2020 Blindness – Leo Varadkar and the RIC Commemoration

The Taoiseach has somehow, needlessly, pointlessly snookered himself. “Apologists for the Black and Tans” –Is there a worse insult that could be thrown at Fine Gael? This the party of Michael Collins, the man who devised the strategy of undermining local policing which in turn led to the coming of the infamous auxiliary police force in 1920.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) is one of the last nettles that needs to be grasped in our coming to terms with the tumultuous events that led to us finally shedding the shackles of Empire. What we’ve learned in the last few days is that such nettles will not be clutched any time soon, not necessarily never, just clearly not right now.

Fianna Fail were quick to smell blood, Cllr Cathal Crowe the Chairperson of Clare County Council was one of the first out of the traps, going full Republican and announcing his decision to absent himself from the proposed Commemoration event. Cllr John Sheahen the current Lord Mayor of Cork soon followed. How could the current office holder possibly attend an event that would celebrate those that burned his city and murdered his predecessor, “I could not commemorate [the RIC] and then commemorate Tomás MacCurtain’s death a few weeks later… it would just not be appropriate.” Michael Martins comments were more measured. Mary Lou didn’t hold back.

The trickle of anger became a stream and now a torrent of opposition politicians are straining for column space to expound their abhorrence of this celebration of Black and Tannery. Social media is ablaze, as hot as any Australian bushfire in. How exactly has Leo, the proclaimed King of Spin, got this so wrong?

Was he blindly led to the sacrificial altar of social media or was it just a case of not having his eye on the ball? Is the whole affair symbolic of revisionism, the gospel of Irish historical academia, the word according to the evangelists Moody and Dudley-Edwards, gone completely awry? The assertion by Diarmuid Ferriter that the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) for the Government’s ‘Decade of Centenaries programme’ did not recommend this event suggests this was simply a huge political gaffe. Even Donald Trump couldn’t tweet his way out of this one but it didn’t stop the Taoiseach trying.

From a historiographical viewpoint we are in a crucial decade, with so many centenaries of events that have shaped the modern island we live on. The outcome of that seminal decade a century ago was the creation of two separate states, one devoutly Catholic, one distinctly Protestant and the genesis of all the necessary creation myths that were needed to provide the foundations for both.

As the revisionists would say “subordinating historical truth to the cause of the Nation”. In the face of such myths how can we know if we really possess the historical truth? For all those who in recent days have attacked “apologists for the black and tans” there is also a need for the people of this island, on all sides, to liberate themselves from the “mental servitude of myth”. Has revisionism by professional historians failed in this regard? Has it contributed to what Minister Charles Flanagan described today as the “disappointing response” by the public to the proposed event? Or is the real disappointing response that of the Government?

For at least forty years now revisionism has been the accepted orthodoxy of history and has produced some amazing tomes. No respectable domestic bookshelf in this country is complete without containing publications such as F. S L Lyons “Ireland since the Famine”, JJ Lee ‘Ireland 1912-85 Politics and Society” and of course T. W Moody’s “New History of Ireland” series.The production line continues. Irish History is thriving in the academic sphere, but what is it having any effect on the general populace, many who are often unwilling to accept the re-writing of “their history” and are more than willing to take to the keyboard (as I am – the irony is not lost!) to protect the edifices of their Nationalist or Unionist mythologies. The message for revisionist politicians is that you cannot tear down an edifice without replacing it with something equally sturdy. These last few days have clearly illustrated how enduring the Irish Nationalist narrative is. It is the accepted truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of the struggle for independence and the formation of the modern Nation. This narrative gives this Republic its Title Deeds, its legitimacy, its sovereignty.

This is a great little country for Commemorations, from the 12th July up North to Arbour Hill, to Bodenstown to more modest annual gatherings at republican plots in local graveyards. These events are important in reaffirming the myths and creation stories, the heroic sacrifice and the struggle, “Lest we forget” as they say in a neighbouring jurisdiction.

This Commemoration is something an increasingly unpopular administration should not have engaged in on the eve of a General Election. We will find out in a few months the extent of the damage caused by this act of Hari Kari. Such incompetence should not completely condemn or derail what is a kernel of necessary reflection and a conversation worth having, but in a week where one of our worst flu seasons choked up an already malfunctioning and over-stretched health system, where homelessness continues to rise and affordable housing non-existent, this has been an extraordinary political own goal.

Political Gaffes do affect Electoral success. One of the most infamous occurred in the early years of the impoverished State, when Ernest Blythe reduced the old age pension. The move is credited with giving impetus to the newly formed Fianna fail at the 1927 election. “When the devil you know was notorious for cutting a shilling off the old-age pension, many voters decided to take a chance with the devil they didn’t know, or at least didn’t know that well”.

The Taoiseach this morning took to twitter suggesting that we should “be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past”. This comment only added fuel to the fire with its implication that we are not mature enough to have a commemoration of a body that did harmless stuff like collecting the census, taking weather readings and prosecuting inebriated men for having no lights on their bikes. My own great grand uncle spent most of his career breaking up Poitín stills in Connemara. That benign RIC is fine and dandy, big, strapping youngest sons of farmers could not be faulted for choosing respectable, pensionable positions when such opportunities were very scarce. But the peelers were also the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle and therein lies the problem. They played a crucial role suppressing the Fenian rebellion of 1867 (which earned the prefix “Royal”), they were Royal and Loyal. This without getting into their role in the revolutionary years. But what about all the many RIC men who turned their backs on their pensions because they could not side with the Empire against their neighbours and friends. At full strength in 1921 only about a fifth of those rostered were from the original pre 1920 force. It was the decision of these thousands of men to reject the crown atop their badge that necessitated the Black and Tans recruitment. Like everything in Ireland all is never as it seems.

Now Taoiseach this is not the time to cajole the Nation, now is not the time to talk down to people. Perhaps we are just not yet ready for this conversation. Pointing that out to us is not going to assist our conversion.

The “disappointing response” has now led to a deferral and doubts as to whether it will ever be held in the future. The toothpaste is out of the tube and it can’t be got back. Fianna Fail have been handed a gift horse to restate their Republican credentials, Sinn Fein have been energised, the radio waves and news feeds are abuzz, #NotMyTaoiseach is trending at number one.

Epilogue

Q. Former Inspector General of the RIC, Colonel Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain invented what game?

It is a question befitting any Table Quiz. The answer is of course Snooker and it also hints at how the Taoiseach must feel right now and not the place his party candidates want to be either with the election on the horizon.

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