The people of Ireland, north and south, are in an enviable position on the eve of the centenary of 1916. We have the opportunity to end a century of violence, enmity and misunderstanding between us for good. Much has been achieved, but much remains to be done.
Diversity and difference are increasingly seen as positives – note last month’s marriage-equality referendum in the Republic – but our traditional differences of green and orange still generate fear and division for many. Political and sectarian violence has, thankfully, largely stopped, but have we created the conditions in which they will never be tolerated again? Not yet.
How we remember and publicly commemorate the past is an important element in our ongoing peacebuilding efforts.
There is much to remember in this decade of centenaries, but 1916, the year in which both the Easter Rising and the first World War’s Battle of the Somme took place, is particularly important.
For many the Easter Rising is a key moment in securing the independence of Ireland and the eventual establishment of a separate republic. For others the Battle of the Somme is a key foundational moment in the creation of Northern Ireland.
These two narratives are contested and in many ways symbolise the deep, traditional divisions on this island. For that reason we must seize the centenary of these two events as an opportunity to transform violent conflict and build peace.
Today the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, in Co Wicklow, is hosting 1916 and the Ethics of Memory – an event at which President Michael D Higgins will be the opening speaker – to consider how it is most appropriate to remember the year 1916. There will be a wide range of participants from diverse backgrounds and political viewpoints from across the island.
Although Glencree’s primary role is to provide a space where differing views can be exchanged, we need to consider some key issues. There are also important reasons why the way we remember the past is important for peacebuilding.
One is that acts of remembering, such as Queen Elizabeth bowing her head in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin on May 17th, 2011, have the power to be transformative.
This was a moment when most Irish people were deeply impressed by a simple act of respect and openness to their history by the queen – an act that, at a stroke, led to a striking improvement in relations between Britain and Ireland. “A seed was sown, with a simple bow . . . she remembered our losses, she remembered her own,” as Luka Bloom described it in his song.
Another, which we have come to learn in Glencree after 40 difficult years of peacebuilding, is that without confronting the hard issues of our past there can be no lasting change towards a peaceful future. Dealing with that past is central to peacebuilding.
The Troubles clearly had some of their roots in what happened a century ago, in an earlier period of brutal political and sectarian violence. If we choose to remember only “our side’s” narrative about what happened 100 years ago we will make understanding the more recent conflict and overcoming the deep divisions it opened up even more difficult. So it is important that we look at our own interpretation of the past and be open to hearing others’ perspectives – something that the prominent northern Methodist minister Dr Johnston McMaster, who will also speak today, calls “narrative hospitality”.
This is not to suggest that shared commemoration is necessarily appropriate, but it does require us at least to ensure that commemorations are as inoffensive as possible to others – which requires asking others what they would find offensive. Nationalists and republicans need to ask unionists that question, and unionists need to do the same to their historic antagonists.
Dialogue, a key approach that Glencree uses in its peacebuilding work, is important here, as it offers the opportunity to genuinely hear the other and be heard by them and allows for a joint working-through of difficult issues. Dialogue is a key part of the Glencree event today.
It is also important that we remember forgotten narratives of the centenary period. The dominant nationalist/unionist “state building” narratives of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme often drown out the voices of other significant groups.
We must rediscover the voices of women and the suffragette movement, pacifists and conscientious objectors, the labour movement and, of course, the civilians – including children – who were caught up in these conflicts not of their making.
Finally, if we are to achieve a long-term peaceful future for the island we love and share, it is vital that we commit ourselves to nonviolent and nonadversarial approaches to resolving conflict. Conflict is inevitable; violence is not. This is an important reason why we need to guard very carefully against any glorification of violence as part of our commemorations.
It has been pleasing to observe that there has been little noticeable glorification of violence in commemorations to date, but there is still a risk of it happening, particularly as we get closer to the anniversary of the actual events of the spring and summer of 1916, and as people remember the courage and sacrifice of those who all fought for their concepts of country, culture, identity and freedom.
As the eminent philosopher Onora O’Neill – who has strong British and Irish elements in her background and will also be participating today – has argued, what we should remember above all is that we have spent much of the past century killing and deriding others with whom we share these islands. She even questions whether any of this should be commemorated at all.
I would not go as far as that. But it is crucial that we remember with sadness, and with as much mutual understanding as we can muster, the pain caused and divisions created by the conflicts of 100 years ago, and vow that they will never be allowed to happen to this island again.
William Devas is chief executive of Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation; glencree.ie