Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly
Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions Conference
The Irish Film Centre, 13-15 November, 1998
I would like to thank the Irish Film Centre for inviting me to speak at this conference, especially since I am told I am replacing such an esteemed person as Seamus Deane.
Those who were listening to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's opening address last night would have heard him cleverly posing a series of about 30 questions to the participants of this conference. As one of the two other political representatives speaking this weekend I am going to ignore his questions in the great tradition of politicians answering other politicians questions.
I have to confess immediately some confusion over the title of the conference and its explanatory paragraphs. (Nationalisms: Visions and Revisions''. Why is nationalism plural especially when the whole conference is to plot the development of Irish nationalism'' and why does it state ``after the partition of Ireland, to radically oppose but two interdependent ideologies one north and one south of the new border''
I presume this is a reference to Irish nationalism in the 26 counties and the rise to dominence of British unionism in the 6 counties. I don't say this to be clever but the difficulty for myself and the other 600,000 nationalists living north of the border our nationalism developed because of or may be despite of unionist apartheid in that orange statelet. It becomes twice the struggle if we have to fight for recognition in the minds of nationalists in the 26 Counties.
On the other hand if the reference is to nationalism north and south it does really point up the concept of two nationalisms which would be the greatest crime of partition. If it were true ! So a little unsettled I will forge ahead.
Watching a lot of the historical footage here, yesterday and today, actually gave me at times an unusual feeling of deja vu. All images caught on camera become historical records and history becomes important in a struggle for freedom. Lessons are to be learnt both good and bad but it wasn't history books which led me as a teenager to join a military organisation to fight for freedom and equality in my own country. I would guess that the vast majority of young men and women who join such struggles are caught by an image or series of images or personal experiences. While they are contemporary they are a mirror reflection of what is often found in the archives.
I joined because of civil rights marches been beaten into the ground and because of Bloody Sunday, the introduction of internment and house raids by British soldiers and armoured cars opening fire down the streets of the working class area in which I lived. I take it, and I think that the images we have seen verify this, that lots of teenagers and young men and women were affected in the same way. The initial driving force in my experience is a mixture of compassion and anger - a lot more love of your family and neighbours than hatred for the perpetrators.
History then enters to reinforce or destroy your commitment because the initial, if you like non political emotions, will not sustain the person through any length of struggle and what a national liberation struggle demand of participants.
This is not to say there are not those who study and know their history who have it sussed: the historians, the teachers and the politicians. But without people to join up the dots a revolutionary struggle would just be a continues series of similar but unconnected skirmishes. But for the majority I would argue and certainly for myself the initial driving force is the enemies oppression and the absence of a democratic and peaceful way to end that oppression.
Politics can often be, especially for youth, the simple realisation that the state forces that raided your home or beat your neighbours in the street did the same in another town or village. The personal grows into the political.
Enter stage right history and its lessons and stage left the most up to date vehicle for such lessons the electronic media. An image on TV can say more than 1000 static photographs or 1000 statements It is like a bushfire of communication. It has become instantaneous to the point that governments are afraid of the truth and we have state censorship or the operators of the media, the journalists and producers are afraid of it and practice self censorship
One of the things which caught my eye in the Mise Eire film was that newspaper articles in the 1910's and 1920s were often marked ``censor cleared'' and throughout the 1970s and 1980s state censorship in the electronic media was all pervasive
The 1916 to 1922 period was one of the most thrilling and one of the most traumatic periods of Irish history.
It was a time when the majority of the people of Ireland voted to break free from imperial control, when men and women fought for the grand vision of freedom and brought an empire to the bargaining table, but it was also a time of great suffering and division.
It was a period when despite the fact that tens of thousands of Irish Volunteers gave their lives for the rights of small nations, including their own, their sacrifice was by-passed by the tide of history even as they fought and died on Flanders fields.
The tragedy of predominantly working-class loyalists and republicans fighting together in the same trenches, both believing they had been promised directly opposing political visions of the future back home, both sets of Irishmen hoodwinked by Britain into fighting a pointless war between identically corrupt imperial powers, is an enduring tragedy of history. The Kings and Queens played their imperial games while the working class pawns were discarded to rot and stagnate in the trenches.
The 1916 rebellion in Dublin may have appeared to be a mere pin-prick, given the mass carnage on the fields of Flanders, but it was a very necessary turning point in this nation's history. The executions in its aftermath exposed the cruel raw reality of colonial oppression and gave rise to a people's revolution that eventually pushed the British government out of much of Ireland.
