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Fresh eyes revisit Battle of the Somme

(Jim Gibney, Irish News)

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme, two hugely significant events in our history.

The 1916 Rising was an attempt to establish an Irish national democracy. The Battle of the Somme was one of the major battles of the First World War.

The First World War was an imperialist conflagration which claimed the lives of more than five million soldiers with 23 million casualties. The scale of the human loss is incomprehensible. It was a pointless and futile war.

Many caught up in it were poor hapless individuals. The war claimed some 35,000 Irish soldiers – lost in a vast, impersonal killing machine, oiled by the delusions of squabbling monarchs and generals.

The Somme battle began on July 1 and ended on November 18 1916. Just under one million men died in "hell's trenches" as one German soldier described it in a letter home. An average of 5,000 men died every day for five months.

For Ireland the Somme death toll was cataclysmic. Over the first two days of the battle the 36th (Ulster) Division suffered 5,500 dead and wounded. Over a six-day period in September of the same year the 16th (Irish) Division suffered 4,300 dead and wounded.

Last Saturday the Irish government held a commemoration at Islandbridge in Dublin in memory of the war dead and in the chamber of Belfast City Hall a minute's silence was observed. Sinn Féin attended both ceremonies.

On the surface such a gesture from Sinn Féin might not be considered significant but it is. It has taken republicans almost 90 years to revisit the Somme with a fresh eye.

Some years ago they took their first tentative steps when Sinn Féin's ard chomairle sent Belfast Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley to a ceremony at Islandbridge, a British war memorial.

Councillor Hartley was an appropriate representative. He has long argued for republicans to openly engage with all the strands of Irish history not just those they are comfortable with.

In a speech earlier this year about the Somme he said: "Irish society has many layers of history, some of which correspond to my political views and some of which conflict with my political views. But I also recognise that the history of our society is my history; therefore I wish to engage with and take ownership of its breadth and complexity."

Tom's visit to Islandbridge was followed by Alex Maskey, as lord mayor of Belfast, laying a laurel wreath at Belfast's cenotaph on the anniversary of the Somme in 2002.

In a speech prior to the event Alex referred to the importance of memory in people's lives. He said: "History, memory and associated rituals are important psychological anchors in the cycle of one's own life. The same can be said in relation to the life of a nation. History helps to define us as a people. And it is people by their actions who make history."

Since then Sinn Féin has participated in First World War civic commemorations organised by local councils.

It is not easy for republicans and nationalists to open their minds to the First World War.

It was after all a British-sponsored war at a time when all of Ireland was occupied and that occupation in part continues today.

Unionists used the Somme sacrifice as a badge of loyalty to their new state and still do. Wrapping their ceremonies in the union flag and British military regalia, intentionally or otherwise, diminishes the memory of nationalists who fought and died there.

But there is distance, in time, and new politics from the peace process is creating new thinking.

New thinking which should also extend to unionists and their attitude, thus far hostile, to the Easter Rising and the volunteers who fought and died in it.

We now have a context in which republicans and nationalists can look afresh at the First World War and in particular the Battle of the Somme.

The enormity of the loss of the lives of Irishmen alone demands it.

It would indeed be ironic if a war as devastating and divisive as the First World War now brought together nationalists and unionists to commemorate Irishmen who lost their lives 90 years ago.

Ironic but not impossible.

July 8, 2006

This article appeared first in the July 6, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News