Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

What would fallen Irish of Great War think of us today?

Paying homage: the Duke of York attends a service of remembrance at St Anne's Cathedral Belfast

Once again the Queen showed astute leadership by deciding to avoid public duties during the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War this week.

Instead she allowed herself to be pictured while reflecting quietly in a church near Balmoral about one of the most devastating wars in history.

In our frenetic society there is a tendency to say: "That's the centenary commemoration over, so what do we do next?".

However, the whole point is, precisely not to rush on to other things but, to continue to reflect on what the First World War means to us.

There were many impressive services this week, including the ceremony of the extinguishing of the lights at Westminster Abbey.

This was to symbolise the historic comment of the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey who said in 1914: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

How right he was. I remember first reading this during my history degree course at Queen's University many years ago, and I have never forgotten its symbolism.

One of the most impressive ceremonies of all took place on Monday night in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, when a large congregation attended a moving commemoration service in the presence of the Duke of York.

Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, was conspicuous by his absence from the front row, where a minister from the Dublin government took her place beside Secretary of State Teresa Villiers and First Minister Peter Robinson.

Mr McGuiness said later that he had intended to be present at St Anne's but had been unable to do so "as a result of family circumstances". It is a pity, however, that another representative from Mr McGuinness' office was unable to deputise for him.

There was so much richness of tradition and liturgy in the service itself, though I run the risk of enraging Anglicans by suggesting that the hymn St Patrick's Breastplate would be twice as impressive if it was cut by half – and I am commenting as someone who has written a book on this subject.

In St Anne's it was encouraging to see representatives from the other faith traditions, including the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and Jewish communities, taking part in the service.

It was also good to see Cardinal Sean Brady, probably in one of his last official engagements, walking beside Anglican Primate Dr Richard Clarke, and also just in front of them the Rev Dr Donald Watts, who retires from the demanding post of Clerk of the General Assembly later this month after a long and dedicated period of duty.

One of the main features of the service was the thought-provoking sermon by Dr Clarke who quietly but forcefully made the point that: "War must always represent the abject failure of the human spirit and of humanity itself."

Given that standard, I wonder what the servicemen and women of Ireland who embarked on the First World War would think of all of us today?

They would certainly not approve of our dysfunctional and sometimes puerile Stormont which is such a disappointment to all of us.

I do hope that the politicians were listening carefully to the archbishop on Monday night when he appealed to everyone "to restore beauty and relationships, and to allow light to shine in the darkness ... "

It's the least that we could all try to do in honour of the sacrifices that were made by others so long ago.

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