The Irish Times view on the RIC commemoration: reopening old wounds

Marking the 1916 Rising and the First Dáil was the easy part – remembering the Civil War will be a different challenge

The Government’s approach to the event commemorating the RIC, an approach led by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, was far too complacent. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The Government’s approach to the event commemorating the RIC, an approach led by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, was far too complacent. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The furore that led the Government to defer the planned State event to remember the policemen who served in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) has raised some uncomfortable questions about what should be commemorated and how it should be done.

To date the Decade of Centenaries has been widely hailed a success but the controversy over commemorating the policemen who served in the RIC/DMP indicates that the road ahead will be more fraught and that the issues involved must be addressed with sensitivity and subtlety.

The Government’s approach to the RIC event was far too complacent

In hindsight commemorating the 1916 Rising and the First Dáil was the easy part, as there is a broad national consensus about the significance of those events. Marking upcoming events, particularly the Civil War, which prompted divisions in Irish politics which have lasted to this day, will be an entirely different challenge.

The row over the plan to commemorate the Irish policemen caught up in violent events may be a foretaste of things to come. There are at least as many families in Ireland today who had relatives in the RIC and DMP as had relatives engaged in the republican struggle. Many, such as journalist Fergal Keane, who wrote so movingly about the subject in The Irish Times on Wednesday, had relatives in both camps. Are those who had ancestors in the RIC or DMP deserving of less respect?

The Government’s approach to the RIC event was far too complacent, however. Its expert advisory group of historians had recommended that consideration be given to commemorating the RIC and DMP as part of the Decade of Centenaries but did not spell out how that should happen. The planned event took many people by surprise and there was clearly a need for much more detailed consultation to ensure a more widely acceptable format was agreed.

A model for how it can be done was provided by the commemoration a year ago in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, of the opening shots of the War of Independence. The format for that event was agreed by the local community, and relatives of the two policemen who died in the January 1919 ambush were invited to attend along with relatives of those who had participated in it.

The lesson of recent days is that the approach to commemorating the Civil War and the War of Independence needs to be very carefully calibrated. If future events are approached in the wrong way they may reopen old wounds rather than serve as a unifying exercise.

People also need to ask themselves how this State’s claim that it would act in an inclusive manner towards unionists in some future united Ireland can be squared with such objections to remembering policeman who served in the context of a charged period in Irish history.

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