Their guerilla tactics, fought against vastly superior forces, won the admiration of other oppressed peoples throughout the world. This country's continuing agony, however, was guaranteed at the peace negotiations in London, when partition was effectively institutionalised and my part of the country was abandoned to its fate to suffer a version in microcosm of the previous 700 years of dominance and subjugation.
The film we just saw captured the aftermath of just one of many pogroms against the nationalist population of Belfast, lessons in dominance met with supreme indifference by London. The chance of making a historic compromise with Ulster unionists, at that time of sweeping historical tides, was eminently possible. That opportunity was lost, however. Britain, always with an eye on protecting its economic and strategic interests; its politicians, as ever, more than willing to play the Orange card in the Westminster power game between the Liberals and Conservatives; guaranteed a future of partition and denial of justice in Ireland.
The nationalists of the six counties were abandoned to unionist domination, while unionists, guaranteed a perpetual majority in their statelet, were encouraged in their conservative siege mentality to forever see nationalists as the enemy within and without the border.
The peace talks of course, also gave rise to the civil war in the 20s. The issue of the acceptance of something less than complete freedom diverted attention from the issue of partition and poisoned politics in this state for decades after. In many ways, the life and death of Michael Collins, still fiercely debated, personifies the impossible and far-reaching choices that Britain forced on Ireland in 1921 and 1922. The threat of immediate and terrible war from Churchill if the Irish delegation refused to accept the treaty must have influenced many including Collins.
The irony of his apparent recognition of the need to break partition even while giving the order to shell his former comrades in the Four Courts, using borrowed British artillery, is striking. He died regarded as a hero by some, a hero turned traitor to others, and as an unredeemed terrorist to still more.
Today, we still grapple with the lost opportunities of that brief but momentous period in Irish history. The divisions created then deepened and festered, adversely affecting people on both sides of the border. Today, we again have an opportunity to finally put all our demons to rest and reach a new historic dispensation. Today we have an opportunity to deliver the lasting peace which they sought back then.
There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted. Genuine peace must be the product of many people - the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new situation. It is this dynamic and momentum which is eluding the peace process at the moment and which is causing such concern. Unionism is on a go-slow - approaching stop.
David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party are doing all in their power to prevent the change promised in the Good Friday Agreement. They are trying to prevent access for nationalists to the nationalist aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. They are effectively on a campaign to renegotiate the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. They do not want to see Sinn Fein in an Executive. They did not want to see Sinn Fein in the talks. They do not want to see a working all-Ireland Council. They do not want to see equality delivered because of what it will mean politically, socially, economically and culturally.
The importance of history is not to wallow in it the importance is in the lessons to be learnt, the mistakes which should not me made again. Equally when that history is visually verbatum then such lessons have even greater clarity.
It is for this reason that we asked that Tony Blair get directly involved and take up the challenge posed by Mr. Trimble's stalling of the peace process, to pro-actively seek to advance the establishment of the Executive, the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and the policy and implementation bodies. He has to make clear that movement must take place according to what was agreed on Good Friday. This is not 1921 or 1969 but we do have the visual, electronic and audio archives to learn from, to ensure that in certain circumstances history will not repeat itself.
In the days and weeks that lie ahead we would do well to remember the words of South African President Nelson Mandela. Speaking prior to the elections in South Africa in 1994 he said:
``This is not an election merely to be contested between political organisations. It is a contest between freedom and oppression .... and its outcome will affect over 100 million people throughout Southern Africa.''
If we adapt these words to what is happening here in Ireland it is clear that this peace process is not about contests or arguments between political parties. It is equally a contest between freedom and oppression and we must do all in our power to ensure that is succeeds. The potential of this agreement directly affects all the people in Ireland, catholic, protestant and dissenter.
Change is coming, change is inevitable. We want to see unionists and nationalists, republicans and loyalists, everyone involved in managing that change. That is the task we have set ourselves and despite all the prevarication, the road-blocks, the stalling tactics and the word games, our historic task will succeed.
Let our children and our grandchildren come to a conference like this in 20 years time and look at the archives with pride because we their parents have succeeded. As my mother once said to me when she realised that I joined the struggle in my late teens ``well son if our generation had solved it yours wouldn't have to.'' These were brave words that I don't want to repeat to my own kids.
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