Micheal Clifford: Twitter warriors shoot themselves in foot

Micheal Clifford: Twitter warriors shoot themselves in foot
The home of Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, shortly after his assassination by Irish members of the RIC in March 1920. Picture: Mercier Archives.

Dan Clifford and a comrade were hiding out in a house in the Gurrane mountains outside Cahirciveen. The troops surrounded the house and ordered the pair to surrender. They emerged from the house with their hands raised. A short time later they were summarily shot dead.

The killing of the two men was an atrocity, a war crime. It was perpetrated not by the crown forces or any of the crown’s agents in Ireland, but instead by the National Army.

The army was acting with the authority of the provisional government of Ireland, elected by the people in 1922.

Their brief was to defeat forces opposed to the Anglo Irish Treaty. At times the Civil War descended into depravity.

The killing of my grand-uncle on March 6, 1923, was an atrocity that was largely forgotten, simply because so many other atrocities plumbed far darker depths around that time, particularly in Kerry.

Shortly after Dan was summarily executed, his brother Michael, my grandfather, got word and left his shop in the town to go up to Gurrane. When he arrived near to the scene shots were fired at him and heretreated in fear of his life.

Later, Michael was told that pro-treaty elements were threatening to burn down his shop.

Michael took no part in the Civil War but his brother’s involvement had rendered him a target. This is the kind of state-sponsored terror that would in time feature in places such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Saddam’s Iraq and the West Bank.

Over the coming months and years the State will commemorate those who oversaw the terror from 1922-23. None of which is to suggest that the anti-treaty forces were innocent victims in the Civil War.

They were acting in a profoundly undemocratic manner. They were attempting to destroy the newly created Free State for which the majority of people had voted.

They were complicit in a “violent response to oppose and suppress the democratic wishes of the majority on the island”.

That quote was used by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan this week to describe the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

It also perfectly describes the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. The political leader of the anti-Treaty side, Eamon de Valera, had declared that “the people have no right to be wrong” when they voted for acceptance of the Treaty.

In pursuing their aims the anti-Treaty side also preyed on the civilian population to spread terror. Over the coming months and years the State will commemorate those who took up arms in defiance of democracy in 1922-23.

The War of Independence which preceded the Civil War threw up plenty of atrocities. The war had some democratic legitimacy through the elections of December 1918.

But contrary to the unquestioned narrative peddled until recent decades, the IRA of the time were perfectly apt at spreading terror as they saw fit. Over the coming months and years the State will honour the men and women of the IRA who fought in the War of Independence.

These harsh realities may be self evident to many but need to be spelled out in light of the hullabaloo this week about the proposed State commemoration for the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police. Much of the criticism of the now aborted event centred on the police forces’ reputation for brutality and committing atrocities.

Some members of the police were brutal, others revelled in inflicting terror, and many more were simply doing a job. But the narrative that the RIC and DMP had a monopoly on depravity should be with de Valera, in the grave.

One example of the tone and content during the week was a piece in the Irish Examiner written by Padraig Óg Ó Ruairc who has written several books about the period.

He enumerated a succession of brutal atrocities for which the RIC were responsible. But the average reader — and certainly the average Twitter user — would have walked away from the article believing that depravity was the preserve of the losing side in the War of Independence.

The reality is that many goodmen and women on both sides did bad things at a terrible time and often had to make accommodations with themselves by internalising it for the rest of their lives.

“Why should the Irish Government expect the Irish people to commemorate them?” Mr Ó Ruairc asked.

Well, maybe because they also were Irish, drawn from the same towns, farms and families as those who fought for independence and then fought each other. Maybe because Irish history is messy and complicated and far removed from the dated depiction of virtuous freedom fighters taking on the perfidious and evil crown forces.

Maybe because it would be a good signal to send to the one million or so unionists in the north of the island that we have grown up down here and can acknowledge a shared history which is painful on both sides. The frenzied reaction this week betrayed nothing as much as a partitionist mentality.

Anybody who genuinely cares about a United Ireland has to recognise that it is be made up of two very different traditions. If the majority tradition down here can’t come to terms with what was perpetrated by the other side 100 years ago, how can we expect the majority tradition up there to do likewise over what they were subjected to just 30 years ago?

The proposed commemoration was very poorly handled. There should have been proper consultation and debate ahead of it. Holding it as the first event of this seminal year in the centenary of the violent upheaval was a major misstep. But the reaction spoke volumes of how far we have to travel in this state.

One outstanding feature of the hullabaloo suggests we have gone back to the future. In de Valera’s Ireland, the cartoonish narrative of goodies versus baddies prevailed. Then, with some revision, the view through the rear mirror was broadened out. Now in the time of social media, public debate has regressed.

Once more it’s goodies versus baddies, anger and stridency squeezing out any nuance or perspective.

Negative reaction to the proposed commemoration was driven and amplified on Twitter in particular. Many who gave their considered opinion on Twitter believed the event was to celebrate the Black and Tans. Say no more.

What would Seán Ó Faoláin have made of it all? The writer was an IRA combatant during the period and subsequently a rare subversive voice in a submissive state. His father had been an RIC inspector.

“Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot as traitors to their country — so be it. Shot for cruel necessity — so be it. Shot to inspire necessary terror — so be it. But they were not traitors. They had their loyalties and stuck to them.”

Then again, sure what would Sean Ó Faoláin know? The man never tweeted in his life.

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