History breathed a heavy sigh all around us yesterday, both in solemn, grateful acts of remembrance and in the repetition of violence as a savage articulation of failed politics.
Even if it is sometimes difficult to make the catastrophic, sepia-tinged events of a century ago — when Irishmen were among the first to die in what we now call the First World War — resonate in a globalised digital world, those events, that generation-hollowing tragedy, defines the way western societies live, work, and co-exist like no other.
Indeed, there is hardly an aspect of our modern world that cannot be directly traced to the decade of political, social, cultural and nationalist turmoil that began almost exactly a century ago when the first salvoes of World War I opened four years of industrial-scale slaughter.
History, specifically this island’s history, demanded attention too with the renewed interest in the recent remarks by former taoiseach John Bruton who said the Easter Rising and War of Independence were “completely unnecessary” because Home Rule was on the statute books. He has called on the Government to commemorate the centenary of the passage into law of the Home Rule Bill next month, on September 18 — the date, in one of history’s needling ironies, that Scotland will vote on whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom.
Mr Bruton’s remarks will undoubtedly be rejected with the usual vehemence by those who believe the 1916 Rising was an inevitable event — especially as they place themselves in the same tradition as the Rising’s participants — but his argument cannot be so easily dismissed. Those who hope the peace we enjoy on this island today will be permanent will recognise its authenticity. It has a legitimacy because of the simple fact that real change came through a negotiated settlement, not violence. Jaw, jaw, not war, war won out in the end. Sanity prevailed.
It is unfortunate that even today his suggestion may swept aside by a tsunami of celebratory militarism and non-inclusive nationalism. Just as we, for silent decade upon silent decade, ignored the honourable contribution made by Irish men and women in both world wars we seem unable today to even consider the possibility that the violence of 1916 was unnecessary or that it set in train decades of violence. It seems reasonable to assume that such a discussion — or revisionism as it might be derided — would make a valuable contribution to a new, national agenda, one free of the medieval idea of a blood sacrifice. That such a small step seems so difficultj underlines how deeply ingrained in our psyche violent nationalism is.
Unfortunately the people of Gaza are trapped in a conflict where the idea of blood sacrifice is alive and exploited. It sustains the Hamas policy of missile attacks on Israel, which achieves nothing politically but ensures Israel responds with spectacular violence, thereby, just as the execution of the 1916 leaders did on this island, enslaving another generation of Palestinians and Israelis to the idea that real, lasting peace can be a child of violence.
The parallels between the relationship between the people of Gaza and the people of Israel today and the people of nationalist Ireland and Britain a century ago are many and easy to identify. The brutality, the complexity, each side’s absolute belief in the legitimacy of its cause are all there though it would be very wrong to compare the level of violence used in Gaza today to 1914 Ireland. And, even for all its dissent and inequality, it is hard to think that Ireland was as polarised in 1914. What a pity it is then that amid all of yesterday’s wreath laying, renditions of the ‘Last Post’ and fine, valedictory words that the simple, eternal truth — that peace comes through negotiation not war — cannot find acceptance in Gaza or Israel. What a pity they cannot learn from our and Europe’s tragedies.
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