Pathetic and disgraceful, but all too typical of the mindset of some fringe republicans and others. They have been doing this for a century. It isn’t isolated. They cannot cope with monuments that reflect viewpoints they disagree with. Throughout the 20th century they destroyed all the monuments across Dublin that reflected the Unionist heritage of the city despite there being no public support to remove the monuments. The blew up the George II statue in St Stephen’s Green, the William III statue in College Green, the Gough statue in the Phoenix Park, and most notoriously Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street – all artistically fine monuments whatever about their origins, and for which there was no support for their removal. Prince Albert’s statue in Leinster House only survived because the republican bigots couldn’t get access to it to blow it up.
In part the context of this is the fact that Ireland has had an unusual tolerance of fringe republicans engaging in violence throughout its history. Though there is and was no evidence for the violence having public support, and clear evidence that it didn’t, our history has practically glorified these actions by unrepresentative minorities deciding that they, not democratically elected leaders, spoke for Ireland.
In practice most if not all the violent rebellions were tiny and had little support, but our spin on history after independence, representing the fact that origins of the post-independence elite were in one such fringe rebellion, talked up how the rebellions were rebellions by the Irish people despite not a shred of evidence to support that myth. Even the Easter Rising had very little actual support as it happened – as though who lived through it remembered. They remembered the fury across Ireland at what was in effect an attempted coup against the democratically elected leadership of Ireland. The Rising’s image only changed later on thanks to the cack-handed, incompetent, blundering mis-handling of the aftermath by the British government that turned a scorned rebellion into something that retrospectively gained respect. The real attitude towards the Rising was captured in Navan in the aftermath of the so-called Battle of Ashbourne, later glorified by historians and elites, when a vast crowd of Catholic Nationalists packed the Fair Green in Navan in support of the RIC members killed in Ashbourne, as their bodies were brought to the nearby County Infirmary. Their remains were carried by the local clergy in a show of support. It was the biggest crowd since the days of Parnell. That fact, and the wholesale negative reaction to the Rising, epitomised by the headline over the editorial of the Nationalist local paper in Meath, the Meath Chronicle, describing the Rising as a “tragic blunder”, was later buried from official memory.
The Irish War of Independence was another example, with the attack in Soloheadbeg on the day the First Dáil, democratically elected by the people was meeting, not having the authority of the Dáil and being openly admitted by the attackers as an attempt to bounce the Dáil into a war when many of its leaders were trying to focus their efforts on international diplomacy to get the Irish Republic international recognition.
The idea that a minority, claiming to be purists, could override the will of the majority produced a civil war, and was epitomised by the phrase by de Valera “the people have no right to do wrong” – meaning in effect that a minority has a right to turn to violence to over-rule a ‘wrong’ decision of the people.
The fear of enraging the aggressive violent fundamentalists paid a significant part in why the Irish men who fought in the Great War were never mentioned. It wasn’t that people were ashamed of its members who fought in the Great War, or indeed that it was ashamed of its many members who were in the Royal Irish Constabulary (which had overwhelming public support until 1920, as the funeral mentioned earlier in Navan showed)
Modern Ireland was confronted with the warped logic of its duality (democratic one minute, willing to justify a minority turning to violence the next) when the Provisional IRA, without public authorisation or support, did the same thing that all the other small minority republican rebels did, and started using violence despite the overwhelming majority of Nationalists screaming at them “stop”, and the repeated rejection of the party that was linked to the IRA until the IRA stopped its campaign.
It was not until the peace process that people felt safe enough from the threats of the fringe to openly talk about the officially censored part of their history – Irish men who fought in the British Army, Irish men who were in the RIC and DMP, or talked about the fact that actually public opinion was never behind any of the violent rebellions (most of whom were so unrepresentative they were tiny).
So the vandalism against the statue of the soldier cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a dualistic political culture that glorified minority actions of destruction, of attacks, of violence, alongside speaking the language of democracy. Our glorification narrative about the fringe’s right to enforce its opinion against the majority through violence, sabotage, destruction and intimidation even where the majority abhorred what was being done in their name and were shouting “stop”, has created a tolerance for illegal acts censoring unapproved opinions that few other cultures have. That dualism can be seen visually in what happened to the statue of Prince Albert. Because it is in a high security site it survived destruction, but our duality led an Irish government to bury it in a hedge. The state protects it, but still tries to hide it, as if demonstrating our dualistic political culture.
The attack on the soldier’s statue hopefully will enable us to face the fact that we have been far too tolerant of the fringe who think themselves infallible representatives of the people, and who can say “the people have no right to do wrong”, whether that perceived wrong is a decision by democratically elected leaders to propose a different course to that of the fringe destructive minority, the right of people to commemorate those ancestors who fought in the Great War, served in the police or to keep historic statues in their cities and towns that may mean nothing to them psychologically other that they are historic and attractive. Independent Ireland for two long has fed the fringe monster and given it a legitimacy where the fringe felt the right to censor, destroy and intimidate those, the overwhelming majority, who actually don’t share their fundamentalism and in history never actually did.
The statue can be restored but the mindset that think destroying it because it is contrary to their views has to be confronted, challenged and destroyed.