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Reclaiming history

(by Danny Morrison, Irelandclick.com)

Belfast mayor Alec Maskey’s decision to pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those Irish men and women, who for diverse and contradictory reasons, fought in the First and Second World Wars, was a difficult and controversial one, and unprecedented for Sinn Féin.

Yet, it is the correct decision and reflects on the maturity of Sinn Féin and the party’s attempts not just to be inclusive and sensitive to the unionist tradition at a time when Sinn Féin is in the chair, but also, ironically, to acknowledge another side of the nationalist experience which for historical and political reasons has been largely suppressed.

Returnees to the unionist community, from the 36th Division (the old Ulster Volunteer Force which had been set up in 1912 to resist Home Rule) were given a heroes’ welcome, whereas returnees from the 10th & 16th (Irish) Divisions, amongst others, to the nationalist community across Ireland met with hostility. Some, like Dan Breen and Tom Barry, brought the skills they had learnt in the British army into the fledgling IRA and emerged as leading guerrilla fighters.

When my great Uncle Paddy returned from the First World War and called in to see his brother, my Granda White, in Ward Street, my granda refused to let him cross the threshold and told him to come back when he took off the uniform. My Granda Morrison also fought in that war, attached to the Royal Flying Corps. He returned to his Massarene Street home in the Falls, but was later arrested and charged for being at an IRA meeting in Currie Street Hall.

Prior to 1914 the regular British army had many Irish regiments. Service, like emigration, was a means of escape from hunger and unemployment. However, after September 1914 there was a huge influx from the Irish Volunteers when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, made a recruiting speech in favour of the British army. The Act promising Ireland Home Rule had been passed at Westminster but its implementation was suspended until after the war.

The Irish Volunteers had been established to support Home Rule, but were divided over Redmond’s call. The minority of the Volunteers, especially those under the influence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, saw England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity and planned a rising. But most of the men marched off to war, naively believing that by fighting, Ireland would get a better post-war deal. The loyalists believed the same for Ulster and, as it turned out, the loyalists were correct.

In total, up to a quarter of a million Irishmen fought in the First World War, 50,000 of whom gave their lives.

While the Irish were away fighting the Germans, Irish republicans at home organised the 1916 Easter Rising. The response of the British government in executing the leaders of the Rising and the actions of British army regiments caused an upheaval in public opinion in favour of republicans and Sinn Féin quickly supplanted Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. When soldiers from a nationalist background were demobilised they returned to a different Ireland, one at war with Britain and facing the threat of partition.

They experienced non-recognition, public antipathy and animosity, though in the North ex-servicemen were to defend nationalist enclaves a few years later. In the south, a World War One ‘veteran’ became associated with the other ‘veterans’ who made up the Tans and the Auxiliaries and who carried out atrocities. Commemoration and memory of the war became associated with support for the British administration in Ireland.

In the North, unionists appropriated the war dead but, selectively, laid emphasis on the 36th (Ulster) Division’s sacrifices at the Somme (as if no Irish nationalists had also died in that battle). Unionists also turned the Poppy into a unionist emblem, the wearing of it a sign of loyalty to their Northern Ireland state.

On Easter Sunday republicans remember and honour the patriot dead. But the issue of how we can formally acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of our other forebears, and those from the unionist community, who took part in the two world wars, without giving assent to militarism and imperialism, is truly a difficult one which Alec Maskey is honestly attempting to breach. He deserves our support.

I want to remember and pay tribute without distinction to all the war dead - just as I do not distinguish between the sufferings of families who lost loved ones whether in the IRA or in the British forces (though I certainly distinguish between the nobility of their causes). It is not a hollow aspiration, though I can understand unionists scoffing at the sentiment because of what the IRA did in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday. In the twenty-six counties in recent years efforts - some genuine, others perverse - have been made to revise this part of our history and, justifiably, recall and commemorate the courage of these soldiers.

But some revisionists - for example, the inconsolable Kevin Myers at the Irish Times - employ an argument, and invective, aimed at making it difficult for those who do not share their political analysis to embrace the war dead. They have sought to create a sense of public guilt about the way returnees were mistreated. By making disparaging comparisons between the warfare and sacrifices of those Irish who fought against the British and those who fought with the British abroad, they seek to return to the days when Pearse and Connolly were spat on as they were marched through the streets of Dublin.

In their view the IRA’s War of Independence should be rejected, its heroes tarnished (and in the process the cause of Irish reunification). We should not allow them to shape our response.

Finally, just as it is possible to admire the fortitude and heroism of the Protestant defenders during the siege of Derry in 1689, and yet regret the political legacy of their victory, so too should nationalists and republicans feel able to acknowledge the selflessness and patriotism of those thousands of Irish men and women who participated in the two World Wars.

July 4, 2002
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This article appeared first on the Irelandclick.com web site on July 1, 2002.

All of Danny Morrison's articles can be found at dannymorrison.com.

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