Can we fulfil the promise of the Republic?
Gary Gannon, Social Democrat Party, Councillor for Dublin North Inner City
When we think of 1916 and all of the passion, beauty, horror and rawness of that Rubicon in Ireland’s political and cultural timeline we, perhaps understandably, tend to view it through the simplistic prism of heroism, sacrifice and heart-breaking glory.
I dare say I’m not alone in admitting that in my own mind’s eye, thoughts of the 1916 Rising conjure vivid imagery of Liam Neeson perched atop of a podium demanding to know that if he were to die, ‘who would take his place’ or even the haunting portrait painted most vividly into our consciousness through Sinead O’Connor’s version of ‘The Foggy Dew’ which chronicled the valiant men of Royal Meath who descended to Dublin on that Easter morn 1916 in the noble belief that it was better to die beneath an Irish sky than on some other foreign battlefield of the Great War raging throughout Europe at that time.
In Yeat’s poem from which this session, The Terrible Beauty of 1916: what is it to become?, derives its name we are told from those who lost their lives in the Easter Rising of 1916 – that ‘we know their dreams enough to know that they dreamed and now are dead” but I would argue strongly that this is not in fact the case. The narrative or indeed that I would argue to be the true terrible beauty of 1916, is the unrelenting focus on the valiant nature of our dead alone but not on the reasons why they were willing to sacrifice their own lives.
The promise of a Republic quickly faded
As you will be aware, we recently commemorated the centenary of the 1916 Rising. During the past couple of years there has been numerous debates connected to how we should commemorate the men and women of this period but never once did we scrutinise what it means to live in a true Republic for which they fought and some died. We debated the position that should be afforded to their relatives; some laughed and others were incredulous that an official State video of the celebrations would feature the British Prime Minister David Cameron and we were rightfully careful that in celebrating the 100 years anniversary of the Easter Rising that we did not cause offence to Unionist communities with whom we share this Island. We never once attempted to meet that promise contained in the Proclamation to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’. This was strange considering that in January of 2016, CSO figures contained the fact that 135,000 children in Ireland were living in a state of consistent poverty. That’s real children within our borders today who do not have access to a warm coat; who share single roomed accommodation with their parent(s), and who are not availing of a proper standard of nourishment as a consequence of the poverty which neither they nor their parents chose.
The Terrible Beauty born at the foundation of our State is our collective ability to absolve ourselves of blame when presented with the suffering of others. Do we still believe that it was only the bravest that fell? Do our maidens still dance at the crossroads? Are we still living beyond our means? Did we really all party?
Of course, there was a less obvious bravery in those who survived and attempted to build that Republic in the years which followed 1916 but very quickly, the promise of a Republic which guaranteed ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ faded and the creation which manifested itself in the years after was in all essence, grotesque. A statement such as this should always be qualified and in doing so I shall refrain from mentioning the depravity of the Civil War of 1922; I won’t even dwell on the 31,500 people who between 1926 and 1951 were confined to industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby homes or mental institutions but rather point to the 1924 remarks of the then Minister for Industry & Commerce Patrick McGilligan who commented that ‘people may have to die in this country and die of starvation’. To derive veracity from these remarks, one need only research the death certificates of infants from the Mother and Baby homes where ‘marasmus’ or rather, starvation is cited as the cause of death in some instances.
Yeat’s closing line in Easter 1916, ‘A Terrible Beauty is born’, has always reminded me of one of my favourite books, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which by coincidence is celebrating its two hundreth year anniversary this year. Many, including myself I should say, interpret Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’ as a feminist critique of the horror that materialises when creation is determined solely by the hand of a male creator. While it is very tempting to highlight that analogy alone as a comparison to our nation’s own unnatural birth, I am going to reluctantly refrain from doing so and deploy a single line from the piece which resonates enormously with me and the politics that I have tried to espouse over the past couple of months in response to the vicious spate of violent murders that have plagued my community in Dublin’s North Inner City. That line which is used by Victor Frankenstein himself, as the creator of the monster is, “Evil Thenceforth Became my Good”.
