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28 May 1998 Edition

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Not yet, sir, not yet

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

``When my country takes her place among the nations of this earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.''

Robert Emmet's last words, from his speech from the Dock, after Norbury sentenced him to death, remain as powerful today as they did almost 200 years ago. I thought a lot about Emmet and the other United leaders during the past week as propagandists re-interpreted their thoughts, words and deeds. I think they all need a good solicitor, to protect their intellectual rights and motives from serious misinterpretation.

I went to an interesting function last week commemorating an event from 1798, a bit of street theatre depicting the arrest of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and then a few speeches and an hour or two of poetry and song from the period in the lovely surroundings of the Guinness Brewery.

Among the guest speakers was Seamus Brennan TD, Junior Minister for Keeping the Cork in the Revolutionary Bottle, lest any of that aul' `98 stuff escape and infect the population. Seamus happily told us in his oration that ``1798 was the last time that Unionists and Nationalists fought side by side for Ireland''. Indeed. Unionists must have been thin on the ground in 1798, considering that the Act of Union wasn't introduced until two years later in 1800. And in any case, would someone fighting to break the link with England still be a Unionist?

The problem with history is that those who made it are usually long dead by the time the world gets round to analysing it, and therefore the forces and beliefs that motivated them are usually open to our interpretation... and the limits of what would or could have satisfied them are equally open to conjecture. Historic political figures then become unwitting allies for one or other side in contemporary politics, much as Seamus Brennan confused the United Irish leaders Presbyterianism with Unionism.

The ability of the leaders of `98 to put religion to one side becomes undone as modern politicians reduce 1798 to religious affiliations, telling us that we should do likewise. ``Wolfe Tone would have voted Yes'' one newspaper headline shouted last week, which is great news. No doubt about it. The only iffy bit about the theory is that Tone, Fitzgerald, McCracken, Joy, Emmett and the rest were out fighting, in arms, against England because - among other things - the English government wouldn't give the vote to 85% of the population. Catholic emancipation didn't come until almost half a century later. For all we know Tone might well have spoiled his vote in protest at an unjust system.

It's contrary and dishonest therefore to speculate on how Tone or Emmet would have voted and equally trite to say that United forces 200 years ago or an all Ireland election of eighty years ago is equal to the `all Ireland nature' of last Friday's vote. While 85% of the electorate might have voted Yes, that Yes meant different things to different people, in different jurisdictions, on different questions. My hand shook as I laid down my cross for Ireland last Friday, my biggest worry being that my vote was being lumped in with a Unionist vote, that all those votes were being presented wrongly, prematurely, as an all Ireland, national tally.

Back in 1922 the Freeman published a famous cartoon of Emmet, chiding a sculptor attempting to carve an epitaph on his headstone. `Not yet, sir, not yet' he was warning the hasty scribe who thought that the Treaty was enough to put Ireland among the nations of the earth. It was a timely cartoon, preempting as it did any attempt to say that the struggle for a republic was over.

The massive Yes vote last Friday is attracting the odd political chiseller out of retirement. We need to stand guard over the uncarved headstone - just in case.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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