Diarmaid Ferriter: Commemorations need political leadership

Thorny issues of past require sensitivity but realism – in both North and South

Members of the Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and British army privates watch fighting at  the siege of the Four Courts in June 1922. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty

Members of the Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and British army privates watch fighting at the siege of the Four Courts in June 1922. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty

 

There was criticism from unionists about the outgoing Government’s decision to postpone – much more likely cancel – the State commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), but Northern Ireland too will face its commemoration battles soon as the centenary of the foundation of that state looms.

The issue is afforded a little space in the New Decade New Approach agreement that brought a return to powersharing, affirming that support would be offered “to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021 in a spirit of mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation in line with the principles for remembering. This approach to the centenary will provide an opportunity to reflect on the past as well as to build for the future, within NI, across the UK, across the island of Ireland and internationally.”

But what are such “principles for remembering”? The words of Edna Longley in the 1990s spring to mind as a cold-water reality check: “Commemorations are as selective as sympathies. They honour our dead, not your dead.” No one involved in commemoration in any part of the island has a monopoly of virtue, wisdom or balance when it comes to remembering the events of a century ago. It was often asserted after the 2016 remembrance of the 1916 Rising that the real challenge would lie in remembering the Civil War, but that involved naively ignoring the complications of commemorating the War of Independence, which, as we have learned in recent weeks, is a tall order.

‘Fickle years’

Nor is it the case that commemorating the Civil War has always been hotly contentious; as historian Anne Dolan points out "There were years when it was useful, when it was embarrassing, when it suited best to say nothing at all. There were fashionable and fickle years, controversial and inconsequential years. But there were always some who never noticed or cared abotu the difference."

Perhaps civil war remembrance will not be as divisive as some fear, if only because neither side can claim any kind of purity given the scale of the atrocities on both sides.

In Northern Ireland, that task continues to require sensitivity but also realism; sometimes less is better than more when it comes to commemoration

It is hardly something that merits flag-waving of any kind and some will want to continue to forget. What is required in the sphere of commemoration, North and South, however, is responsible political leadership. There was too much grandstanding by political parties in relation to the RIC debacle. The Department of Justice was quite rightly called out on its solo run and elevation of something modest into a State remembrance in Dublin Castle. But will the politicians who jumped up and down about this retain their engagement with this tricky issue of centenaries?

Commemorative events  

The evidence to date would suggest not. Last month, the chairman and vice-chairman of the expert advisory group on commemorations, Maurice Manning and Martin Mansergh, appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “discuss the Government’s plans and plans throughout the State for commemorative events in the period 2020-2023”.

The turnout was pitiful; only the chairman, Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív and Senators Marie Louise O’Donnell and Fintan Warfield showed up to contribute to the discussion. As Ó Cuív observed laconically, “We are not over-endowed with members today.”

Yet, when the political parties spotted an opportunity a few weeks later we became well-endowed with commemoration piety; it was spilling out of every corner. Whether or not there are votes in commemoration is not the point; how the events that led to the establishment of the two states on this island are remembered in the coming years matters.

It is also the case that commemoration is a construct of whatever time it is that the remembrance is being devised or contrived and it requires careful handling.

In Northern Ireland, that task continues to require sensitivity but also realism; sometimes less is better than more when it comes to commemoration.

One thing that became clear during the recent RIC controversy was that there was not enough penetrating debate; too often, a cartoon history uprooted the plant of nuance remarkably quickly, and much distortion and simplification of complex matters of identity, loyalty, service and terror prevailed.

It was a reminder too of how the winds of current affairs – in particular the sentiments and emotions generated by Brexit and the corresponding frostiness in Anglo-Irish relations – can deeply impinge on how an interpretative framework for the past is employed.

In that environment, a broadening out of the debate becomes quickly compromised.

People should not be bullied out of their loyalties, but they do need to hear as well as be heard.

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