BIPA and facing the difficult politics of a common history….

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.”

unnamedThe 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.

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  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    ” The professor quipped that some 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 have stolen OUR war “-

    Well seeing that the grandsons never lived through or fought in the Great War I can’t see how any of them can call it OUR war –

    A few who came back from the Great War joined the IRA and no one ever made fun about them for fighting for the British side- a few others were Quiet about their service when they returned to Ireland but there was little to no hatred shown to those people-

  • Séamus

    MPs, Peers and Senators from Ireland, Great Britain, Ireland and Northern Irelan

    That’s a lot of Ireland.

    For all the talk of a “common history” regarding the First World War, it seems that there are huge efforts underway in this decade of centenaries to avoid addressing the uncomfortable fact that the Irishmen who fought for Britain did so at cross-purposes – that nationalists fought for Home Rule and unionists fought for No Home Rule.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    This is an old theme of mine on Slugger, but the general use of “OUR” war really sticks in my throat. When I was a kid I used to have Unionist Politicians being noble at 11.11 Cenotaph services pointed out to me, and their record of call-up evasion and downright failure to support any war effort pointed out to me by some of the men who had actually fought.

    I’d long ago asked for anyone to post mention of anyone in the top ranks of the DUP for a start who had a father or grandfather (or mother or grandmother) in the services in WWII. Or anyone in WWI. So far I’ve been greeted with a heavy silence. The community is a reification, and only individuals actually fought in the war. Its slightly obscene for people whose family members shirked active service against Hitler and the Kaiser to preen themselves that they somehow deserve credit for the sacrifice of others.

    In Newtownards in the early 1920s a number of unemployed ex-service men tried to shame the council into fulfilling a pledge to build a memorial to the fallen. They built a snowman memorial with a tin hat, rifle and gas mask case and were photographed around it. The satire was clear, a cold homecoming except where their sacrifice was useful to others.

    Some of those mentioned in the article above could make some claim on direct links with the war, but I’d still like to know about the others…..

  • Alan N/Ards

    Spot on comment.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Alan, the mileau discussing these matters that I knew as an adolescent was essentially that of old WWI officers, who were bitterly angry at the treatment of their men by User Politicians here and over the water. It has served to make me question through my entire life the entire concept of the Professional Politician who is qualified to represent the people, and who can do a better job of representing them than they might do for themselves. I’ve met a few sincere politicians, here, in the Dáil, the UK, Australia and the US, but far, far, far more careerists who have no social empathy with those they draw support from, let alone the wider community.

    WWI broke down many of the rigid class divisions for many officers, and when they returned home and saw the politicians at Stormont and beyond claiming unmerited right of status over good working class men who had actually fought for their country, they were both disillusioned and enraged. This rage lasted long enough for me to imbibe something of it in my formative years. So the notion of the currently developing beanfeast, what is essentially a “celebration” of the war by politicians, at a time when selective cuts will directly affect the descendants of those who actually suffered, simply drives me to distraction. Thank you for your support.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Seaan, My Grandmother was widowed during WW1 as her husband was killed in France. She remarried and was widowed again during WW2 when my grandfather gave his life for King and Country. She also had three sons serving during WW2. She lived into her 80’s and never had a house which had an inside toilet and was a slum. The unionist politicians didn’t give a monkey’s about her and many like her. Shameful!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Alan, for the story. I feel that this is the way these wars should be properly remembered, so that the slick words of politicians of all hues are never again taken at face value. I noted the thread you started on the play, and saw it in this light.

    The shame is still on them all. I noted that Lord Bannside, for one, was of age at the end of the war when an aunt of mine of similar age volunteered for the WRAF. A mutual friend told me that when he asked the Baron directly (and privately) as to his stance he was ignored.