Paul Gallagher recently remarked that the 1916 Rising had ‘absolutely no legitimacy whatsoever’, this is the ex attorney-general who served under governments led by Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen (the government who lost Ireland’s sovereignty). Removing the argument that legitimacy is an entirely subjective term, I can assume that Gallagher is referring to democratic legitimacy. The claim that the leaders of 1916 had no legitimacy is a complex one but it’s worth putting democratic legitimacy in the context of early 20th century Ireland. Ireland at the time was governed by Westminster, this government practised what many of us would see today as a pseudo-democracy, to start off with, 50% of the population were unable to vote in any elections because they had the audacity to be born women. Working-class people were also unable to vote if they didn’t own land, and of course with the dismal wages and various obstacles to gaining higher education (including an all out ban on Catholics and women attending Trinity College) these working-class people were unable to muster enough wages to buy land or partake in social mobility and this remained the case across the United Kingdom until the introduction of the ‘Representation of the People Act’ in 1918. Also in 1916, as is the case today, an unelected monarch who has their power passed through a blood line remains the head of state in Britain. Today, if a government was elected when women or people who didn’t own land couldn’t vote, would we refer to that government as democratic? Or legitimate? We wouldn’t because it isn’t any of those things. If a government then decided to enter a war with another imperial empire and then decided to send multitudes of working class people (who couldn’t vote) to war eventually against their will, would this act be legitimate? Would the war be just? Of course it wouldn’t.

Gallagher claims violence was the legacy of the 1916 rising, but this violent uprising occurred in the context of mass imperial violence across Europe. A recent study suggests 485 people died in the Easter Rising, whereas 49,500 Irish people died in WW1 in a disastrous and inhumane slaughter of mostly working class people on all sides. None of the leaders of the 1916 rising campaigned for a draft for this imperial war, but Redmond and others in the Irish Parliamentary Party did call for a draft and actively encouraged Irish people to join the British Army to fight in a war that none of them had the option to vote for. Is Redmond a legitimate power? A man elected without a single female or working class vote? Surely not. Westminster was a parliament of the landowning elite for the land owning elite and their various business and imperial interests. This government didn’t represent Ireland’s working classes or landless middle class, neither did it represent Irish women. The Westminster government that the leaders of the 1916 rising rebelled against was entirely illegitimate. When land owners in the IPP asked for Home Rule it was rejected twice, twice it was rejected by Britain’s landowning and business elite, on the third time it was rejected by the House of Lords, a house which no member was elected to, but served instead at the behest of an unelected monarch, a crown passed down through a blood line that descends from William the Conqueror who himself was the descendent of a Viking raider, does any of that sound democratically legitimate?

And when the people of Ireland organised themselves democratically in their everyday lives, by the secret ballot (now used today in elections) in their workplaces and then brought those democratic decisions to the business elite that controlled their parliament they were brutalised at the hands of the state forces. In the 1913 lockout approximately 20,000 Irish workers, male and female, young and old democratically organised themselves in their workplaces and fought for the right to collectively bargain with their employers for safer conditions and fairer pay, many died in the 1913-1914 class conflict at the hands of the RIC, as many died in the Easter Rising, however this is a fraction of the number who died due to diseases linked to poverty like tuberculosis, a 1912 report found that TB related deaths in Ireland were a massive 50% higher than in England or Scotland and were directly linked to poor living conditions, a consequence of the exploitative nature of the land owning and capitalist class who ruled in an illegitimate parliament.

 

The most important point of all is that the leaders of the 1916 rising didn’t declare themselves democratically legitimate, they declared themselves a provisional government, care takers until a real democracy could be established (the democracy that was found a mere three years later in the first Dail where all men and women could vote). This first Dail was a direct consequence of the actions and ideology of the 1916 Rising and included representations for all of Ireland’s citizens, it didn’t discriminate based on sex or social class. This first Dail brought a real democracy to Ireland, not the pseudo democracy of land owners and unelected lords found in Westminster. This first Dail was organised by the survivors of the 1916 Rising and was a direct consequence of their actions, although admittedly it included an abysmal percentage of Women and due to the Labour Party not running in 1918 many urban and working class areas did not get proper representation it was a progressive step in a real representational democracy. Gallagher’s claim that the events of 1916 ‘in hindsight’ were not legitimate are unfounded. ‘In hindsight’ Britain’s entire imperialist history in Ireland was illegitimate, from land seizures, resource thefts and Cromwellian slaughters to mass political transportation to Australia. Ireland’s working classes, its peasantry and proletariat had no say in the running of their country or their workplaces and their attempts to gain this self determination through parliamentary means, through mass movement and through insurgency was continually met with brutality. The land owners, the lords and ladies and the industrialists all profited off the backs of this working class, the aristocrats who were given land by unelected officials or monarchs flourished on the property they illegitimately owned and the businesses and factories these profits led to. It is only in the resistance and rebellion to this system that Irish people attempted to build a new world where their human needs and self-determination were catered for, not the want of the foreign and domestic greedy few. The rebellions and associated movements of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1882, 1913, 1916 and 1969 were rebellions against this illegitimate system of undemocratic rule which denied people self determination and economic justice.

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One thought on “In response to Paul Gallagher, the ex Attorney-General

  1. What role would Gallagher have if 1916 had not taken place? He certainly wouldn’t have been an Attorney General of an independent Ireland and wouldn’t have been invited to many of the dubious meetings he’s been to. Redmond’s IPP received just over 90,000 votes in the 1910 election to get their 73 MPs. What a great mandate for Home Rule….

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