Fine Gael's epic own goal on RIC event can't be blamed on the public's "disappointing response"
Not a week into the new decade and it's another fine mess we find ourselves in.
With the Dáil still on Christmas break, the government has been forced into deferring the commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) on 17 January, as part of the Decade of Centenaries.
The commemoration was condemned by large swathes of the public and almost all of Fine Gael's political rivals, while the mayors of Galway, Clare, Cork, and Kerry had announced that they would boycott the event - as would Dublin City Council.
Charlie Flanagan and Leo Varadkar remained adamant that the event was a good idea, and that it would go ahead, all the way up until the moment they changed their minds. In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Flanagan blamed "the disappointing response of some". One way to put it.
It was climbdown of startling proportions.
On Twitter just this morning, Varadkar dismissed concerns surrounding the event, saying: "We should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past."
It remains unclear what traditions he was referring to.
As a brief refresher, unnecessary for anybody besides perhaps Varadkar himself: The RIC are best remembered for the killing of civilians at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, 1920. The Dublin Metropolitan Police, also to be commemorated, killed workers during the Lockout of 1913.
The Black and Tans, those most notorious of villains, who burned Cork and rampaged in Balbriggan, were definitionally a part of the RIC. These events are not part of any tradition besides Great Britain's tradition of persecuting the people of Ireland.
We have had a century time to reflect on these atrocities. Many of us were raised with stories of how the Black and Tans brought unforgivable, needless and grotesque harm to our families. We have come to our conclusions. Further consideration is not necessary.
Many people evidently found that they could not, in good conscience, commemorate any organisation responsible for such things — even if they can acknowledge that many of the organisation's members were decent.
Many Irish people, many of our ancestors, served in the RIC. Even those who became complicit in British imperialism are victims of it. Perpetrators too, but the two roles aren't mutually exclusive. Those are exactly the paradoxes that make history so complicated, and exactly why commemoration is not as easy as an RSVP.
There is a time and place to reflect on our very complicated history, but to commemorate the RIC alongside the struggle for independence that the RIC explicitly were tasked with shutting down, is irreconcilable with Ireland's long, bloody fight for sovereignty and freedom.
We should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) January 7, 2020
Varadkar's argument hinged on the idea that we must have at least some respect for Britain's violent colonisation and occupation of Ireland, and the mechanics by which it was maintained. We don't. We absolutely don't. This very state was founded on nothing more than the principle that we really don't.
And yet Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, who has seemingly learned no humility from his role in the recent Verona Murphy scandal, was even more scathing than his party leader.
"It is disappointing to see some public representatives abandon the principles of mutual understanding and reconciliation in an effort to gain headlines," he said. Flanagan outlined his belief that not only were the concerns wrong, but they were also raised in bad faith, and that those - Sinn Féin, Soc Dems, Fianna Fáil, Greens, Independents, Labour, mayors of towns across Ireland - were all simply in it for some attention.
It should amaze us that Fine Gael can somehow extend their compassion as far as officials who gunned down Irish civilians, but can't manage to understand the concerns of Irish people who mourn the thousands of lives, the centuries of history, and the atoms of identity lost to people who paid them their shillings.
What’s especially bemusing is the minister saying it was all being done in the spirit of understanding and conciliation. With whom exactly? David Lloyd George? I don’t think we need him on side anymore, Charlie.
In that sense, it might be fair to say that Varadkar and Flanagan's response to this consternation is what's most frustrating about all of this.
Beneath the jabs, Varadkar and Flanagan's key contention is that the event was designed as a commemoration, not a celebration. That seems like a low bar to hurdle. It must make them the first government in Irish history to deny that they're throwing a party for the Black and Tans.
People, in their thousands, have made their feelings known, and rather than taking a moment to contemplate those feelings, the government has been bitter in its defeat. As per their own statement, they're very disappointed in our behaviour.
And what has made this response so disappointing? Nobody is rioting in the streets or throwing bricks into windows; people are simply saying that Fine Gael have gone about this the wrong way. As we've seen time again, such a thing is unthinkable to Leo Varadkar.
Yesterday, Flanagan tried to shift the blame and said he was hosting the event "under the guidance of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemoration". Today, historian Diarmaid Ferriter and Micheál Martin both said that the group recommended no such thing. As per his statement, Flanagan will be consulting with the group on an "alternative commemoration".
Maybe this time he, and those in his party, will listen.
Much like public opinion, history deserves and demands thoughtful contemplation, not condescension. Maybe this time our government will treat our history with the respect it deserves.