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Why the real message of the Somme is about moving on

By Alf McCreary

Published 09/07/2016

Stirring words: Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, made an emotive keynote address at the Somme ceremony at the Ulster Memorial Tower
Stirring words: Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, made an emotive keynote address at the Somme ceremony at the Ulster Memorial Tower
Dr Richard Clarke

One of the challenges of public office, and indeed of private life, is to deliver a speech on an important occasion and to get it right. This can be difficult, even for an experienced speaker. Far too often I have sat through long, boring speeches by people who have missed the point, whether they be a politician, a preacher, a businessman or someone trying to make a best man's speech at a wedding, often lapsing into dreadful 'blue' jokes or 'matey' familiarity without a glimmer of taste or dignity.

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, undoubtedly rose to the occasion when delivering the keynote address at last Friday's Somme Commemoration at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in France.

The ceremony was televised live, and I was a captive viewer. It was well done, and Archbishop Clarke spoke simply and persuasively.

He made the point that the River Somme still looms large in our consciousness but reminded us of the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus that one can never step twice into the same river, because it is not the "same" river any more, due to the flow of its waters.

Dr Clarke said: "As we recall with thankfulness, and even awe, those young men who, 100 years ago, chose to join up and come to this place for what they believed was a righteous cause and where so many of them died, we do them no service if we do not relate them to today, and to our hopes and prayers and aspirations for the future."

The archbishop's words contrasted strongly with the current political turmoil in the UK and the uncertain future of the EU, as well as the recurring violence in other parts of the world.

When he had finished speaking I asked myself: "Has humankind, with its passion, treachery and broken dreams, improved all that much in the past 100 years?" In some ways yes but, in many other ways, not so.

The essence of Archbishop Clarke's speech is that we cannot only look back to the past, as we do with the Somme, but we must also look to the future and move on.

This is true in our national and provincial life. Millions of people like me feel that voting for Brexit was a huge mistake, but we will have to make the best of it.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of Orangemen and women will march in memory of King William of Orange, but he has gone, and the Orange Orders are loyal to a concept of England that is long out of date. People in the rest of the British Isles are mystified about what they are marching for, and couldn't care less.

The challenge of moving on seems more difficult for males than females, and many older men cling to office for far too long. In the process they damage themselves, and the institutions or firms or family businesses to which they have been so loyal.

We are now at one of the most critical stages of politics in my lifetime, and some would argue, one of the most dangerous periods in world history.

The temptation for many of us is to seek reassurance from the past, but that has never been the only option. All of us must be prepared to move on, however difficult, or painful, or even rewarding, that might be.

That's the real message of the Somme today.

Belfast Telegraph

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