Gerard Howlin: RIC commemoration a selective act but government mishandled issue

Gerard Howlin: RIC commemoration a selective act but government mishandled issue
Armed RIC members on St Patrick St, Cork City, in 1921. The programme of commemoration, with a €1m budget, was Cork-centric because Tánaiste Simon Coveney pushed for it. Picture: National Library of Ireland.

“It’s amazing. You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up.”

That was Albert Reynolds’ wistful observation on his own demise. There is a crossroads between great strategy and cunning tactics. The RIC commemoration row was a non-issue, but it could have had serious consequences.

Firstly, there are intense talks this week about reviving power-sharing in Stormont. If the DUP wants cheap rhetoric, it was gifted it, Ballymagash Urban District Council-style, by the mayor of Clare and others. It is astonishing that the difference between abstention and a boycott was missed by a country mile.

But breaking glass and setting off the alarm does get attention.

Secondly, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in the most important week of his life politically. Because Brexit is effectively done and because November’s by-elections robbed him of sufficient strength in the Dáil, for the first time he can credibly call an election.

He has that choice before the Dáil resumes next Wednesday, or shortly thereafter. It was essential to ensure his freedom to manoeuvre that the RIC was removed from the political pitch.

Thirdly, and this is the only issue that ultimately counts: In being badly mishandled by the Government and opportunistically seized upon by the opposition, bad tactics undermined good strategy.

Bertie Ahern set out that strategy in his speech to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster in 2007 when he said: “Ireland’s hour has come. It came not as victory or defeat but as a shared future for all.”

When I heard Cathal Crowe, the mayor of Clare, lead on this, I instantly recalled Ian Paisley throwing snowballs at Jack Lynch’s car as he and TK Whitaker were driven into Stormont to visit with Terence O’Neill. To Paisley’s shouts of “no pope here”, Lynch asked Whitaker: “Which of us does he think is the pope?” There have been a lot of ex cathedral statements over the last few days — few of them intended to be helpful.

Following the long arc from Seán Lemass’ historic first visit to O’Neill at Stormont (the 55th anniversary of which is next Tuesday) to today, there are fundamental questions to be asked.

Why, in a State that accommodated for good reason the IRA and its political machine, are we quibbling about the misdemeanors of the RIC? Is it the body count that matters? Is it the insignia on the uniform? Is it that, unlike the dead of the Troubles, who still have fresh flowers on their graves, these are far removed enough to be fetishised as either monsters or martyrs?

Is it that, after only a short passage of time, we already have a new generation of politicians with no involvement and less sense of what was required to secure peace and push it back up the hill every time it rolled back down? There should have been care in Government and reticence in opposition. Instead, we have wilful waste of what those memory warriors contributed nothing to.

Perhaps the very best statement on commemoration was then taoiseach Brian Cowen’s at the Institute for British-Irish Studies in 2010. Reflecting on “growing up knowing and hearing only one set of stories”, he said that, “for too long, we concentrated on our differences”.

Acknowledging that commemoration “is a selective act”, Cowen said he wanted to see “full acknowledgement of the totality of the island’s history”.

Warning that “there will be those who oppose any such reflection” and would “hijack history” for themselves, he said: “Count me out.” I attribute no view whatsoever on this controversy to Ahern or Cowen, but their experience then informs my view now.

If the mayor of Clare — vying for a second Fianna Fáil seat there and seeking to position himself as a barrow for displaced Sinn Féin votes — set the tone of the response, the impetus came from the Government, and Cork specifically.

The Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations, bandied about as cover until yesterday, wasn’t consulted on the RIC plan. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin, made that crystal clear yesterday. Of more concern is that it hasn’t received the political time and attention required in government.

Unlike former Culture Minister Heather Humphreys, who was acutely sensitive to nuance and liaised closely with the group, the incumbent Josepha Madigan has less to learn it seems.

The 2020 programme, announced on January 2, is Cork-centric, with a €1m budget, because Tánaiste Simon Coveney pushed for it. To a significant degree, the mainframe for 2020 commemorations is political.

In a less than duly deliberated upon programme prepared at relatively short notice, specific events were required as garnish. Notably on January 2, launch day for the programme, there was no mention of the RIC event in Dublin Castle on January 17.

Invitations to that only issued on January 6 from Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. That required instant clarification from Flanagan, that the event was “in no sense a commemoration of the Black & Tans or the auxiliaries”. Flanagan should have consulted first.

The hurried nature of preparing the programme, and the standalone and uncontextualised nature of the RIC event, was careless.

Of course, as the Expert Advisory Group suggested on page 17 of its report, “consideration should also be given to the organisation of specific initiatives to commemorate the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police and to acknowledge their place in history”.

That commemoration would properly be in 2022, the centenary of its disbandment. A context and understanding could be built though a series of seminars and academic papers dealing with all aspects of the force, and its complex history in between.

Instead now there is entitled talk about a ‘flattening’ of ‘history’ to accommodate commemoration here.

But this history is only flattened from the hindsight of a nationalist perspective in a specifically partitionist setting.

The RIC, and subsequently the RUC, was involved in an at-times brutal rearguard action to preserve the union. Each had substantial popular support on the island as a whole.

We can build round towers at Messines in Flanders and commemorate the Somme. But that some of our own were implacably opposed to independence is a reckoning still to be allowed for.

As Cowen said, commemoration is a selective act.

Tomorrow evening, the Taoiseach meets Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

By Monday, it will be clear whether there will be an assembly or fresh elections in the North. Next Wednesday the Dáil may meet.

The ultimate irony is the spectacle of the long shadow of the Royal Irish Constabulary 98 years after their disbandment.

History is never over.

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