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History as a Liberating, Not Enslaving, Force in Politics

May 23, 1999|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele, a contributing writer for Irish America magazine, has written about Ireland for several national publications

Exactly a year ago, the results of the Irish peace referendum were announced in Belfast and Dublin. Large majorities in both Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic wanted an end to violence and a movement toward peace. Today, their wish is stalemated.

Key parts of the "Good Friday" agreement have yet to be implemented. The executive committee of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, of which Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, is entitled to two members, has not been established. Critical issues like police reform, equality of opportunity and cross-boarder cooperation have not been meaningfully discussed, delayed by Unionist intransigence over the largely symbolic issue of arms decommissioning.

May 23 marks another anniversary: 201 years ago, the United Irishmen, a revolutionary organization with both Protestants and Catholics in its membership and leadership, took up arms against the British-controlled government in Dublin. The coincidence of the two anniversaries illustrates a larger point about Ireland and its pursuit of peace: History and hope are frequently stalemated. But if the peace negotiations succeed, it would loosen history's grip on the present.

The United Irishmen's most famous leader was Protestant attorney Theobald Wolfe Tone. He was inspired to revolt by the principles that drove the French Revolution, the Enlightenment's idea of universal rights and his own experience of Ireland's corrupt and oppressive Anglo-Irish Parliament. While Tone was anticlerical and suspicious of the Irish masses, his advocacy of armed struggle was embraced by subsequent nationalist movements, including the IRA.

Two weeks ago, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams spoke of Irish history and invoked Tone's legacy in his address at the party's national convention. "We should look to Tone," he urged, "for guidance on our path to Irish freedom." Then Adams added an important proviso. Quoting James Connolly, another martyred Irish rebel, he said, "but the greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody. So, too, is it with Sinn Fein."

It is Adams' great achievement that he has wrenched Sinn Fein, and a good part of the IRA, into understanding that "armed struggle" and the romance of Ireland's past are an inadequate strategy for its present and future. The debate over that future is inextricably linked with an analysis of Ireland's past.

In most countries, memories of failed revolutionaries past are relegated to the historical pantheon, trotted out on special occasions for moments of totemic worship, then returned to storage. But Ireland is not a typical mature democracy. With the status of Northern Ireland still unsettled, and with deadly violence still a weekly if not daily occurrence, Ireland's revolutionary martyrs cling to the living and won't let go.

For more than 10 years, academics and journalists, amateur historians and Belfast cab drivers have debated the content and meaning of Ireland's past. The "revisionist" discussions of Irish history have thrown open virtually every period of Irish history to reinterpretation and thus controversy.

Revisionist historians led by Oxford scholar R.F. Foster, whose book "Modern Ireland 1600-1972" was a bestseller in Ireland and generated great scholarly heat, have tried to, in Foster's words, "provide a nuanced view of Ireland's past" with a "robust skepticism about the pieties of Irish nationalist history, and a reluctance to blame every unwelcome development in Ireland on British malevolence." For Foster, Irish history was not made by good guys and bad guys but forged in shades of gray. To Foster's opponents, including Adams, the color gray is the color of denial, a school of history that strives to exculpate the British and "remove the pain," and therefore the justification for revolt, from the Irish past.

Adams is not the only prominent political leader to see history as contested terrain. John Hume, Nobel Peace prize winner and leader of the largest nominally Catholic party in Northern Ireland, spoke recently about how understanding Ireland's history and links to Europe has shaped his view of the evolving peace process. The 1690 Battle of the Boyne, which solidified English dominance in Ireland, "was a major battle in a European war in which Dutch, Danes, Germans, French and English all fought," said Hume. "And the 'Act of Union' was England's response to the French revolutionaries' invasion of Ireland in 1798."

Hume, an influential member of the European Parliament, wants to import economic development, not foreign armies. He has been successful. Millions of dollars from the European Union have been distributed in Northern Ireland to foster community partnerships bringing nationalist and Unionist groups together for grass-roots projects.

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