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Loyalists should see bigger picture over 1916 events

By Liam Clarke

Published 29/10/2015

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Shambles Corner is Edward Toman's perceptive comic novel about sectarianism in Armagh. In it, a group of born-again Protestants of strong unionist views are entertained by a clergyman, demonstrating how Mass was said to show them the errors of Rome.

It was written in the 1990s, but probably harked back to Ian Paisley's speech at the Oxford Union in 1967, when he produced a communion wafer and poured scorn on the idea that it was the "actual body, bones, blood, hair" of Jesus Christ.

In Shambles Corner, the spectacle draws big crowds. Some of them wonder why they don't go to a real Mass and find out about the "other side" at first hand.

The same might be said to the loyalists who declined to attend republican commemorations marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Those interviewed on radio, like Ken Wilkinson of the PUP, saw the rising as a stab in the back, the rebels as traitors and their campaign as murder.

That is an arguable case - certainly there were far more civilians than combatants killed and both sides killed the innocent. When we look at events of a century ago, it is more important to find out how they happened than to allocate blame.

We don't begin a study of Roman history by deciding if Caesar, or Pompey, was right - anymore than studies of the First World War are about blaming the Germans. The task is to find the causes for crises and avoid them in the future.

A century ago, there was little trust between north and south, so Home Rule never happened.

It would eventually have produced parliaments, north and south, with devolved powers from Westminster and strong links to Britain.

It was rejected by unionists, who felt the Dublin parliament, the only one originally proposed, would predominate and lead to "Rome Rule" by the Catholic majority. Republicans saw it as a continuation of British rule and both sides armed, with German support.

Civil war, generations of insurgency and security crises, plus a stunted economy with mass emigration, especially from the Republic, followed.

This isn't an argument that Home Rule would have been the best option, but there could have been others that were better than what came.

Unfortunately, the trust to sustain it, or any other compromise, wouldn't have been there and, once guns entered the equation, distrust could only escalate.

It may be a century ago, but we are not out of the woods yet. Trust is still a big issue and the fear of communal violence still remains.

That may be a reason for each side going to the other's commemorations to see what is really intended.

It is better than relying on caricatures like Toman's Protestant Mass.

Belfast Telegraph

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