What simple, imaginative elisions might suffice a genuine reconciliation for Northern Ireland?

Yesterday, Martin McGuinness (and a cohort of SF politicians from north and south) was at Messines, where thousands of Irishmen died in the Battle of the Somme. 

An important gesture, no doubt. But in 2016, how is that decade of centenaries coming along in real Northern Ireland?

In Derry the council has ordered the halting of work on the war memorial in the city’s Diamond. And in Magherafelt there’s an out of the blue proposal for a statue of Pádraig Pearse. 

The sheer randoness of these highly localised (and therefore almost media invisible) acts leads you to suspect that it’s all to do with complex constituency management rather than any actual politics, or indeed Rembrance.

On Tuesday McGuinness was at the Menin Gate in the lavishly reconstructed town of Ieper (Ypres). I’ve never been to that part of the old western front, but I’m told the sheer number of the dead named there is dizzying to behold.

It was certainly a dizzyingly stupid war, contrived at by superpowers who had little clue as to the long deep misery  they were getting themselves – and their soldiery – into. 

From a certain perspective it represents a long slow collapse of imagination, to the point where, as Captain Blackadder so eloquently put it, ‘no one could be bothered not have a war’…


British and Irish patriots died side by side at the Somme, and in their tens of thousands. Men who just a few years before had been prepared to fight each other had it come to that. 
It’s a strain of patriotism – largely written out of official histories – that’s being slowly recovered: not through crass revisionism but through a slow – in many ways introspective – revisiting of those events and the precise biographies of those men. 

By the light of Blackadders ‘dictum’ most wars are pretty stupid and horrific collapses in the broader will to maintain peaceful relations. Remembrance itself is no inoculation against repetition.

In the Vosges valley in Alsace each village has a memorial to the dead. Unlike almost every other such monument in France the words Pro Patria Mori are missing from the top.. It’s an elegant elision for men who died for the ‘wrong side’ in 1914-18. 

Whatever the public gestures say to the broader world it is clear that a post conflict Northern Ireland remains a long way from being at peace with itself over its own bloody shortcomings of the past. What simple, imaginative elisions might suffice? 

Or is it more the case that we just cannot be bothered not to have another one?

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