Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are the countries they are today because of the First World War

...it's time that both unionists and nationalists united in remembering their joint sacrifice, writes Doug Beattie

A war grave from the battle for Messines Ridge
Doug Beattie argues the fundamental truth of the kinship shown by the people of Ireland in 1914 against a common enemy should be recognised by unoinists and nationalists alike

The 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War is being marked this week and with it comes a renewed energy to understand as much as possible about that terrible conflict.

For the next four years schoolchildren will learn about Mons, the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres. As the anniversaries of these famous battles come and go, the youth of today will learn how lucky they are to live now and not during those terrible days.

But for all the attention on the mud and blood of Flanders and northern France, what perspective will they gain on the wider global impacts of the war that was supposed to end all wars? What will they understand of the way the struggle in the trenches forged the conflicts we see today, a century later?

At the end of the First World War, Arabia was carved up and handed out like prizes to the victors. The borders for new countries were drawn: places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, even Palestine, were formed into new colonial dominions. Pivotal to our own lives now, the war had lasting effects on the people of Ireland and the countries we now call home.

Academics have long debated whether there would have been a civil war in Ireland between the Irish unionists in the north and the nationalist-dominated south if the train of events set off by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not taken place.

Some even say that, because of the war, the conditions were set to foment the Easter uprising and, in doing so, create two countries on one island.

It is here that the whole Irish question becomes interesting and where individual perspectives and vested interests should recognise the fundamental truth of the kinship the people of Ireland showed in 1914 against a common enemy and before they went their separate ways.

Unionists like to think it was they who best served King and Country, and in some way their sacrifice and that of the 36th Ulster Division was far greater than that of the rest of Ireland.

They remember with vigour and pride the exploits of the Ulstermen on July 1, 1916 on the first day of the Somme, and only to a lesser degree the wartime contributions of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions drawn more widely from the south.

While the 16th saw service on the Western Front, the 10th saw action in the Middle East, including Gallipoli in 1915 and the Third Battle of Gaza in November 1917.

Yet unionists in Northern Ireland fail to grasp how difficult it was for soldiers returning from the war in 1918 to find the country in turmoil and eventually watch the fragmentation of the very Union they had fought so hard to preserve.

These veterans returned from one war only to be embroiled shortly after in another that directly shaped their immediate futures and those of generations to come.

You only need look at Company Sergeant Major Martin Doyle, who was born in New Ross, Co Wexford in 1891. CSM Doyle joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and later went on to serve with the Munster Fusiliers.

During the First World War, still with the Munster Fusiliers and already the recipient of the Military Medal, CSM Doyle would be called upon to command a company when all the officers had been either killed or wounded.

His deeds on September 2, 1918, near Reincourt, led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Receipt of both the Military Medal and Victoria Cross sets Martin Doyle above most men who fought in the Great War and show his commitment to his men and his loyalty to the King and Country.

Yet Martin Doyle would return home and join the IRA and fight in the Irish War of Independence. He later served in the National Army during and after the Irish Civil War.

For many, his valour in the trenches of France was marred by these later actions in the rolling hills of west Clare, but what he did was help to forge a nation and bring into being the Irish Free State, the forerunner of the Irish Republic.

To understand how difficult it was for Irishmen in the south of Ireland, those in the north must look to men like Martin Doyle VC MM. If unionists in the north must learn to understand they were not the only ones on the island to serve with such distinction, then nationalists and the Irish people must learn to accept that men of Ireland, from north and south, unionist and nationalist, fought for King and Country willingly. To label the First World War as merely an imperialist war does little to honour their sacrifice.

Nationalists must stand up and admit that many from the Irish Free State, as it was after partition, still held strong links with their past and remained proud of their ties to Great Britain. To want to be independent does not imply an automatic hatred of those who do not.

Many First World War veterans were proud to say they wore the uniform of the British Army. In 1924 it is believed 50,000 Irishmen attended a memorial in College Green Dublin, where a Celtic Cross was erected before being transported to France to act as a memorial to the 16th Irish Division. A Union flag was flown and God Save The King was sung.

To many, such an overt display of kinship to Great Britain would, today, be unthinkable. Yet the College Green event was not unique. Two years later 40,000 Irishmen attended a memorial in Phoenix Park beneath the Wellington monument and an estimated half-a-million poppies were distributed throughout Ireland that year.

In the end, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became the countries they are in part due to the First World War. They fought together in the face of a shared adversity.

It is time both unionists and nationalists united in remembering their sacrifice and the part they played in shaping the world we know today.

Doug Beattie MC is a former Royal Irish Regiment captain who served in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland. He is an Ulster Unionist concillor in Craigavon

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