Irish election hopefuls spar over century-old uprising

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 04, 2016 8:53 AM

By Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's political system emerged from the rubble of the anti-British 1916 Easter Rising, and the parties contesting this month's election in its centenary year are battling to claim the legacy of the rebellion.

The rising, the most dramatic chapter of Ireland's independence struggle, has featured in campaigning by all four of the largest parties, whose leaders are bidding to oversee the state commemorations in March as government ministers.

The left-wing nationalists of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), have held full-scale re-enactments of the 1916 events and promised to belatedly implement the egalitarian ideals of the rebels.

Tapping into anger that the country's rapid economic recovery is not being felt by the poor, Sinn Fein has accused the government of failing the 1916 Proclamation's promise of "equal rights and equal opportunities" to all citizens.

And it has promised to pursue the rebels' aspiration for a 32-county independent Ireland including the six counties of Northern Ireland.

"From the outset the government has shown an unwillingness, a discomfort to commemorate the spirit of 1916," Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said at a rally on Sunday that featured nationalist songs and men in rebel uniforms with mock rifles.

"A discussion about where stands the republic now would cast them in a very bad light," she said.

A poll on Thursday ahead of the Feb. 26 election put Sinn Fein in third place with 19 percent, roughly doubling its support since the last vote in 2011. But with its main rivals ruling out governing with the party, it is unlikely to be in a coalition.

FAILURE AND TRIUMPH

The rebellion started on Easter Monday when around 150 men stormed Dublin's General Post Office, replaced the British flag with the Irish tricolour and read aloud a declaration of independence. They surrendered five days later under heavy British shelling.

It has been described as a "triumph of failure" because, while the rebels were defeated and executed, their uprising galvanized the independence movement and paved the way for the creation of the Irish Republic.

The ruling Fine Gael party was founded to pursue the legacy of 1916 rebel Michael Collins, but in the centenary year has seemed to offer Sinn Fein an easy target.

A video released by the government to launch the commemorations spliced pictures of the British queen's visit to Dublin with smiling children and Irish sports stars without any reference to the actual rebellion, and was widely ridiculed.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny has had to distance itself from former Fine Gael leader John Bruton, who has described the rising as a mistake that prevented a promised transfer of power from London to Dublin which could have avoided the bloodshed that ensued.

Center-right rival Fianna Fail, founded by Eamon de Valera, a 1916 commander who went on to become prime minister and president, has been more assertive in challenging Sinn Fein.

It says the party is celebrating the rising in order to justify the violence of the campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s.

"Sinn Fein wants to cynically manipulate this national event to legitimize the Provisional IRA," said Fianna Fail Chairman Brendan Smith.

Sinn Fein was founded in its current form in 1970 but claims to be the successor of an earlier Sinn Fein party closely associated with 1916.

POLITICAL FOOTBALL

Commemorations by center-left junior coalition party Labour, founded by one of the main rebel commanders James Connolly, have been more low-key, featuring debates, exhibitions and walking tours.

Sinn Fein's campaign is less subtle. Last summer the party eclipsed a wreath-laying by the prime minister and president at the grave of a nationalist leader by holding a full-scale dress re-enactment of his funeral across central Dublin.

While the main commemoration parade takes place on Easter Sunday, March 27, Sinn Fein has indicated it will mark the rising on April 24, the date of Easter Monday in 1916.

The rising has long been a political football.

"From the very early years [of 1916 commemorations], there was always a mixture of pious reverence and political point-scoring," said historian Diarmaid Ferriter. "This year will be another version of that."

Sinn Fein's weekend rally was on Moore Street in central Dublin, where the rebels surrendered after British forces took the post office.

The party has condemned a plan to build a shopping center at the site, preserving four buildings but knocking down the rest of the street, calling the development "crass, cheap and clueless".

Some passers-by accused Sinn Fein of jumping on a bandwagon to get attention in the run-up to the election. But supporters contrasted the heavy security at government events to the festive atmosphere of Sinn Fein's.

"The commemorations the government are doing are not for the people. Its for the select few," said Michael McAdam, dressed in a rebel uniform with a mock rifle over his shoulder.

"We're the working-class people. We're the only people who really care about this."

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Andrew Roche)