Remembrance in NI need not be divisive for communities


COMMEMORATIONS can help shape our collective political, social and cultural conscience and may be a source of healing and learning.

The way in which commemorations, including parading, are managed is more important now than ever given the start of a decade of centenary commemorations of a period that includes many major events shaping where we are today and culminating in the physical division of the island.

The sobering truth is that how we pay tribute in 2012 will tell us more about our society and relations now than it will tell us about events 100 years ago. Few of us need to be reminded of how tangible and long-lasting were the ramifications of the events we are now commemorating.

What should drive the policy and practice of how we mark these events, and the others, are a number of common values and mechanisms.

I suspect they are values that the men of the Irish and Ulster divisions who fought at Messines would readily buy into, when no doubt the magnitude of the human trauma they experienced made the other big political issues feel less important.

June 7th, 1917, was the first occasion the generals had seen fit to allow the Ulster and Irish divisions fight side by side. Both divisions, fighting together, achieved their objectives by advancing either side of what the soldiers nicknamed Suicide Road.

One story stands out: when John Meeke from the Ulster Division nursed a badly injured William Redmond of the Irish Division (brother of John Redmond) eventually getting him off the battlefield but only after being seriously injured himself. Redmond died and Meeke survived. The photographs of Ulster division soldiers at Redmond’s grave in France are emotive to this day.

Why doesn’t this episode occur to us as naturally as the other celebrated events? Perhaps it fits less well with the history with which both traditions were more comfortable?

Yet it is likely those soldiers from across the social and community spectrum will have shared many of the values that could well assist their descendants as they plan this decade of commemoration.

Values such as: making events as diverse as possible to help negate any desire or trend for people to express themselves in a way that is sectional; promoting inclusion and proactively challenging exclusion; recognising upfront the wider civic not sectional interests, putting the focus on reconciliation not division; respecting each other and respecting the culture, traditions and historical DNA of all.

It is hugely important in how commemorations are organised and delivered that there is a proactive sensitivity to the needs and perceptions of other communities whoever they may be. Remembering and commemorating the achievements and actions of others, including death and loss, should not be about antagonising other communities.

Therefore, early and frequent communication with relevant agencies and with other communities is critical.

Leadership is central: it can help to promote generosity in language and actions. It is also important in setting the early vision, reinforcing the values that underpin commemoration, and providing an example that bolsters those who want to be inclusive, respectful and progressive.

How we commemorate says more about us today than about our society a century ago. It is particularly important that we get it right from the start. Not just because it sets the tone for the 100-year commemorations in the decade to come but the tone for a variety of 50-year commemorations (McGurks, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Dublin and Monaghan bombs, and many more) that will start from 2019 – events with living victims, where the consequences are even more raw.

That is why leadership now is so important; when leaders from all walks of life can show that their moment in time will be remembered as a time for everyone on this island.

The men at Messines would no doubt want a future without more violence; a future where mutual respect takes precedence over mutual mistrust.

Peter Osborne is chairman of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission