising the man who organised the1880s dynamite campaign in England and included Pearse’s oration stating: “We pledge to English rule in Ireland our hate”.

(Does that mean SF and FG want us to hate Stormont? Irish politics are so confusing these days.)

Neither party pointed out that the organiser of the Land League, Michael Davitt, thought Rossa was the buffoon of Irish revolutionary politics. (Just as well too – that might introduce social and economic issues into the election. It could even mean that both parties will soon be required to re-enact their voting for the bank bail-out in 2008.)

Having lost the opening skirmishes to Sinn Féin, the Fine Gael rebels have opened a second front by announcing a state funeral for Tomás Ceannt next month. He was executed in Cork after the 1916 Rising. Originally buried within prison walls, his remains will now be interred in his family grave.

Sinn Féin can compete on re-enactments but not on state funerals (unless they try to bring Ceannt’s remains north – and Stormont might need to borrow money from David Cameron for that.)

The big danger now is that if the two parties decide to re-enact the 1916 Rising, rather than just commemorate it, there could be hand-to-hand electioneering in Dublin’s Moore Street on polling day.

For that reason, do not go buying stamps in the GPO any time soon. You could be cut down in a fusillade of election manifestos and a century from now, politicians will be re-enacting your funeral.

So, which would you prefer – the government or the opposition re-enactment?