Decade of commemorations should unite, not divide us
Published 17/05/2013 | 04:20
There's a reverential ring to remembrance. But it should set alarm bells ringing, too. We are into a 'decade of commemorations'. An industry has been assembled to draw up a programme and to ensure that the events on the list unite, rather than divide us.
This is achievable. But there are more ways than one to go about it. The politics of today will determine which path we take.
There are three First World War centenaries coming up – 2014 for the outbreak of war, 2016 for the Somme, 2018 for the armistice. An abundance of material there for cross-community remembrance.
Did not Catholic and Protestant young men from the north perish together in the sucking mud of the Somme? Might we not then stand together in anger against the kill-crazy capitalists and deep-dyed reactionaries who dispatched them to die in droves in a conflict without relevance to the interests of either the Shankill or the Falls?
Would it be appropriate to burn Earl Haig in effigy along the peace line? Probably not. But we might ask one of our talented graphic artists to design a poster of the old war criminal pointing into your face and sternly declaiming: "Your betters need you!"
We could carry placards exclaiming 'Never Again!' and pledge to redouble efforts to bring the boys and girls home from the dusty corners of Afghanistan where they are expected still to be ready to die – for what, no one seems able to explain, any more than a moral point to the Great War can be discerned through the smoke and sulphur of history.
But shared anger against war is not what those finessing the programme have in mind. In their perspective, depicting those who fell in Flanders as pitiable victims of a vile conflict fought to determine which band of ruffians would be better placed to rob the world, to draw out the lesson for our own time that we shouldn't allow them to lure us to war with lies, that would be insensitive, disruptive, even 'divisive'.
Thus, in this vice-versa land, the requirements of peace include sad-eyed acceptance of war.
Or take the Siege of Derry, which can reasonably be regarded as an episode in Anglo-Irish history, which created and consolidated the imbalance of power which has generated conflict in Ireland ever since.
One side might see the event as a glorious triumph, the other as a great defeat. But, say the commemoration consultancies, each should now respect the other's point-of-view.
But the siege can also be examined in the context of the broad sweep of European history. In this perspective, what was at stake was not just the distribution of power and resources on the island, but the extent to which the peoples of the continent would enjoy access to power.
The key question in the clash between James and William and Mary had to do with whether monarchs should rule by divine right, or with the consent of parliament.
It doesn't do to push the notion too far, but in that sense and to that extent the Williamites were the civil righters of their day.
This view of the period cannot be fitted comfortably into a process based on the allocation of every citizen to one or other of two separate, historically-validated communities which, in order to live at ease alongside one another, must respect the differences between them, each agreeing not to undermine, or encroach on, the other's 'cultural' territory.
The process provides the template not just for the 'decade of commemorations', but for the associated efforts of the DUP and Sinn Fein to come up with a strategy for 'cohesion, sharing and integration'.
In fact, the basis on which they are building the strategy doesn't allow for integration. On the contrary ... this is the reason they have failed – and will continue to fail.
Wendy Austin's head is regularly demented with phoners-in suggesting a new anthem to represent the new Northern Ireland.
Might I again make the case for Harry Chapin Jnr's 1978 classic about an art teacher's critique of a little boy's effort at drawing on his first day at school: "Flowers are red/Green leaves are green/There's no need to see flowers any other way/Than the way they always have been seen".
Can't you just hear it rolling off the terraces at Windsor, led by our First and deputy First Ministers, in perfect two-part harmony?
(I will be discussing these issues with Alex Kane and Fionola Meredith at the Community Relations Council's policy conference in the Everglades, Londonderry, next Monday, May 20. Check www.community-relations.org.uk for times. All welcome.)