Roger Casement: hero, victim or traitor?

Sometimes the line between heroism and betrayal is very fine, and as invisible as the border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
02 April 2024 Tuesday 10:30
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Roger Casement: hero, victim or traitor?

Sometimes the line between heroism and betrayal is very fine, and as invisible as the border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland. In Belfast this is demonstrated by the murals of paramilitaries - both unionists and republicans - who for some are patriots and for others murderers. Or the perception of figures like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, admired on the Catholic side and hated on the Protestant side. Or also the character of Roger Casement.

Casement was an Irishman who, before independence, served as British consul in various African countries and Brazil, denouncing colonial crimes, the treatment of indigenous populations and the abuse of workers in the rubber industry in Peru (Vargas Llosa based his story on the novel El Sueño del Celta, and praised him as “a guy ahead of his time, one of the great fighters for human rights of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who denounced the atrocities in Africa and the Amazon).

Knighted by King George V, just five years later he was hanged in London's Pentonville Prison. A fervent nationalist, he had abandoned diplomacy. After the outbreak of World War I, he traveled to Germany to recruit Irish people detained in that country, and create with them a unit that would fight against Great Britain for independence. London didn't take it too well.

One hundred and eight years after his execution, Roger Casement remains a divisive character. The abandoned Belfast Gaelic football stadium, in The Falls (the heart of the republican quarter, where Sinn Féin is based) bears his name, and the provincial government has decided to restore it, with help of 50 million euros from Dublin , to host matches of the Euro 2028 Championship, organized by Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Protestants are not interested in Gaelic football (a nationalist symbol), and never set foot in The Falls, so as not to have to see the murals dedicated to Bobby Sands and other republican heroes, and the plaques with the names of victims of loyalist attacks. They prefer to go to rugby in Ravenhill (in their neighborhoods in the south and east of Belfast), or to football in Windsor Park, shared by Linfield and the national team, and in whose stands, in the years of lead, chants against the GONNA.

But the capacity of the recently renovated Windsor Park is only 18,500 spectators, and UEFA regulations indicate that for a Euro Cup final the stadiums - among other requirements - must hold at least thirty thousand. Now Casement Park is practically an open field full of bushes with a semi-ruined grandstand, but the plan is that after the renovation it will be the largest in the city. The Catholics delighted, the Protestants nothing at all.

In Belfast there are two predominantly unionist teams, Glentoran and Linfield (which for a long time, like the Scottish Rangers, de facto did not admit Catholics into their ranks), and a republican one, Cliftonville. The derbies throw sparks, almost with more police than fans. But times are changing, and First Minister Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin) recently went to Windsor Park in a conciliatory gesture, on the occasion of a Northern Ireland women's team match.

Casement is seen by nationalists as an enemy not only of the British Empire but of all empires, who saw World War I as an opportunity for Irish independence. Unionists see the stadium named after him as a monument to a traitor. A matter of opinions, like almost everything.