Drug taking becomes a means of escapism in a society which limits opportunity
Over the past couple of months I have found myself in the unusual position of being a commentator on a violent feud which has claimed seven lives to date in our capital city. More unusual still is the sense that I have, throughout my life-time, known some of the victims and perpetrators involved in these crimes. I have attended the same school as a couple of them; their vivid faces intersperse with my own memories of childhood, I have nodded as we passed by on the street and shared polite meaningless words as we progressed on our different paths through life. There is a very self-evident fact concerning the fate of these individuals which is often forgotten in our rush to afford judgement and blame which is that not a single one of these individuals who have engaged in such an extreme level of criminality ever opened a computer and typed the words criminal, drug-dealer or assassin into their CAO choices.
I would assert strongly that it was this very lack of choice which made evil become their good. As all goodness becomes lost, drug-dealing and violent crime become a means for providing for one’s self and family in a society which limits opportunity depending on the post-code in which a person is born. Rarely discussed but of equal importance is the fact that drug taking becomes a means of escapism in a society which limits opportunity again depending on the post code in which a person is born. Many will rightfully argue that the taking of illegal drugs occurs throughout Irish society regardless of class or income and I would of course agree with this assertion, but I would suggest that the type of and motivation for taking the drugs are completely different. In more affluent parts of the country you will be unlikely to find the same proliferation of blister packs strewn across the street which once contained anti-anxiety or sleeping tablets having being illegally purchased by vulnerable people in order to self-medicate their depressions, nor will you find people willing to destroy their body by succumbing to heroin abuse as a means of escaping the reality of their everyday lives.
And yet, the question I was asked most often throughout the period of turmoil that plagued my community this year was: ‘How do we stop the violence’? So often, I was tempted to respond by asking: “Why, so that the dealers can stop killing each other and go back to killing other people in peace?” Do you think I’m being facetious with that question? Let me elaborate: in 2013 alone, 679 people lost their lives in our country through what the health research board termed ‘drug related deaths’.
The dangers of continuing to ignore marginalised communities
We should of course endeavour to bring to justice the killers of those seven individuals, but we should also consider ourselves accomplices to the poverty which has killed thousands of young Irish people since heroin first crept into the heart of working class communities in the early 1980s. We raise our heads momentarily when the effects of this epidemic spill over into our understanding of more civilised society but we consistently absolve ourselves of blame by painting the participants as the others who are not like us in the mainstream. When we do take an interest we place an unrealistic expectation upon our Gardaì to solve a malaise that is engineered by a society of extreme inequalities with regard to health, education and opportunity, to such an extent that there exists a conveyor belt of young Irish men who are willing to inject both their bodies and their communities with a poison from which very few escape its clutches.
We simply cannot continue to allow ourselves to remain unresponsive to the pain felt in our most marginalised communities and all the while still ensuring to feign gasps of horror when these same communities respond in a manner that we consider inimical to our national interest. As a comparison, the recent Brexit vote in the UK can provide further evidence to highlight the dangers that materialise when we collectively choose to ignore the suffering of low-income communities and still patronisingly expect them to respond to our understanding of the national interest. I would hazard a guess that I am not alone in possessing both a healthy euro-scepticism combined with a strong awareness of the advantages of being an equal member of the European Union that far outweighs the frequently mentioned negatives. As such, it was unsurprising but still no less disheartening to witness that it was from the predominantly semi- and low-skilled demographics where the greatest percentage of those who voted Leave came from. Of course voting Leave will achieve nothing in addressing the problems which have blighted the lives of working class communities in former industrial heartlands of Sheffield, Sunderland and Swansea. Wages which have plummeted in the UK will not be restored by the false prophets, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Working conditions for these low-skilled groups will not be improved by these elites who have proven time and again that their main priority is to maximise the profits of their wealthy friends. The NHS will continue to be decimated, and schools will continue to churn out young disillusioned people who will never avail of the life chances afforded to the Etonians who led the cheers for Brexit safe in the knowledge that they will be safeguarded from the economic depressions that are inevitable when a country leaves a common trade bloc of some five hundred million people.
Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart
While Farage and Johnson led a false working class revolt that comes with the promise of uncertainty, it was the educated and more rational thinking masses who offered the most marginalised groups a more crueller choice still. They asked them to remain as they are and sanctimoniously mocked that it would be ignorant or rather, racist to do otherwise. The arrogance it must take to accuse the English working class of inherent racism, when it is these very same people who have the proudest traditions of standing against fascism is simply staggering. I do not accept it was racism that prompted those most hardest hit by years of austerity to vote to leave the European Union, but rather it was the molecule of power they felt they had in finally giving the neo-liberal, educated, cosmopolitan classes a kick-up the back side for years of neglect and indifference to their plight.
