Undoubtedly the most notable feature of Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Dublin last year was her laying of a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, honouring those Irish republicans who had given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom throughout the centuries.
Whilst such practice may be expected by Heads of State on official trips abroad, the symbolic importance of the act was not lost on those in Ireland, north and south, who have been much closer to the fall out from the constitutional arrangements which divided the country between a sovereign southern state and a northern state still within British jurisdiction.
It was an interesting development because it also posed a challenge to unionists to begin on a journey which could in time reciprocate that undertaken by Nationalist Ireland in the past several decades, when the role of Irish men and women who have served in Britain’s armed forces has been acknowledged and written into the developing post-conflict nationalist narrative.
This journey has seen all strands of nationalism acknowledge the role of Irish soldiers in World War I in particular, though the widespread support (including from Sinn Fein) for a pardon to be given to those Irish Army soldiers absconding in order to join the British Army and fight in World War II illustrates how far we have come in a matter of years.
Yet, as the recent political unionist outcry (including this from Peter Robinson) at the prospect of funding for a republican memorial in Crossmaglen indicates, the reciprocal journey is not yet one which any strand of unionism has been willing to undertake- something which underscores the points I made in an earlier thread regarding the slightly conciliatory nature of Peter Robinson’s fledgling outreach initiative.
Both unionist parties expressed outrage at the prospect of funding for the republican memorial, incorrectly labelling it an IRA memorial when, in fact, the wording on the monument makes no reference to the IRA.
Ironically, no such criticism was evident from unionist politicians when they recently voted to ensure that Lisburn Council donate land so that a UDR memorial could be erected in the centre of Lisburn.
Indeed, the recent Dublin speech by the DUP Leader highlights just why such a journey will be required if Robinson is to successfully make a go of his stated desire to attract to the cause of unionism people traditionally from a catholic/ nationalist background.
In his Dublin speech Robinson, whilst seeking to contextualise unionism’s actions one hundred years ago in sympathetic terms, essentially conceded that they were acting in an anti-democratic manner, striving to frustrate the democratically expressed desires of the overwhelming majority of Irish people whilst also plotting against the government to which they professed loyalty.
Given this, would it not be a politically astute move to concede that the descent into militancy by Irish nationalism was precipitated by unionism’s actions, and that consequently unionists should begin to reconsider the black and white manner with which they have sought to portray the history of both the tumultuous decade preceding partition and the ninety years since.
Ironically, plotting such a course would surely lead to unionist leaders not going apoplectic at the prospect of public funding for an Irish republican monument, but rather embracing it as an acknowledgment that the republican tradition deserves the same degree of legitimacy and respect which has been afforded unionism within the northern state.
We are but a few months into the Decade of Centenaries, but it is already clear that the coming years will see increasing demands within the northern state for Irish nationalist and republican commemorations to be given parity of esteem with those traditionally associated with the British and unionist identity which defined the State and its institutions in the pre-peace process period.
In this sense, making peace with Ireland’s Patriot Dead is the flip side of Irish nationalism recognising and providing a place in the nationalist narrative for Britain’s war dead throughout the generations.
The latter journey remains a painful one for nationalists and republicans, and there is little doubt it would be similarly painful for unionism were the political leadership of unionism to signal their intention of beginning that journey. However, it certainly would indicate a desire to articulate a progressive unionism capable of broadening its narrative to incorporate ‘the other’ in a manner which has been missing to date.