This is an edited version of the Niall O'Dowd interview in my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?
I meet Niall O’Dowd in a Dublin hotel during one of his frequent trips to Ireland. He was a central figure in the lead-up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and showed everyone how important the Irish diaspora is in creating a new Ireland.
He now lives in the US but grew up in Co Louth in a family of mixed political allegiances. His father was “an unreconstructed de Valera-ite”, his brother is a Fine Gael TD, another brother was Mayor of Drogheda, one sister is active in Fine Gael, another sister active in Fianna Fail. His own political thinking has evolved over time.
“When I was young I was very much of the opinion that de Valera was right about the Civil War. Now as I get older and get more experience and less certain of myself, I can see Michael Collins’s point of view: take what you can at this point and then build on the rest of it.”
When I mention a notion popular among unionists and some nationalists - that Irish-American understanding of the situation here is romantic and clueless - he gives it short shrift.
“I think we understand it better than people here. I think our history is a radical history. We funded the Fenian uprising, we funded the 1916 Rising. Our view all along was that the fundamentals, that partition was wrong and needed to be addressed. We succeeded in getting President Clinton and George Mitchell involved. I think everybody involved, unionists and everyone else would agree, instead of admiring the problem, Americans attacked it, which is what they do, and I think without them there wouldn’t have been a peace process”.
On the subject of the signing of the Covenant, he pulls no punches either.
“What the signing of the Covenant always spoke to me of was the hypocrisy of unionism, by saying that nationalists had to abide by political means, when 1912 was the very antithesis of that. It was the declaration of war against the Home Rule Bill and it was a declaration of war by unionism. It was followed up by the Curragh Mutiny, which was followed up by what occurred after the 1916 Rising. So from that point of view it’s a very important moment in Irish history. It’s not one that I think unionism should be particularly proud of, because it’s a notion that democracy or the rule of law was secondary to their own beliefs. They literally took up arms right after the signing of the Covenant, and the fact that they took up arms led, in many ways, to the Easter Rising”
And he sees the Rising as the cornerstone of the Irish state, with all that that implies.
“I see the 1916 Proclamation as the foundation document. It’s hugely important in terms of Irish identity, not just in Ireland but world-wide. I think it was the fire that lit the inspiration for millions of Irish-Americans, Irish-Australians, Irish-Canadians, that they suddenly realised that the Irish were going to step forward and take their place among the nations of the world. I would commemorate it the same way I would commemorate the American Declaration of Independence in America. It’s a foundation document that gets more and more important as the years go on, and I think the hundredth anniversary is a huge event for nationalists to celebrate. I have always looked on the men of 1916 as heroic figures and I will continue to do so. Anyone who looks on them otherwise is misunderstanding the bravery and the incredible courage of going out, knowing you were going to be killed, in pursuit of an ideal”.
I mention that some people would consider that not courage but madness.
“It may well have been, but it’s the madness of George Washington taking on the British army, it’s the madness of the French Revolution. That’s how revolutions begin.”
I bring him back to his admiration of the Proclamation of Independence and suggest that any commemoration of 1916 will have to face the fact that the struggle for independence wound up with partition.
“I personally would love to see a united Ireland. I think this country has been stymied because of the lack of a united Ireland. I think the Irish Republic has suffered greatly as a result of a sort of Little Ireland mentality, that Northern Ireland wasn’t part of this island for sixty, seventy years, and I think that historically partition will be seen as the greatest mistake, as it was in India, by the British, and any other country they partitioned. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a long-term solution to anything, and it didn’t work in Ireland.”
He’s a man of very firm views, delivered with a pleasant smile. When we talk about the Battle of the Somme,once more there are no ifs and buts.
“The First World War was an absolutely catastrophic event that should never have happened. Thousands and thousands of Irish people - Northern Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics - died needlessly. The First World War was complete disaster, the Battle of the Somme was a complete disaster.”
But does he not see that a case can be made for the courage and devotion of the men who gave their lives in the Great War?
“I see a case for retroactively court-martialling the British Chief-of-Staff, General Haig - that’s what I see. I think the courage of the men who died should be remembered because they were cannon fodder. They lived in a very different era where men were sent forth to die so that generals could draw lines on maps”.
He’s convinced that commemorating the Somme or 1916 or the Ulster Covenant need not deepen division here. If the Troubles were still ongoing, it’d be a different matter.
“We’ve moved on with the Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing government, the intervention of the United States, the intervention of the Irish and British governments, the extraordinary achievement of the Irish peace process. When history is written, this era will be remembered as a golden era, because of what was accomplished by the Irish peace process, which ended the longest-running warfare in Europe. In fact it’s seen as the defining event as to how things could happen elsewhere in the world. So it’s something we should be very proud of.”