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We've slowly climbed out of our mutual trenches to foster a greater degree of understanding about past

Published 28/06/2016

Kingsley Donaldson (left) with his MP brother Jeffrey at a wreath-laying ceremony at Belfast City Hall organised by NI First World War Centenary Committee last year
Kingsley Donaldson (left) with his MP brother Jeffrey at a wreath-laying ceremony at Belfast City Hall organised by NI First World War Centenary Committee last year

In the first of a series of special interviews in the days leading up to the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, Kingsley Donaldson, secretary of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, tells why he attended the official Easter Rising commemoration in Dublin and penned an article for An Phoblacht.

He's a former British soldier who has a DUP MP for a brother, but Kingsley Donaldson still managed to smash some of the old stereotypes as he set about trying to make the centenary commemorations of the Great War as inclusive as possible.

And the Kilkeel-born secretary of Northern Ireland's First World War Centenary Committee ended up joining in events to remember the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising as well as major battles like the Somme.

The seeds for the commemorations were sown six years ago when Kingsley and his newly-knighted brother Sir Jeffrey talked about their vision for marking the centenary, but at that point they imagined that any programme they planned would be confined to the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community in Northern Ireland.

"At that stage we hadn't really taken in the possibilities of it being an opportunity to look more closely at shared history and shared past. But, gradually, we started to explore that narrative as well," said Kingsley, who along with his brother set up a non-governmental organisation called the Causeway Institute for Peace Building and Conflict Resolution International to co-ordinate their plans.

"We recognised that, at Stormont, it wouldn't be straightforward to deliver events around the centenary commemorations for 2016 because of the sensitivities surrounding the British Army and the sensitivities around the Easter Rising.

"But the-then First Minister Peter Robinson offered to take the commemoration ideas on board, but said he could only do so on a cross-community basis, recognising interests across the island."

The next significant advance came after the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in Dublin brought together a number of stakeholders from across Ireland including Kingsley, and took them to the Princess Grace Library in Monaco for discussions about how to mark the anniversaries of the Rising and the Somme with remembrance and reconciliation.

The upshot was the establishment of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, with representatives from veterans' organisations, arts and cultural groups, the serving military, historians and the Somme Museum, together with southern Irish interests like Glasnevin Cemetery.

A number of odd bedfellows from nationalist and unionist communities came together to discuss the anniversary, including people who would not normally align themselves with anything remotely connected to the First World War.

It's hardly surprisingly there were "uncomfortable" conversations along the way.

Kingsley, who was in the Army for more than 25 years, said he talked with senior republicans.

He explained: "Our work has fostered a greater degree of open-mindedness about our shared pasts and a confidence among people who wouldn't normally have a relationship and who can now hold different views without offending or annoying anyone. We're not quite there yet, but I think our work has been fostering a more collective sense of how we might remember these things and how we might learn from remembering what happened 100 years ago and apply the lessons to our understanding of more recent events."

The committee has been largely self-funded and the participation of his brother in David Cameron's national committee for commemoration has provided a vital link with what's been going on in Britain.

Kingsley said that while the Somme and the losses of the 36th (Ulster) Division have been the major focus for the commemorations, there will also be recognition of the "heroic service and sacrifice" of the 16th (Irish) Division at Guillemont and Ginchy in September 1916.

In relation to the Rising, Kingsley attended the official commemorations in Dublin.

"It was a very open-minded day, which was handled very well and, on my way home, I didn't have to stop the car and take a swim in the Boyne just to recharge my Orange batteries," he said.

"It didn't offend my sensibilities; it didn't attack my sense of identity. And, in fact, it enhanced my understanding of the passion and the nature of people's commitment to their sense of being Irish.

"But I was very aware throughout the day that there was plenty of space for me to be me. And I think the fundamental shift in the way these things are marked is something we would like to emulate with the First World War commemoration. It doesn't need to be exclusive.

"It can be whatever it means to every individual."

He recently wrote an article for the Sinn Fein weekly newpaper An Phoblacht, saying that there was less of a stigma nowadays for a unionist finding out that a relative had nursed the rebels in Dublin at the GPO in 1916, or a republican discovering that his grandfather was at Gallipoli.

Kingsley and Jeffrey didn't lose any of their forebears at the Somme, though there's sometimes public confusion because three brothers called Donaldson died during the war, but there are no known connections.

There is a family link, however, with the 1914-18 conflict.

Kingsley, who lost two RUC cousins during the Troubles, said: "My aunt Maud's uncle won a Victoria Cross in France in 1917.

"He was Robert Hanna, who was born at Aughnahoory in Kilkeel but served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, so next year we will turn our attention as a family to getting a memorial stone for him."

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918 and Kingsley is hopeful even more people will take part in events to mark the centenary of the Armistice in two years.

"I would like to think we would finish our commemorative activity with something more than just being in front of a war memorial at 11am on that Sunday," he said.

"Perhaps we might do something more collectively as a community to recognise that the sacrifices of the soldiers weren't in vain."

Belfast Telegraph

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