The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly delved deep into history to commemorate the centenary of the Great War and to highlight the long hidden and shared contribution of soldiers – Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist – as a means of overcoming present differences.
Many cite the comment by Churchill at the end of that war that
“The whole map of Europe has been changed … The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world, but as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeple of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”
But can a proper understanding of how Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant fought together help challenge the integrity of that struggle?
For my money, it’s certainly worth a try and well done to the Assembly for taking it seriously as we enter a decade of major centenaries including the Easter Uprising, the Irish civil war and independence.
Before their formal meeting MPs, Peers and Senators from Ireland, Great Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland paid homage to the fallen by spending a day in Flanders touring war memorials and cemeteries, a deeply emotional experience for many. Sinn Fein TD Sean Crowe told me that he had “found it hard to imagine the enormity of the carnage.”
The star turn at the plenary in Ashford, Kent was Professor Keith Jeffery of Queen’s University Belfast, who outlined the joint contribution in detail. Marching toward the sound of gunfire at the Somme has long been associated with Northern Ireland Protestants but arguably more Catholics served on the British side.
The Professor quipped that some Protestants now say that nationalists pull grandfathers who served at the front like “rabbits out of a hat” and quoted one who said; “not only have the bastards won the [Troubles] but they’ve stolen our war too.”
“The Irish Co-Chair and Fine Gael TD, Frank Feighan told me that 130 Irish soldiers from the Connaught Rangers at the Boyle Garrison had died but that for many decades they had been “written out of history” and that this “airbrushing” had allowed the Great War to
be seen wrongly as “the preserve of Unionists.” He was the first ever TD, just two years ago, to wear the poppy in the Dail.”
Feighan knows something about the blurring of historical experience given that one of his grandfathers fought with the British while another was a commander in the War of Independence. Indeed, he was the first ever TD, just two years ago, to wear the poppy in the Dail.
John Scott, a Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament highlighted the visit of the Queen to Dublin as having helped overcome ancient differences. Others praised the Irish President Michael D Higgin’s visit to the UK.
English Conservative MP Robert Walter told me that “the history of fighting the same aggressor symbolises a common history.” Labour Peer and former Northern Ireland Minister Alf Dubs said it was important to acknowledge the reality that people from what is now the Irish Republic had “fought side by side.”
Northern Ireland Minister Andrew Murrison, deputising for the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers who was attending urgent all-party talks at Stormont, emphasised the importance of the Irish Government laying a wreath for the first time at the Cenotaph in London on Armistice Day next month.
Does this excavation of the reality of the shared war hold any lessons for marking the Easter Uprising in two years time?
Sinn Fein’s Sean Crowe emphasised that it should also be “inclusive” and cited how this could include the activities of the Royal Irish Constabulary and those at Trinity who had fired on the rebels.
Murrison, who is also the British Prime Minister’s envoy on the Great War centenary, also expressed the hope that understanding the complexity of 1916 – the Somme and the Uprising – would enable a shared understanding to emerge by “addressing history as objectively as possible.”
The Assembly is also a parliamentary sounding board that scrutinises key issues between the peoples of these islands. Several expressed fears of the “fragile” peace process in Northern Ireland and Murrison told the Assembly of “several challenges that might see the Executive fail its annual health check” but insisted that the British Government’s approach to the devolved administration should be “relatively light touch.”
Irish Senator Cait Keane wanted the Assembly to support the call for a statutory inquiry and said that the Assembly “should do anything we can to support Maria Cahill.”
Sean Crowe told me that he had been horrified to read of abuse allegations but took other charges of Joe Cahill having been turned into an informer with “a grain of salt given the sources it is coming from.”
The Assembly celebrates 25 years and 50 plenaries next Spring in Dublin. It was only belatedly that the Assembly itself became inclusive when Unionists took their seats in a body they had boycotted because it was supposedly linked to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Northern Ireland DUP Minister Jim Wells, himself facing a tough time as Health Minister at Stormont, told the Assembly that he had been the first Unionist to join and was impressed with the opportunity it gave to parliamentarians across these islands to get to know each other on first name terms and this had done much to break down barriers.
This has been the hallmark of the Assembly for a quarter of a century. As Sean Crowe said, “we have all moved a long way.” Alf Dubs also told me that while the Assembly could focus on specific policy areas its main and continuing role was to provide parliamentary oversight of the inter-governmental architecture of the new relations in these islands.
The Assembly ebbs and flows according to the quality of its members but, as one who has attended many of its meetings since 1990, I would argue that its contribution to overcoming old hostilities has been very worthwhile.
Anything that promotes better relations, chiefly between Ireland and the UK whose trade amounts to a billion euro a week and sustains 400,000 jobs should not be sniffed at. Puncturing stale myths about the Great War can enable us to pack up our troubles in our old kit bags.
Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.