The Easter Rising. A Personal Perspective.
By Garret FitzGerald.
Both my parents were in the GPO in 1916. My mother was there for the first two days but after Patrick Pearse had sent her on a futile mission on the Tuesday to bring a flag to fly over Dublin Castle, which he wrongly thought had been captured, he told her to return home as he did not wish my elder brothers to lose both parents.
My father, who had just completed a 6 months sentence in Mountjoy for seditious speech, was there until the Friday, when he was ordered to bring the wounded to Jervis Street hospital, a block behind the GPO – from there, after many adventures, he got home to Bray, where he was later arrested.
In their view by Easter Monday 1916 it had lost any chance of success...
Given that background, it is not easy for me to be objective about the Rising. On the other hand it is perhaps easier for me to see those events in the context of their time, and to avoid the common mistake of judging them in terms of present day attitudes.
Moreover, I am helped in this by the fact that my father wrote some years later about his experiences in the years 1913 to 1916, explaining both why he and others were motivated to contemplate such a Rising, and also why he and several of his friends, such as The O'Rahilly, were opposed to it taking place at the time it did: because in their view by Easter Monday 1916 it had lost any chance of success. As my father recorded, this raised doubts about its morality in the minds even of Pearse and Plunkett — doubts they sought to quell.
It was the massive rush by Irish men to join the British Army in 1914 that seemed to him and to like-minded others to portend an imminent demise of Irish nationalism. In their view, this made an early attempt to end British rule necessary. Unfortunately, a subsequent misguided attempt by myth-makers to portray the Rising as an outcome of the abiding strength of Irish nationalism came to obscure the fact that it was in fact an act of desperation, undertaken by people who believed that nationalism was dying on its feet.
It was their hope that if it failed, it would nevertheless revive a dying national feeling...
And although neither my father nor The O'Rahilly nor Eoin MacNeill , the President of the Volunteers who had countermanded the Rising, could see this at the time it was, of course, precisely because the Rising was a heroic failure that its success in reviving national feeling turned out to be beyond the dreams of those who had organised it.
There are, I think, at least three ways of looking at these events. We can see them as they were seen at the time by those who decided to proceed, despite the virtual certainty of failure. It was their hope that if it failed, it would nevertheless revive a dying national feeling. And they proved right in this judgment.
Or, we can see it through today's eyes: judging it negatively by reference to our contemporary abhorrence of violence - and even blaming it for the appalling events of the past thirty years in Northern Ireland.
It is assumed by many that Home Rule would have evolved automatically into sovereign independence...
But that is doubly unhistorical. First of all, the world of 1916 was a very different one from that of today - one in which not only the leaders of the Rising, but also the British against whom they fought, and the enemies with whom Britain was then contending, still saw the violence of war as glorious rather than terrible.
Moreover, it is unhistorical to see the tragic events in the North as having been mainly inspired by memories of 1916. Although 1916 has certainly been used as a justification for the IRA's campaign of violence, that campaign has been much more a continuation of an endemic tradition of pogroms and sectarianism in the north-east, the roots of which lie far back in the history of that part of Ireland in the 19th century - indeed right back to the 17th century.
But there is also a third way of looking at 1916, viz., in terms of alternative history, i.e., what might otherwise have happened.
What was on offer before 1916 was Home Rule – devolution, well short of independence. It is assumed by many that Home Rule would have evolved automatically into sovereign independence. But that is far from certain - for two reasons.
First of all, up to 1914 there was little public support for Irish independence: as I have just said it was despair at the absence of such a spirit that provoked the Rising. It is a failure of imagination on our part, together with a mythic view of history, that make us think otherwise. The truth is that without 1916 our people might well have settled down for a time at least within a Home Rule system.
Independence carried a not insignificant cost...
This is all the more true because with the evolution of the welfare state, Ireland would have become increasingly dependent financially on Britain. Already, by 1909, a combination of Balfour's policy of ‘killing Home Rule by kindness' through substantial capital and current transfers, and Lloyd George's initiation of old age pensions and unemployment payments, had reversed the substantial 19th century perverse financial flows from the poorer to the richer island.
