Robert Ballagh…Question & Answer Session

Tying up some loose ends here. Almost a month since I attended the lecture on “1916 Centenary” given by artist Robert Ballagh at An Féile. I blogged about the lecture and intended to blog about the subsequent Question and Answer session.

To recap, Robert is a dedicated republican who opposes the Irish Governments lukewarm approach to the legacy of 1916, burying it in a Decade of Centenaries. He ridiculed British involvement in the commemoration and suggested…accurately in my view …that if you dont celebrate the Easter Rising as special, then you end up celebrating nothing at all.

Essentially his idea is that the Citizens of Ireland claim 24th April 2016 as a proper, unashamed Republican Day. He ridiculed the central role that the Queen of England might play.

As always, the audience at an event at An Féile is almost as interesting as the “platform”. Bill Rollston from University of Ulster was in the “chair”. He has written extensively about Belfast’s political street murals. Some people think this is a great academic enterprise. Some people think its all a load of bollox.

Danny Devenney was in the audience. The legendary “Danny D” paints political murals around West Belfast. Last year he painted the risible “Gerry Adams…Visionary….Statesman etc” mural when the Great Leader was held in custody for four days (it has since been removed as it made Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin an involuntary laughing stock). A lot of people think Belfast’s political murals are important artwork. A lot of people think its all a load of bollox.

Gerry Adams (the Visionary, the Statesman and the Etcetera) was there, sitting at the door babysitting a quiet three year old child. He is also a Grandfather.

Some Sinn Féin intellectuals like the artsy Máirtin Ó Muilleoir MLA (South Belfast) and Jim Gibney, the Irish News columnist.

And there was a lot of “hard nuts” …Sinn Féin fringe people from West Belfast. And there was the strange hybrid of Sinn Féin member…”hard nuts” posing as intellectuals to impress Gerry, Máirtín and Jim.

Eamonn Mallie, a real journalist was there. As anyone who reads his Blog will know, Eamonn writes on Art as much as he writes on Politics.

And….I was there. And I was thinking how much I wished some of my American friends had been with me. It was all an audi-visual aid to Sinn Féin dominance of West Belfast.

In other words…a typical Féile audience.

I was suffering from a severe bronchial problem. And although I asked the first question, I lost my voice but was just about understood. I asked Robert if he had any idea how An Post (the Irish Post Office) will commemorate Easter Rising thru postage stamps. It might sound like a nerdy question …and it is! …but postage stamps not only say something about a historical event, they also say something about the time that an event is commemorated.

The Easter Rising has been commemorated in 1941, 1966, 1991 and 2006 and on each occasion, it said as much about evolving “official” Irish attitudes as the Rising itself. Robert Ballagh was as much in the dark as I am….although suspicions that I had already articulated elsewhere were partly confirmed by another member of the audience.

The suspicion is that as well as recognising the 1916 Patriots, there will be recognition of both “women” and “civilians” and maybe even the Dublin police officers who were killed by the “rebels”.

Certainly An Post has a reputation for issuing stamps featuring women, partly to redress the balance that women were airbrushed outof Irish History but there is also a whiff of (the right kind of) political correctness.

Certainly I anticipated that Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell who was a heroine in the General Post Office and was a heroine after the Surrender will feature on a stamp next year. Countess Markievicz has already featured but that is no bar to featuring again. Maybe Grace Gifford, widow of Joseph Plunkett.

And I have long believed that the suffering of civilians will be acknowledged…either in respect of the North King Street massacre by British troops or the murder (again by the British) of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, the pacifist.

Dublin Police? Now that might be controversial but it would be an acceptable (maybe) form of reconciliation while recognising that the appearance of (directly) British forces and their so called sacrifice would be a step too far. To be honest, I think that the audience member who brought this up is probably right.

There was of course a lot of questions or more properly some of the “hard nuts” talking about next year.

Jim Gibney spoke….a long statement, seemingly the object to put a Sinn Féin centre stage and put a spin on what Robert Ballagh had been saying. At the end of the long party-line delivery , in which Gibney referenced the need for “reconciliation” and referencing Orangeman Rev Meryn Gibson’s appearance at An Féile with Residents spokesman (sic) Spike Murray and noting “ex prisoner” (ie UVF man) Plum Smith at An Féile.

At the end of this meandering spoofery, Robert Ballagh simply asked Gibney….”and what is your question?”

At the end of it all, I got a few words with Robert Ballagh. He kindly autographed some First Day Covers he had designed. I mentioned I was a member of SDLP. This remark was overheard by a local “hard nut” who said “Are you a Stoop?”. I think I put him in his place by saying I dont indulge in “Stoop” and “Shinner” insults.

That shut the fecker up. Hard nut? ….my arse!

