Ireland and the awkwardness of Remembrance

The curtain has almost been drawn on the Easter commemorations that have been taking place this week across Ireland. These occasions, when those who fought and died in the centuries old struggle for Irish freedom are remembered, are largely attended by supporters of the various Irish republican parties and factions, though in parts of the north a wider audience of nationalists have traditionally attended such gatherings. An official Irish government ceremony was reinstated by Bertie Ahern in 2006 and a much greater programme of events are being planned for the centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising next year.

The Irish government’s recent difficulties over its proposals for commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising are a reminder of the awkwardness associated with remembrance in an Irish context.

For almost two decades now, the prevailing narrative regarding remembrance in an Irish context has focused on the similarly awkward manner with which Ireland has recalled the Irishmen who fought and fell in the World Wars in British uniforms. Yet what has not been highlighted to the same extent is the fact that a similar awkwardness has defined Ireland’s approach to remembering those who have fought and fallen in pursuit of Irish unity.

For a long time, it was argued that the continuation of the IRA’s military campaign post-1969 had created an atmosphere in which people were reluctant to commemorate the Easter Rising and similar episodes in Irish history for fear of inadvertently giving succour to a then active militant republican tradition.

But that was never a convincing argument.

Call it self-loathing, link it to a peculiar post-colonial complex or simply a weariness to invite the past into an ever changing present, but Ireland stands apart from many of the western nations with whom she has a closest affinity in declining to pay homage to its patriot dead in the same manner associated with official remembrance in either the USA or Britain.

Not for Ireland the public holidays to recall Independence nor appreciate Veterans, nor the pomp of November’s Remembrance, with football shirt poppies.

In many ways, that is a good thing.

It suggests an eyes wide open approach to the true face of conflict, understandable given Ireland’s troubled history. The inane platitudes oft associated with remembrance jar anyone with the remotest appreciation of conflict and history. Never is this truer than with reference to the First World War. The notion of this unprecedented slaughter of humanity being in any way associated with freeing small nations, or about men dying so we might be free is a cruel betrayal of the truth.

The history of Ireland informs us that the ‘bad’ guys often win out, and that life proceeds regardless.

The black and white narrative oft-favoured by the victor in a conflict has been shunned in Nationalist Ireland, where the greys of conquest, conflict, partial victories and independence have ensured that a weariness continues to define attitudes to remembrance.

Incidentally, it remains the case that there is almost nothing in Ireland to mark the participation in the US Civil War of tens of thousands of Irish born soldiers, making it by some distance the second largest conflict in terms of Irish casualties behind the First World War. Damian Sheils has pioneered research into Ireland’s involvement in this conflict and has made a compelling case for the sacrifice of the thousands of Irish born men to be formally recognised by the Irish state today.

It is entirely appropriate and fitting that a National programme of events is organised to celebrate and commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising, and that includes across the north of Ireland too.

Indeed, the time has long since past for unionism to find a place in its narrative for recognising remembrance associated with Irish nationalism and republicanism.

Events suggest that remains some distance off.

Ballymena UUP councillor, Stephen Nicholl, organised a bit of a cheap stunt last Monday, travelling to Dublin to remember British soldiers who died “For King and Country” during the Easter Rising.

As members of British Forces, such casualties are annually remembered by those wishing to mark British Remembrance Day ceremonies in November. Indeed, as an effort to hijack the date of republican commemoration, it is akin to nationalists in Derry seeking to remember those killed by British Forces on Bloody Sunday when unionists gather at the Cenotaph. Could be easily organised, and as an effort to create confrontation and challenge Britain/unionism’s right to remember war dead it would undoubtedly be effective. But to what end?

We can do better. We must.

The fact that Sinn Fein MLA/ Stormont Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin can comfortably talk about the ‘nationalist amnesia’ regarding remembrance of World War I dead illustrates how far Nationalist Ireland has challenged itself and broadened its narrative to incorporate an understanding of The Other, its interpretations of the past and how they inform existing narratives.

There is an onus upon unionism to respect the rights of their nationalist neighbours to remember the 1916 Rebellion in the north, just as unionists were entitled to expect the same from nationalists when commemorating the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant a few years ago.

Historically, republican remembrance in a 6-county context has been a subversive exercise due to the state being reflective exclusively of a British/unionist ethos.

The Good Friday Agreement changed all of that, and increasingly the future will be one of nationalists expecting their traditions to be afforded the same space and conferred with the same sense of legitimacy as those identified with unionists.

That means addressing issues like the lack of symbols and emblems associated with Nationalism/Republicanism in our civic spaces, but it also means making space for Republican commemorations as part of a shared society. I would expect to see BBC Northern Ireland and UTV beginning to provide annual coverage of Easter commemorations, as both have a long established tradition of not only providing live and recorded coverage of British Remembrance Day events, but also of the Twelfth of July loyalist parades.

Nationalist Ireland, through finding a space within its narrative for British remembrance, including through the attendance of Nationalist leaders at Remembrance Sunday ceremonies or, in the case of Sinn Fein, laying wreaths at the Cenotaph and attending Armistice Day events, has shown the way. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect Unionist leaders to attend Republican organised commemorations in the north in the short term, I do believe more forward thinking unionists- or, at least, pro-Union figures holding civic office- will begin to feel obliged to attend official state commemorations in Dublin in the future in recognition of the fact that it is an inevitable consequence of building a shared future in the contested space that is Northern Ireland.

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