Skip to main content

Ambassador's remarks at a commemoration of Roger Casement (1864-1916) at Westminister Cathedral, London, 1 August 2016

We are gathered here this morning to remember the life of Roger Casement, who, although he took no part in the Easter Rising of 1916, was one of the best-known figures connected with it. I wish to thank the Irish Chaplaincy, one of longest-serving Irish community welfare groups in Britain, for organising this commemoration and am pleased that the chaplain at Pentonville Prison has joined us this morning. Thank you also to this wonderful Cathedral for hosting this important commemoration of a major figure from Irish history.

A seismic event that helped shape modern Ireland, the Easter Rising brought to prominence a set of previously little-known Irish public figures. A number of those who survived the Rising, Eamon de Valera, William Cosgrave, Sean Lemass for example, took a leading part in the political life of independent Ireland and steered us through some turbulent times in the early decades of our independence.

In the case of those who died in 1916, their achievements and reputations were held up for decades as an example and a challenge to the country that came into being on the back of those dramatic events in Dublin a century ago. This year, we have been engaged in a national reflection on the legacy of 1916, and of the ideals and aspirations that inspired our revolutionary generation.

Among those whose lives were shaped by the Easter Rising, Roger Casement, the centenary of whose execution we mark this morning, was perhaps the most complex and intriguing of all. Casement was quite unlike most of the other leading figures from 1916. For, whereas they mostly spent their lives preoccupied with Irish affairs, and were unknown outside of Ireland, Casement was truly an international figure.

In Ireland we have naturally tended to focus on the final phase of Casement’s life. Those were the years when he threw himself wholeheartedly into our national struggle. His significant international standing is illustrated by the presence here this morning of representatives from the Congo, Mozambique and Peru, countries with which Casement was associated.

I would say that Roger Casement's greatest achievement lay not in helping pave the way for the Easter Rising, but in his courageous stand in defence of oppressed peoples in Africa and Latin America.

In every walk of life, it is invariably easier to 'go with the flow', to accept that the conditions of life we encounter are part of an immutable reality. When he arrived in Africa in the late-19th century, European Imperialism was at the height of its pomp and prestige. It was based on an assumption that privileged European nations had a right, even a duty, to preside over the lives of allegedly less well-equipped peoples.

At that time, Casement's attitudes were probably roughly akin to those of other late-Victorians who were dazzled by the opportunities provided by that vast continent. But his experience of the realities of the Congo caused him to develop a deepening sympathy with the plight of the native population, abused and exploited as it was by a ruthless system designed, as we now know, for the personal enrichment of the Belgian King, Leopold. Casement came to see Imperialism in an increasingly critical light and this helped deepen his analysis of Ireland's situation and pointed him towards its remedy - political independence.

When he first uncovered abuses in the Congo, Casement enjoyed only qualified support from his superiors at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but he was persistent and persuasive. When he visited the Upper Congo in 1903, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, 'filled with rage, and compassion'. He knew that his findings would raise a storm and he may have been consoled by a quotation he inserted into his 1903 diary -
‘there is some act or design
- some holy strife
That leads us soon to a larger life.'

Casement's Congo Report did lead to considerable strife as his findings came under attack from King Leopold and his allies, but his revelations were confirmed by an International Commission and this led to changes in the way in which the Congo was governed. As part of his campaign, Casement combined with the journalist E.D. Morel to help found the Congo Reform Association, which turned out to be a prototype of the modern human rights' organisation, mobilising public opinion and boldly challenging government in pursuit of justice for the Congolese.

Some years later, Casement returned to what he was best at, bravely exposing injustice, in this case the treatment of the Putumayo Indians at the hands of the Peruvian Amazon Company.

Roger Casement's immersion in Irish affairs following his retirement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1913 illustrates the strong appeal of Irish nationalism a century ago. It attracted many idealistic individuals from backgrounds that would not normally have been expected to produce nationalist revolutionaries.

Casement's life came to an end at Pentonville Prison a century ago this week. For most of the past 100 years, his status as a great humanitarian has been obscured by disputes about other aspects of his life and death, most notably about the authenticity of his so-called Black Diaries.

In today's world, replete with conflict, inequality and injustice, it seems to me that his courage in standing up for oppressed peoples deserves our continued respect and admiration. I like to think that Ireland's international profile:-
our unstinting support for decolonisation during our early decades as a UN member;
the persistent centrality of human rights in our foreign policy and in our development aid programme;
and our continued staunch support for the UN and its peacekeeping operations;
- is something that would be a source of satisfaction to Roger Casement.

In the words of his co-worker in pursuit of justice for the Congo, E.D. Morel, Casement was a man 'ablaze with passionate pity for the helpless.' We are in need such passion in our time too, and always will be.

Thank you for your attention.