Even as early in the process of the evolution of the modern welfare state as the 1920's, independence carried a not insignificant cost: civil service pay and pensions had to be cut by 10 per cent shortly after the State was founded. If Home Rule had endured for any length of time, a move to independence would have become so costly in the short-run that it is most unlikely that there would ever have been a willingness to pay the price of doing without these transfers - which, judging by the current experience of Northern Ireland, might today have risen to around £10-12 billion.
But, it may be asked, would it have mattered if Ireland had remained a devolved part of the United Kingdom?
I believe it would have mattered greatly.
For it is now clear, as was not the case in 1966 when the Golden Jubilee of 1916 was celebrated, that Ireland's capacity to transform itself from being the sick man of Northern Europe, with living standards 40-50 per cent lower than in the rest of this area, into a prosperous state with per capita output above the EU average, has depended crucially upon its being a sovereign, independent state.
For it is Ireland's independence that has enabled it to determine its own taxation system; to educate a far higher proportion of its young people to a much higher level than in Britain; and to develop a constructive social partnership between government, business and trade unions - something that never happened in the larger island.
These are the factors that have enabled Ireland to move out of both absolute and relative poverty, to a level of GNP per head already slightly higher than that of Britain-and with a strong likelihood of becoming within the next decade one of the richest countries in Europe in terms of per capita output and incomes.
Northern Ireland is supported by regional transfers that add some 20-25 per cent to its domestic output...
The contrast with Northern Ireland is striking. During the past half-century Northern Ireland's share of the output of the whole island has fallen from 37.5 per cent to about 23 per cent. That decline is much too great to be explained by such factors as Northern Ireland's inheritance of declining industries or by the political violence of the past thirty years.
No, the key factors in this astonishing change in the relative economic capacity of the two parts of the island are, on the one hand, the remarkable economic growth of the Republic, and, on the other side, the undermining of the resilience and dynamism of the Northern Ireland economy by the debilitating scale of the transfers it has come to receive from Britain.
For, like the Mezzogiorno of Italy and Eastern Germany, the economies of which have suffered similarly, Northern Ireland is supported by regional transfers that add some 20-25 per cent to its domestic output. The consequent huge size of its public sector has sapped, and eventually undermined, the internal dynamic of entrepreneurship which, in the days before it was receiving major transfers from Britain, had led to it being far more prosperous than the rest of the island.
By contrast, the Republic, as an independent state forced to live almost exclusively on its own resources, (EU transfers in the last couple of decades were at most, and temporarily, about 5 per cent of GNP), has painfully pulled itself up by its own boot-straps.
The rationale of Irish independence is not, however, confined to economic factors...
The divergent economic interests of Ireland and Britain, which have needed to be advanced and defended by two distinct sovereign governments, have also been highly visible within the European Community, where the two States have chosen to pursue quite different approaches in key areas such as regional policy and agriculture.
The rationale of Irish independence is not, however, confined to economic factors. There are other less tangible, but no less important, factors. Thus, cultural differences between the people of the Irish State and those of neighbouring Britain are such that these two peoples could not, I believe, have continued indefinitely to co-exist comfortably and successfully within a single political entity.
This has been evident, for example, in the quite different roles that Ireland and Britain have chosen to play in global affairs.
The Irish decision to choose the path of independence has thus been fully justified by the events of the past eighty years. But if Southern Ireland had failed to leave the United Kingdom at a time when transfer payment from Britain to Ireland were relatively small, later dissatisfaction with the relationship would have come up against the huge problem of the high cost of terminating it. 1916 saved Ireland from that dilemma.
But what about Northern Ireland, it may be asked? Following the outcome of the Home Rule debate in 1914, the aftermath of 1916 sundered this area from the rest of Ireland - for history had left the people of the north-east with deeply divided loyalties as between Ireland and Britain.
It is true that, because of its very different economic history, Northern Ireland probably benefited in the short run from having remained in the UK. But, as has just been suggested, this may have been at considerable cost in the longer run.
Northern Ireland's best hope of recovering its lost economic dynamism may now lie in the development of a far closer economic link with its southern neighbour than has hitherto been envisaged – an economic link that need not prejudice its continued participation in the United Kingdom, unless and until its people choose otherwise.