Britain should not forget the Irish War of Independence
RIC commemoration row gives London the chance to take the lead on centenaries
Even at the time the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were an embarrassment. Photograph: Bettmann Archive
The furore over the proposed commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) is a reminder of that old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished”.
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has discovered that attempting to commemorate the tens of thousands of Irishmen who served in both police forces had unintended consequences. It has provoked an ancestral fury beyond the usual opportunists who oppose any reconciliation gesture as a sell-out.
While many on this island are busy debating the past and falling out with each other over who should and who should not be commemorated, one salient point has been missed – where is Britain in all of this?
Hundreds of RIC and DMP members died in the War of Independence – ostracised, despised and subsequently forgotten about by many. They were joined in death by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, working class lads and toffs alike from Britain, who knew nothing about Ireland and cared less. They killed and were killed. They died in the service of Britain.
Throughout this Decade of Centenaries we have been exhorted to show maturity about our complicated history. But Britain has the same obligation in relation to events of 100 years ago.
We are not the only country that suffers from what the historian FX Martin called “historical amnesia”. Britain is assiduous in remembering its role in the two world wars as witnessed by the dwindling band of second World War veterans at the Cenotaph every Remembrance Sunday.
It is not so diligent in remembering its dirty little morally ambiguous wars , like the Irish War of Independence.
Prof Sir Hew Strachan, a member of the British government’s advisory committee on commemorations, told The Irish Times last year that some of the historians wanted to extend its commemoration programme beyond the centenary of the first World War to include the post-war period and Britain’s troubled legacy in India and Ireland.
“The view of the [British] government as expressed by ministers and Andrew Murrison (the British prime minister’s adviser on commemorations for the first World War) was that getting to the finishing line of November the 11th was about as much as they had stamina for,” he said.
“We never got as far as Ireland. There are issues that are potentially instructive about the complexity of war and peace. Ireland exposes all of that. I think they [the British government] will find it difficult because it is politically difficult for them today.”
It is understandable that Britain does not want to remember the War of Independence. Even at the time the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were an embarrassment. Clementine Churchill admonished her husband Winston Churchill who sent them to Ireland in these terms: “It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you take for granted that the rough iron-fisted ‘Hunnish’ way will prevail.”
It is striking during this period how far Britain fell short of its self-appointed standards as a bulwark of freedom and democracy in the immediate aftermath of a world war in which hundreds of thousands of its finest men, including thousands of Irishmen, died for the same ideals.
In September 1919 the banning of Dáil Éireann, democratically elected by the people of Ireland in the 1918 British general election, was an affront to the values of the mother of all parliaments. The imposition of martial law, the censorship of newspapers, the mass arrests of Sinn Féin leaders ran counter to the values of what was then one of the few liberal democracies in the world.
What happened in Ireland 100 years ago was unjustified and unjustifiable
Britain is aware of the lengths the Irish Government and, by extension the Irish people, have gone to make this Decade of Centenaries an inclusive affair. The postponement of the commemoration event in Dublin Castle now gives it the opportunity to take the lead.
No less a figure than Boris Johnson praised the 1916 commemorations when he was British foreign secretary, particularly the event in Grangegorman to remember the British soldiers who died in the Easter Rising.
It was an example, he said, of an “abiding sense of reconciliation”. He pledged the British government would give “any assistance that may be needed for any centenary events in 2017 and beyond”.
If he means what he says, there are a few things he could do.
Expression of regret
Before the centenary of the Truce in July next year, the British government could organise a commemoration for all those who died in the Irish War of Independence, including the IRA – held not in Ireland, which is out of sight and out of mind for most British people, but in London. This could be accompanied by some expression of regret for what happened 100 years ago, even if it cannot bring itself to apologise. It didn’t apologise to the Indian people on the centenary of the Amritsar massacre last year.
As events of the last few days have shown, folk memories of what British forces did in Ireland in the War of Independence have had a negative impact on Anglo-Irish relations to the present day.
Comments by Johnson’s predecessor but one, David Cameron, in the House of Commons in 2010 about Bloody Sunday provide a useful template for the road ahead.
Cameron eschewed the false choice that in order to defend the British armed forces, you have to defend everything they do.
“I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country,” he said then. “I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world . . . but the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”
What happened in Ireland 100 years ago was also unjustified and unjustifiable. Britain should not forget.
Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and the editor of Centenary, Ireland Remembers 1916