Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

Armistice Day: One small step for man, a giant leap for a Sinn Fein mayor

Armistice Day Service at the Cenotaph in the grounds of the City Hall in Belfast. Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir (centre)
Armistice Day Service at the Cenotaph in the grounds of the City Hall in Belfast. Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir (left)

These are days for risk-taking, change-making, mould-breaking. It's true that sometimes progress is made by seismic shifts of popular attitude, or sudden breakdowns of the old order, or visible spectaculars like handshakes and bows of the head and we have had our share of those brilliant occurrences over the last 20 or so years.

More often than not, though, progress is made incrementally, in unglamorous ways, quietly and due to the efforts of good, conscientious people who get on with making their presence felt behind the scenes – or in front of them when the occasion arises – in the community centres, on the bus runs, at the ecumenical services.

One such event occurred yesterday and deserves to be acknowledged. Belfast's Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir became the first Sinn Fein attendee at the Armistice Day ceremony at Belfast City Hall, marking the 95th anniversary of the hour the guns fell silent in 1918.

In so doing, in taking that extra step, Mr O Muilleoir hugely advanced the civic well-being of the city he represents. That isn't hyperbole. It is a simple fact.

It would be easy to miss the significance of the moment, or to dismiss it as window-dressing, in the context of bombs under cars and continuing unease over flags and parades. There will be those only too keen to do both.

In tandem with Mr O Muilleoir is the Royal British Legion's president, Mervyn Elder, who also took a step forward yesterday. There is no doubt that there will have been hours of negotiation between the various parties to yesterday's gesture. The old antagonisms, the real, painful hurts, the bitter sentiments, are so obvious as not to need rehearsal here.

What is astonishing is that a way was found for those historical resistances to be overcome; and without loss of dignity, or respect, or integrity on either side.

That is not to say that those two risk-taking companions at the Cenotaph yesterday found themselves at the head of unanimous opinion, urging them to take the step, make the move, on behalf of progress. Far from it.

Many on both wings of the active participants in our Troubles, and many victims and survivors from all sides of our community, will have been upset, angry, hurt.

Why wouldn't they be? We all know well that gestures and words and photo-opportunities don't bring back the dead, or relieve the pain, any more than medals, or sympathy notices do.

But many others will have been able to see the old decencies of our community re-emerge for a moment from decades of hostility.

Not into what John Hewitt called "the false truce of the renegade", but into the old transactions of acknowledgement of loss and grief; simple respect for difference and respect for the dead.

Just as the Royal British Legion is a kind of guardian of memory and has its global role in managing remembrance, it should be acknowledged that Sinn Fein, too, has a role in the business of remembrance. Both traditions here have memory and the losses sustained by "past generations" at the very heart of their contemporary purpose.

That is as true of Sinn Fein as it is of the loyal orders, or any of the unionist parties. How to behave towards our various pasts in Northern Ireland has been in the news more than once in recent weeks; what weight we give to victims and their families; what weight to give to voices sometimes even from beyond the grave; what acknowledgements we can seek or accept as a minimum for "moving on", moving out of the simplistic customs of violence.

When Her Majesty gave that little bow of the head in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in 2011 – a bow we saw again on Sunday at the Cenotaph in London – she was bringing not only her own very considerable symbolic presence to the memory of those who died in pursuit of Ireland's freedom, but bringing also a long, historical episode of grief and animosity to the beginning of a close.

Yesterday, Belfast's Lord Mayor, Mairtin O Muilleoir, and Mervyn Elder stood shoulder to shoulder, as Belfast men, remembering the dead. For O Muilleoir, in particular, the gesture will have been significant, challenging and contentious; but also considered, reflective, and made with due regard to the sensibilities of his own constituency.

Strangely, in these two individuals, on that poignant day which recalls the horrendous losses of that distant conflict, we found two ordinary people of a bravery, daring, honour and self-respect similar to those being remembered.

Individuals leading us, in every sense, from the front.

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