Marking the march to foundation of the State – not just armed highlights

September 9, 2016 by  
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Below is William’s article published in the Sunday Independent of 21st August 2016.


Marking the march to foundation of the State – not just armed highlights

1916 Rising was just the start of a series of events which led to freedom and these also deserve to be honoured, writes William Lavelle

Why is it that we rarely celebrate the Irish State? It may not yet be the State which many aspire, be that in terms of ideals of economic, social, cultural or political goals. But still it’s our achievement and we have a lot to be proud of. We have a sovereign, independent and democratic state which is the envy of many activists around the world who still yearn for their country to be free from external domination or internal despotism.

Yet we don’t celebrate our Statehood in Ireland and do little to honour the foundation of our State. Yes, we did mark 1916; and we marked it very well. The programme of events captured the public’s hearts and minds while engendering a mature and responsible commemoration of the Rising and of Irish freedom.

But the Rising itself was and must be seen as just the start of much greater historical arc leading to the foundation of the State. There are many points on this arc which should be marked with similarly-scaled Centenary Commemorations of their own. But will they be? I fear there is a real risk that the 1916 commemorations could end up archived in our minds as a one-off period of celebration, while any further commemorations of subsequent key events in the period leading to 1923 could fade away in a fog of public lack of interest.

We will have an opportunity over the coming years to mark significant political and constitutional milestones on the road to Irish Statehood, including the ground-breaking 1917 by-elections, the general election of 1918 and the momentous formation of the first Dail, the contribution of local authorities in undermining the British administration and the negotiation and acceptance of the Treaty.

Celebrating these milestones leading to the emergence of Irish Statehood offers a broader focus for Commemoration, avoiding solely the militaristic history of that period. Unfortunately, there are some who have sought to commemorate 1916 by talking up violence as a virtue (including during the Troubles) while talking down our State in what too often seemed to be a narrow-minded and opportunistic political stratagem.

Such a narrow focus misses the point that the revolution of 1916-1923 was not just about armed resistance. In honouring the tradition of Collins and Griffith, we are commemorating not victory in battle or glorious defeat. Instead we are marking something much greater, the emergence of constitutional Irish Statehood.

General Michael Collins may have been the man who Arthur Griffith famously said “won the war”. He may be the man the army text books hail as the father of guerrilla warfare. Yet on his speeches during the Treaty Debate, and in his personal writings, Collins sets out his much more considered and comprehensive position on statehood, constitutionalism and the rule of law.

In a landmark speech in Waterford in March 1922, Collins stressed that it is not justifiable for a minority to oppose the wishes of the majority of their own countrymen, except by constitutional means. Later that year, at the height of the Civil War, when Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ginger O’Connell was kidnapped by anti-treaty forces, Collins declared that “the safety of the nation is the first law; and henceforth we shall not rest until we have established the authority of the people of Ireland in every square mile under their jurisdiction.” Collins, the soldier, grew into a champion of constitutionalism and he endeavoured to instil the rule of law – the people’s law – as the foundation of the nascent Irish State.

In fostering a new Irish Statehood, the Treaty ushered in a radical transformation of relationships within these isles – between the Imperial British State and the new Irish Free State. This is a theme which, nearly a century later, presents a remarkable current relevance as we find ourselves once again in deep debate on the possibility of a radical transformation of relationships within these isles, arising from ‘Brexit’.

Central among these, both 100 years ago and today, were economic relationships. It is often overlooked that, for Griffith and Collins, the economic relationship between Britain and Ireland and the potential for self-directed economic development and prosperity on the island of Ireland were central tenets in their pursuit of Irish freedom. Griffith’s whole raison d’ĂȘtre going back well before 1916 was that of economic nationalism. Collins during the Treaty debate lamented the subjugation of the Irish economy while he also famously wrote quite comprehensively of his vision for indigenous Irish economic development.

The fact that some of these themes, from respect for the rule of law to international economic relationships, still hold an enduring relevance reflects the depth and complexity of what was going on in political and constitutional discourse in Ireland 100 years ago. The State’s programme for the Decade of Commemorations is to be commended for its efforts to reflect this depth of history which was far more than just militaristic.

Today we will gather at the burial places in Glasnevin Cemetery to commemorate the 94th anniversary of the deaths of Collins and Griffith and to reflect on the rich legacy of their contribution to Irish statehood. It is hoped that, over coming years, the Irish State which Collins and Griffith were instrumental in crafting will do all it can to mark those political and constitutional milestones leading to our Statehood, just as we remembered 1916 during the current year.