Ireland marks centenary of revolt that led to independence

Masked members of Republican Sinn Fein commemorate the 100th anniversary of Easter Rising in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, on March 26, 2016.
Masked members of Republican Sinn Fein commemorate the 100th anniversary of Easter Rising in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, on March 26, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBLIN (AFP) - Ireland on Sunday (March 27) marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, a rebellion against British rule that paved the way for independence, with the largest commemorative events in the country's history.

The rebels who seized buildings across Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic on Easter Monday 1916 will be honoured by a 4.4-km parade through the capital for hundreds of thousands of spectators.

An army officer will lead a ceremony with a reading of the 1916 proclamation which declared "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland" at the General Post Office (GPO), rebel headquarters during the revolt.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who will lay a wreath at the GPO, said the country had come a long way in the past 100 years.

But he said Ireland was still working to build a truly inclusive republic, adding: "We can see that in many respects, we have not fully achieved the dreams and ideals for which our forebears gave so much."

The wreath-laying will be followed by a minute's silence to remember the hundreds of people who died during the six-day rebellion, among them the 16 leaders who were executed.

Around 5,000 relatives of the rebels have been invited to the parade, which will be shown on large screens around Dublin.

The uprising began on April 24, 1916, when over 1,000 militants took over prominent buildings in the city centre.

Britain sent reinforcements and began shelling the city, and rebels were forced to abandon their headquarters, eventually surrendering on April 29.

Thousands were arrested over the uprising, but the response caused outrage and a surge in support for Irish independence.

Within six years, Britain had agreed to the creation of an independent nation, though without the northeastern part of the island, which still remains part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

The Rising "gave people the courage to believe we could achieve total independence," Eamon O'Cuiv, deputy leader of political party Fianna Fail and grandson of 1916 rebel Eamon de Valera, told AFP.

On an island where political violence is hardly a distant memory, the anniversary has prompted debate over how best to mark the armed nature of the uprising - an aspect which was controversial in 1916 and remains so today.

Events will take place to remember the British soldiers who died as well the civilians and rebels killed, with the government stressing the importance of "inclusivity".

But Northern Ireland's first minister Arlene Foster, the leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, said in January she would not attend any events commemorating "a very violent attack on the state".

The British-ruled province once plagued by sectarian violence is on fresh alert this weekend, after police warned that militants were planning to mark the centenary with attacks on police and army targets.

Britain's minister for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, welcomed Dublin's efforts to ensure the Rising was marked "in ways that are inclusive and designed to promote reconciliation".

Junior foreign minister David Lidington added that the centenary was "a time to reflect on Britain and Ireland's shared, often painful history and to give thanks for our friendship of equals today".

For some, the diplomatic approach has gone too far.

Controversy ensued when a large commemorative banner was unveiled along the parade route in Dublin, depicting four historical figures from a political tradition that opposed rebellion.

James Connolly Heron, the 66-year-old great-grandson of Edinburgh-born rebel leader James Connolly, told AFP that it was important to remember the rebels' unique contribution.

"We end up commemorating all who died when in fact we should be commemorating those who died for Irish freedom," he said.

"This is the event that led to the freedoms that we enjoy today, it's a pivotal moment in history."