The Terrible Beauty of both Brexit and the recent wave of violence unleashed upon the streets of Dublin’s Inner City is that once more it permits us to discuss the wickedness of the act without ever analysing its meaning. To deploy a more potent line from Yeats Easter 1916:
“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, oh when may it suffice”.
It is in this line that I believe that Yeats shows the potential for a more virtuous and lasting legacy which can be achieved from the memory of 1916 if only we can allow compassion to replace the vengeful indifference that comes from being a society born out of such extremes of violence.
There must exist collective goals which each citizen can agree upon
The challenge facing us today as we move past the one hundred year mark from the watershed of 1916 is to see ourselves not as the guardians of the legacy of those killed on that occasion but to rather become the implementers of their ideals.
Can we fulfil the promise of the Republic which is in many ways yet to be claimed? If we are to do so then there must exist collective goals which each of us as a citizen of this Republic can agree upon, regardless of the political ideology we conform too. The promise to cherish all of the children of the nation equally, for example, seems like an agreeable position at which to begin. Never again should we smugly campaign upon a slogan of ‘keeping the recovery going’ while 135,000 children sleep so precariously at night time in various conditions of poverty. We as politicians must be prepared to be bold in this pursuit; we must be prepared to fail and return once more to fail better but always keeps the aspiration to erode that figure of 135,000 children living in poverty as the only measurement of our success as legislators.
To that end, there are some 1,600 children living in 34 Direct Provision centres throughout the State, close to five thousand people in total. Let me be clear about this – our history and the crimes for which we as a society have been guilty throughout the past century (and yes, I am referring to the religious laundries, to the Mother & Baby homes) mean that we have no right to continue to institutionalise human beings based upon our interpretation of whether they may be suitable for free movement within our wider community. I am ashamed that, while I speak to you now, each of us are living through what we may one day be apologising for. The United Nations and international human rights groups have already heavily criticised our system of direct provision. The States Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, has lamented that children in these centres are living in State sanctioned poverty and in environments that could prove highly damaging. An asylum seeker in our Irish direct provision centres is up to five times more likely to suffer from depression and mental health related problems according to a study carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons. This is happening in Ireland today and our Republic will not emerge while we continue to incarcerate people for the crime of not being like us in appearance, culture or location of birth.
The true hypocrisy of the eighth amendment
If you have managed to stay with me this far, then I fear I may be about to lose some of you as my next point refers to the divisive issue of the reproductive rights of our citizens. The issue of abortion is one that resonates so strongly with me because I am an elected representative from a working class community that is home to many migrant and low income communities which are most impacted by this restriction. Despite the prohibitive nature of the eighth amendment to our constitution, over 5,000 women each year are exported to a country not of their birth for a standard medical procedure that is too often debated only in its most extreme form. It reeks of a society insecure in our position as a modern Republic that we continue to deny reproductive rights to our citizens safe in the knowledge that our proximity to our former coloniser means that we can once more maintain our default position of idleness while casting judgement upon those who decide to act in what they consider to be the best interest of their own bodies. The true hypocrisy of the eight amendment is that it has done nothing to curtail the existence of abortion in this country but rather once again presented us with an Irish solution to an Irish problem, and so the terrible beauty of simplistic narrative and belief continues. The lies that we continue to tell ourselves so as to deceive what we choose not to believe – that Irish are forced to travel in their droves to maintain the pretence that we don’t have abortions here, a pretence that the UN has damned as tantamount to torture.
Our Republic is as yet unachieved
The Terrible Beauty of 1916 is not of course a drugs crisis, direct provision or even abortion. It is the lies that we choose to tell ourselves in order that we may shirk the responsibilities that have lain before us these past one hundred years. The hope remains in the sense that ours is a Republic as yet unachieved, and as such the legacy is the gauntlet that has been laid down to us as future generations to achieve that Republic of Equals that it was promised at the foundation of our State. To do so will require courage and the willingness to evolve not only the narrative of our own creation but our sense of meaning and purpose within our Republic. It will require us ‘To change, to change utterly’.