This afternoon’s panel on Reflections on Remembrance took stock of how the decade of centenaries were being marked across the island of Ireland. Peter Osborne chaired the panel, held as part of the week long John Hewitt International Summer School in the Market Place Theatre, Armagh. Largely driven by audience questions and comments, Peter opened the discussion by asking:
Are we just getting through these years and the contention without too much disharmony, or are we creating something new and transforming relationships on this island?
John Concannon has directed the Irish Government’s events remembering 1916 and stressed the dialogue that had taken place with interested groups in the run up to building the programme. During the discussion he spoke about the decision to send two Irish Army officers into each school to talk about the symbolism of the Irish flag, with its Green, White (peace) and Orange (not Gold).
Jeffrey Donaldson chairs the Northern Ireland WW1 Centenary Committee. He saw a need to remember WW1 events across communities and pointed to “shared experiences of remembering” and singled out the Battle of Jutland memorial event for Irish sailors as an example. While the Somme can be seen – or is used – as an “Ulster Protestant” piece of history, the Lagan Valley MP said “it isn’t”. Somme commemorations will remember the sacrifice from regiments across all four provinces of Ireland. He reflected on the Irish history and his Irishness, admitting that during the Troubles he would have shied away from that part of his identity. Conversations happen today which would have been very unlikely five or ten years ago. And the change is ongoing. While the next set of contentious commemorations won’t be until 2021, he said that the learning has to continue in the meantime.
Tom Hartley was “hit” by the complexity and layers behind events in history. He said that “our 1916 programme” had sought from the start to be open; to reach out; to include unionist and loyalist history, voices and perspectives; and to be information not propaganda. “When we don’t engage with the past we risk our future” said the former Belfast Sinn Féin councillor. However, he warned that history often throws up surprises and we should “engage our emotional anchors” to avoid being dragged off course. He agreed that history has been “abused” and “treated as simple narratives”: a shared understanding of history could help build a shared future.
Ruth Dudley Edwards was interested – and has written about – the personalities behind the history. She noted the remarkable level of agreement on the panel, despite many robust exchanges in the past. The reflective tone was kept up during nearly all of the panel. While some people were alarmed in the run up to 2016, she hasn’t encountered the expected hostility. She pointed to education – including within republicanism – and felt that Martin McGuinness was genuine when he laid a wreath before the Somme commemoration. She looked back at the Irish stamps issued in 1966 and contrasted them with the much more measured set issued this year that better addressed the complexity of the events in 1916. She said that while much is made of the friendliness between former paramilitaries, the role of “the cops” shouldn’t be forgotten and noted that their legacy was under attack.
Fifty six minutes into the discussion there was a discussion about whether “David Ervine’s kind of leadership” was missing from unionism today. Jeffrey Donaldson agreed that there was a gap, and commented on the difficulties in getting the UVF to move forward. [Sam McBride unpacked those comments in an article in the News Letter.]