Opinion: Why the unionists should have come to the GPO
Presence at commemoration would have earned unionists island-wide and international kudos with no electoral cost
’The sensitive way in which the Government has handled the centenary has been notable.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
As I was standing in the media enclosure close to the GPO on Easter Sunday, looking across at the seated dignitaries, I felt increasingly that unionist leaders should have been there.
It was like a relative whose absence from a family celebration is no surprise after a long feud that has not been fully resolved, an absence that is particularly understandable given that the occasion marked one of the reasons for the feud, but whose absence is nonetheless conspicuous and poignant. A unionist would have been an honoured guest placed near the Taoiseach and the President.
The arguments against unionists attending a Rising celebration (for it was in effect a sombre and dignified celebration) were powerful.
The legitimacy of the Rising has been challenged not just by revisionist writers such as Ruth Dudley Edwards and KevinMyers but by Catholic critics such as David Quinn, John Larkin and Fr Séamus Murphy, as well as a political moderate, David Ford. One of most read recent stories on the Belfast News Letter website was the 3,500-word speech by John Bruton, who demolishes the idea that 1916 was a just war.
Yet still I think unionists should have gone to the GPO. I think that despite the fact that I believe a crisis facing unionism is the rapid distortion of the Troubles to depict the British state as having been murderously in step with loyalist terrorists. This a big lie about a state that plainly acted with restraint in the face of paramilitary terror and prevented civil war.
This distortion (in which the legacy inquests are set to play a starring role) is a bid to legitimise a sectarian Provisional IRA campaign that was repudiated by all main communities in Ireland.
Admittedly, therefore, my position – that unionists should have gone to Dublin but that distortion of history is a serious matter – is harder to reconcile than that of Arlene Foster, of rejecting the narrative and boycotting the ceremony.
But there are times when diplomacy and civility should trump the concerns an invitee has about accepting an invitation. I feel that 100 years is the time to end a snub that was once appropriate.
It would have been wrong for a unionist to attend the 1966 commemorations. Some years ago David Trimble made some unkind, even unpleasant, comments about the Republic, which he insisted were taken out of context. But one of his observations, about it being monocultural and sectarian, would have been a reasonable description of de Valera’s Ireland.
His government’s treatment of second World War deserters was justifiable in the strict legal sense but outrageous given that they were fighting such a just war as the one against Hitler.
The Republic has pardoned those men. It has changed in countless other ways, overwhelmingly for the better (although some of my early memories are of the less materialistic Dublin and Donegal of the 1970s, and there was something to be said for that way of life).
The sensitive way in which the Government has handled the centenary has been notable. Ireland is now sufficiently settled to be open to questioning on its narrative. Unionists will have to engage with dubious aspects of our own history, such as Michael Portillo’s description of the “dark period” of Tory support for threatened loyalist insurrection in 1914.
Unionist anxiety at “Rome Rule” then was borne out by events: the fledgling Republic was under church influence in the way that they had dreaded. Now it is keen to demonstrate its pluralism, as when the authorities facilitated the 2006 Love Ulster parade in Dublin (another time that I was on O’Connell Street, to the extraordinary sound of loyalist bands).
If unionists had gone on Easter Sunday, it would not have been an entirely comfortable experience. The reading of the Proclamation would hardly be music to any unionist ear.
But Easter Sunday could not have been entirely comfortable for Martin McGuinness either. He was well dressed and he looked the natural statesman as he applauded the passing military. But he knows that many of them once had to stop the IRA and loathe the Provisionals.
If debate about 1916 was not happening in the Republic, a continuing unionist snub would be right but if anything the critique is gaining ground.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is protected under the principle of consent. Regardless of what terrorists might do or say, abandonment of the territorial claim was endorsed by 97 per cent of Republic voters. Unionists also have to bear in mind that British mishandling of the Rising, while understandable in the context of the first World War, contributed to the situation we are now in.
It would not have damaged a unionist electorally to have gone to the GPO and they would have earned island-wide and even some international kudos.
Having shown respect for an occasion that their neighbours cherish, he or she would then have had a more receptive audience in the Republic when they explained why they cannot accept the narrative. Ben Lowry is deputy editor of the Belfast News Letter, where this article first appeared