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It seems civil wars are only ever over on paper

(Susan McKay, Irish News)

Soon after I moved to Belfast at the start of the 1980s, I watched the lord mayor's parade heading down Great Victoria Street. Tanks, guns and military hardware, followed by tanks, guns and military hardware. Lots of British soldiers. These were probably interspersed with the occasional lorry bearing smiling young women in Miss Donaghadee sashes advertising office supplies but the military stuff is what

I remember.

It was grim. Another reminder that this was a city at war, as if another reminder was needed in those awful times.

I've seen endless macho displays of weaponry since then, graveyard volleys, gun salutes around bonfires, guards of honour, parades of masked and uniformed men and women stomping by.

The loyalists are still at it, bizarrely claiming that the PSNI was 'heavy handed' when they came looking for the guns after a recent 'show of strength' on the Shankill and again after Orangemen lunged with ceremonial swords at policemen on the Whiterock.

But the IRA has stopped. Presently, its calendars may even drop the photographs of mortar bombs and snipers in ditches (in favour of smiling ministers closing hospitals, perhaps).

While the north used parades to rehearse its enmities, a different sort of parade was starting to take hold of people's imagination in the Republic.

It started in Galway in the early 1980s. The Macnas theatre group, inspired by a company of Catalan devils, pioneered a wonderful pageantry in which huge, puppet-like figures in brilliantly coloured masks and costumes, sometimes representing heroes and villains from Irish history and legend, mingled with fish on bicycles and children dancing like dervishes.

Now, in 2005, the Taoiseach has announced that, as of next year, the Irish government will bring back a large scale military parade through the centre of Dublin to commemorate the 1916 Easter rising.

Such displays were dropped in 1970 because of the start of the Troubles in the north. The rising has been an embarrassment to the political establishment in the interim.

"The Irish people need to reclaim the spirit of 1916, which is not the property of those who have abused and debased the title of republicanism," Mr Ahern claimed.

It had to be protected, too, he said, from the "revisionists who would seek to denigrate it".

Obviously, this is part of Fianna Fail's ongoing bid to claim to be the Real Irish Republican Party.

"We are the party of Padraig Pearse's mother and sister," boasted The Bertie. Sinn Féin may be all suited up and campaigning to get into the southern government but it hasn't got an army to show off any more.

Fianna Fail wants to gloat as it surveys its soldiery. Nah-nah-nahna-nah!

It will all go horribly wrong, of course.

In no time at all Sinn Féin will be arguing that the veterans of the South Armagh Brigade have a legitimate right to be part of the parade.

This will painfully expose a central conceit in southern society, the unexamined belief that 1916 and the years of the struggle for independence which followed it were heroic and bloodless, noble and dignified. By contrast, the IRA's northern campaign, which began in 1969 and ended a couple of weeks ago, was squalid and bloody and sectarian and unforgivable.

As if the people ambushed and shot in the back and disappeared and tortured in the 1920s, in the name of Irish freedom, didn't die just as horribly as those to whom these things were done in the 1970s and 1980s, for the same cause.

Let 1916 be remembered. But big military style parades are now largely associated with Stalinism and the eastern bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We should be celebrating the end of 'armed struggle' (while bearing in mind, perhaps, the caution sounded by the poet Padraig Fiacc when he wrote that, "these civil wars are only ever over on paper").

It is just a couple of weeks since the Taoiseach was murmuring soft words in an attempt to reassure unionists and even loyalists about the Republic's benign intentions.

Is Ian Paisley to be invited on to the viewing platform outside the GPO?

Will he be expected to stand to attention for the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann?

Ireland is a neutral and increasingly multicultural country. It likes to boast of its role in world peacekeeping. (Don't mention the Shannon stopovers.)

Commemorating the past by showing off our ability to wage war, as Fianna Fail proposes, is entirely retrograde.

A terrible failure of imagination is born.

October 26, 2005

This article appeared first in the October 25, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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