Events in Ireland in 1916 pose contemporary questions for the rule of law.
After Magna Carta, Waterloo and Gallipoli, you may think another extravagantly celebrated anniversary is the last thing we need. Hard luck, because next year we’re in for a centenary commemoration which will put British justice in the dock – that of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The standard version of the story was that on Easter Monday 1916, the Irish people rose up against 700 years of oppression by the Crown. They were crushed brutally by British artillery and their leaders summarily executed after kangaroo courts martial. That blood sacrifice opened the way to freedom.
This was the version celebrated by the rising’s 50th anniversary – but Ireland has changed since 1966. Last weekend, I heard the country’s president explain why this is not sufficient for 2016.
Michael D Higgins was speaking at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, south of Dublin, established to bring together what are euphemistically called the ‘different traditions’ in Irish history.
He said: ‘For too long our understanding of 1916… was hindered by an assumption that we can more easily make sense of events, and indeed our own sense of individual and national identity, if we keep historical narratives simple and homogeneous. We must, in commemorating, challenge this urge to over-simplify. Complex events demand a consideration that respects complexity, seeks to unravel it rather than invest a simplicity that leads away from knowledge, even to ideological manipulation.’
Higgins was talking particularly of the need for the commemoration to embrace different shades of loyalism. This includes not just the Ulster protestants but the clear majority who did not side with the rebels.
Other narratives include the role of women and that of the church. A particularly emotive re-examination will be that of defining suicide as ‘martyrdom’, whether expressed in the actions of the uprising’s leader Patrick Pearse, subsequent hunger strikers or today’s suicide bombers.
One narrative of particular interest to us concerns the British government’s quasi-judicial response, which raises questions today about the way a liberal democracy (in 1916 a relatively liberal, partial democracy) should treat armed insurrection. Here, there seems little scope for revising the interpretation that the government’s reaction was brutal and catastrophically counter-productive.
One of the first mentions of the uprising in the legal press appeared on 26 April 1916: an ominous notice suspending section 1 of the Defence of the Realm (Amendment) Act 1915, which had granted British subjects accused of offences under the act the right to be tried by a civil court.
Thus empowered, field general courts martial held in camera briskly tried the obvious leaders (and at least one who was not) for ‘waging of war against His Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the defence of the realm…’.
Fifteen thus convicted were shot a day or two after their trials, with no right of appeal.
Even in 1916 the executions caused unease among the British establishment. The liberal and legally quaified prime minister, Asquith, foresaw the consequences and had the political sense to order that no woman be shot. As early as 13 May the Solicitors Journal commented: ‘Thirteen executions for civil rebellion under sentences of martial law are a phenomenon long unknown in British history.’ Likening the response to the Bloody Assizes of 1685, it called for the authorities to bring the prisoners before civil courts.
These concerns had some effect. The executions were halted, and one-third of the suspected rebels hastily rounded up were released reasonably promptly, albeit after some brutal treatment. The rest were amnestied the following year, after a radicalising experience of internment from which the authorities might have learned lessons.
There may not be much about 1916 that the British authorities can recall with pride, but today we are entitled to ask whether any other contemporary imperial power mired in a global war would have preserved at least some sensitivity to the rule of law.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor