2021’s truce, treaty and Northern Ireland commemorations will test our goodwill

Last year’s rows over the RIC and Kilmichael do not bode well for next year’s centenaries

The Irish Government’s involvement with the Northern Ireland centenary will be the funding of a major conference in Queen’s University Belfast.

The Irish Government’s involvement with the Northern Ireland centenary will be the funding of a major conference in Queen’s University Belfast.

 

It was a year in which one political entity was created, Northern Ireland, and another, the Irish Free State, was negotiated into being.

It was also the year in which a poorly trained, poorly armed militia fought the British Empire to a standstill and the British government did what it promised it would never do and negotiated with the “murder gang”.

The events of 1921 still resonate today as do many events marked in the decade of centenaries. The first half of that year was the bloodiest of the War of Independence with tit-for-tat killings.

Nine people were killed on New Year’s Day 1921 according to the recently published The Dead of the Irish Revolution, approximately a thousand up to the Truce of July 11th, which ended the War of Independence.

The commemorations that have occurred since 2013 have been largely uncontentious: 2016’s commemoration of the Easter Rising is generally regarded as a sensitive and mature remembrance of a complex episode.

By contrast, the aborted Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) commemoration from January and Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley’s notorious tweet comparing the Kilmichael ambush of 1920 with the Narrow Water ambush of 1979 brought a discordant tone to proceedings in the past year, and evoked cultural wars between traditionalist and revisionist historians in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Covid-19 pandemic played havoc with commemorations in 2020. Communities that had spent years preparing for centenary events were forced to hold them online, and public gatherings were replaced by keyboard warriors giving incendiary takes on Irish history.

In a trenchant opinion editorial in the Daily Mail, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested that “we have lost our way” in relation to the commemorations. He said the commemorations up to and including the Easter Rising centenary in 2016 had been marked in an “inclusive and respectful” manner.

However, the “constant glorification of past violence” by Sinn Féin as exemplified by Stanley’s tweet will only serve to make a united Ireland harder to achieve, he maintained.

The State’s The Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, including some of the top historians in Ireland, envisages that a “formal commemoration for all of those who lost their lives during the War of Independence be held on July 11th, 2021, or a suitable date close to the centenary of the coming into effect of the Truce”. This remains the recommendation of the group. 

There are likely to be academic conferences and documentaries discussing not just the treaty itself but the bitter debates around it

Group chairman Maurice Manning is hopeful that the respectful, inclusive tone that characterised events before this year can return. “With the exception of the RIC thing which was not part of anybody’s programme, the atmosphere at all things has been very respectful,” he says. 

“We are taking the view that people want their history told with truth and objectivity and they don’t want it weaponised or hijacked. They see it as history not part of current affairs. I think most people are with us on that.”

Does he expect the British to be invited? “Absolutely,” he says.

Minister for Culture Catherine Martin says a cornerstone of the commemorative programme will be to “continue further reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain”.

Martin, who has responsibilities for commemorations, says she agrees with Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s comments recalling the burning of Cork in 1920, at which he stated that “history cannot be a dehumanised or simplistic self-serving narrative. It is the complex story of individual men and women, their lives, their flaws, their strengths, their struggle and their suffering, however they identified, whatever uniform they wore.”

Other than the major State events, commemorations of significant ambushes or events will be left to local communities as per the successful Soloheadbeg event in January 2019.

Violent incidents

There are several significant ambushes which will be commemorated in 1921. Some military historians believe the escape of Tom Barry and approximately 100 IRA volunteers from attempts by the British army to surround them at Crossbarry, Co Cork, on March 19th, 1921, was the equal in military terms of his attack at Kilmichael in November 1920.

The site at Crossbarry has fallen into a bad state of disrepair and will be cleaned up by the local authority in advance of the centenary on March 19th.

The year of 1921 also saw the IRA’s greatest reverses. Its worst defeat was at Clonmult, Co Cork, on February 20th, 1921. In what is being described as “Kilmichael in reverse”, 12 IRA men were killed by the British forces, four were captured and two were later executed. Seven of the IRA were reputedly shot after surrendering.

Clonmult ambush site chairman Christy O’Sullivan says they hope to have an outdoor event in February to mark the centenary, Covid permitting, but will postpone it to later in the year if necessary.

“For the last few years we have had commemorations here preparing for the 100th. We want to get it right. We hope we have everything done for February,” he says.

The committee is hoping to unveil a diorama of the site detailing the battle and a headstone with the names of all 24 IRA volunteers who were present at Clonmult.

The thrust of the Government’s policy in relation to commemorations has been to devolve events like Clonmult to local communities.

The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is upping the allocation for commemorations next year from €3 million to €5 million. Of that, €50,000 is being given to each local authority in the State to mark the centenary in their own ways.

Treaty

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which founded the State in December 1921, was bitterly contested at the time. Was it “the freedom to achieve freedom” as Michael Collins suggested or a sellout which should never have been accepted?

There are likely to be academic conferences and documentaries discussing not just the treaty itself but the bitter debates around it which precipitated the Civil War.

Northern Ireland

Though the War of Independence and the treaty remain contested history, the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland is by far the most contentious one in 2021.

The portents for a respectful, inclusive commemoration are already still-born.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP have refused to participate in the centenary historical advisory panel. While Sinn Féin’s absence is not unexpected, the SDLP has also set its face against anything that might be construed as a celebration of Northern Ireland or one that does not reflect the reality of partition for nationalists.

The Northern Ireland Office has used the image of Seamus Heaney on its promotional material to launch its £3 million (€3.4 million) Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100 campaign.

This has already precipitated a sharp exchange on Twitter between SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken. Eastwood tweeted a photograph of Heaney and his famous words “Be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.”

For Irish republicans and nationalists, there will be no celebration of the partition of our country

Aiken replied with a photograph of the Nobel laureate meeting Queen Elizabeth II in 2011. “Despite colour of passport I do think Séamus did raise a glass to the Queen – far better days in Irish/UK relations . . . let’s get back to them (State Visit 2011) @columeastwood.”

The leaders of the North’s two main parties also set out their trenchant views on how the centenary should be marked. Taking nationalists and republicans to task for their belief that a united Ireland is a historic inevitability, First Minister Arlene Foster said they had never accepted the fact that Northern Ireland was a compromise by unionists who did not want Home Rule for any part of Ireland.

For her part Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said bluntly that unionists and the British government can choose to mark events as they see fit. “For Irish republicans and nationalists, there will be no celebration of the partition of our country. It has failed the people across this island.”

The Irish Government’s involvement with the Northern Ireland centenary will be the funding of a major conference in Queen’s University Belfast most likely in the autumn covering partition from an academic point of view and, in particular, the experience of minority communities stranded on every side of the Border.

Martin, when asked if she would attend any Northern Ireland centenary events, said she and Government officials intend “to ensure open channels of communication in relation to planning for the forthcoming centenaries. The sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach, which has underpinned our successful commemoration of events to date will again guide our approach to marking the anniversaries still to come.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney says that in the year ahead he wants to hear stories from all perspectives, including those of women and minority communities on both sides of the Border.

At the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament in June 1921, King George V made a famous speech in which he appealed “to all Irish men to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill”.

Alas, when it comes to the centenary of Northern Ireland next year there is little sign of contentment or goodwill.

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