So what did we learn?

Well the Irish Government commemoration of 1916 will be influenced by the event itself and the history that has come after….essentially in the six years after the (deeply unpopular) Rising pushed forward an emotional response to British over-reaction and brought about the first Dáil which retrospectively endorsed Pearse, Connolly and the rest. But post-Treaty a counter-revolution set in which re-alligned Irish politics around (eventually) Fianna Fáil  who were more pro-Republican than (eventually) Fine Gael, a coalition of softer Republicans and west-Briton unionists. Arguably, years of Partition, European membership, the Good Friday Agreement consolidated the Counter-Revolution. Its all about the totality of relationships between Ireland and Britain as Charles Haughey of Fianna Fáil put it years ago.

Notwithstanding the result of any Irish General Election ahead of 24th April 2016, the official plans are Fine Gael-inspired.

Fine Gael inspired plans dilutes the message of Easter 1916. And Robert Ballagh and others are obviously right to arrange alternative commemorations that better reflect the republican values than under-pin the Irish Nation…an Irish Nation of which I am a citizen. Robert Ballagh would be the first to recognise that “republicans” are in all Parties in the Republic of Ireland and in at least two in the North of Ireland.

To emphasise Robert Ballagh sees no connexion between Easter Rising and outreaching to northern unionists and the British.

Yet curiously the Sinn Féin philosophers and “hard nuts” see it differently. At no point during the lecture or Q & A session did anyone mention SDLP. Sinn Féin dont really acknowledge that it is possible SDLP members can be Republican. The northern commemorations will have Sinn Féins fingerprints all over ….rather like the official Dublin ceremonies will have Fine Gael fingerprints.

For Fine Gael….it is about the Easter Rising…and outreaching to the British.

For Sinn Féin (and dont forget an Assembly Election weeks after Easter 2016 )….it is about Easter  1916 and their old mates Rev Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order and Plum Smith, formerly of the UVF.

For me…..well I dont really see this as the Centenary of the Easter Rising. It is more like the 50th Anniversary of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

In 1966, I was 13 going on 14. Next year, I will be 63 going on 64.

What has changed? A lot. But one thing that I dont think has changed is a familiar Irish pattern….Pre-Conflict….Conflict….Post-Conflict….Pre-Conflict….Conflict….and so on.

So really I just have this feeling of deja vu….I have this feeling of deja vu…I have this feeling of deja vu.

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6 Responses to Robert Ballagh…Question & Answer Session

  1. Dub says:

    As always you see things many people do not… Noone in the South seems to be aware of SF’s very own version of “let’s get along erism” for example…. However, how fo you think Republicans and Nationalists should deal with the OO and loyalists?

    • I think we tend to equate Orange Order and Loyalists with Unionism. And frankly thats how Unionism likes it. They tend to hide behind the worst elements to make accomodation impossible.
      We cant accomodate loyalists…or Nazis…or Ku Klux Klan.

  2. Just judging by family, friends and acquaintances – though admittedly that might be something of an echo-chamber – there is a general feeling abroad that the FG-Labour coalition is trying to underplay the 1916 anniversary not celebrate it. That has engendered a lot of cynicism and resentment. SF and others might be on to a populist winner by holding their “independent” events. The British-apologists will hold their nose in distaste but republican-susceptible members of the general public will lap it up. The amount of teens and tweens at the SF-led O’Donovan Rossa was remarkable. The official ceremony was all grey hairs and bouffants.

    • Thats true….The FG-Labour Coalition is embarrassed by 1916. While too many might be indifferent, the majority of ordinary folks outside Dublin 4…GAA members will support the “alternative” commemoration.
      In the Republic this can be done without seeming to show supportfor SF…but in the North SF will be more central in local organising groups.
      There are “republicans” and “Republicans”….and I think the southern “alternative” will be more representative of the “republican family”.
      But the North …SF seems to see it as a “Republican” event and they see themselves as the only “Republicans” on the block.

  3. benmadigan says:

    if the centenary commemoration in NI is going to be in the hands of SF, surely then the onus is on the SDLP, IRSP and other republican parties to offer to help and insist on playing their part. And on the SF on “inviting” the others to play a part. All together. Surely the event is more important than petty party political differences

    • I hope youre right. Its an ideal opportunity for SDLP to state republican credentials …but if Organising Committees are SF “fronts”, it will be difficult and with Alliance Party sniping on the sidelines a month before an Assembly Election, doubly difficult.
      Essentially there are THREE not TWO Commemorations.
      1 Government or Official
      2 Balaghs vision of broad “republicanism”
      3 SF vision of “their” republicanism.
      In the South the SF tail wont wag the “broad republican” dog but in the north the “broad republican” tail wont wag the SF dog.

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