Belfast Telegraph

Time to take a sledgehammer to wall of bigotry

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

At one particularly tense time in childhood, my family home contained two incompatible grannies. Upstairs was urban Grandmother Edwards, a quarrelsome republican who wrote "Sinn Fein" across her ballot paper if the party had no candidates standing.

Downstairs was rural Nanny O'Sullivan, unassuming, apolitical and mourning her pre-accident life in Cork minding her hens, cow and flowers.

As Nanny went nostalgically through her few treasures one day, she summoned my teenage brother into her room and showed him the service medals of her late husband, who had served in the British Army during the First World War.

"Whatever you do," she said, nervously looking over her shoulder, "don't tell her upstairs, or I'll never hear the end of it."

As a child, I believed that we were the only Catholic family in Ireland who had had relatives in the British Army, for no one talked about them.

Heroes were exclusively republican. Our educators banged on about the 16 Irishmen executed after the 1916 Rising. No one mentioned the 35,000, or more, who died around that time fighting against the Germans.

It took the Enniskillen bombing on Remembrance Day 1987 to change the mood of moderate nationalists and enable relentless brave campaigners, like the journalist Kevin Myers, to at last shame Irish governments into honouring our war dead.

It was a heart-warming moment for many of us when President Mary McAleese opened the Messines Tower with the Queen in 1998.

Even more startling, though also very welcome, was when, in 2002, Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, not only acknowledged that his maternal grandfather had served in the British Army during the First World War, but laid a laurel wreath at the City Hall cenotaph to mark the 86th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

There's another wrong that needs righting now. Another group of good people need rescuing from nationalist amnesia and republican demonisation; retired gardai Pat McCarthy and Gerard Lovett are on the case with their RIC/DMP Commemoration Committee.

The Royal Irish Constabulary policed Ireland from the early-19th century until its disbandment in 1922. And the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police, founded in 1836, survived until 1925, when it was absorbed into the Garda Siochana. More than 500 members of the RIC and 14 of the DMP were murdered between 1916 and 1922. They were mainly as Catholic and nationalist as the killers who shot them – often after Mass.

They did their duty faithfully and, as Gerard Lovett says, "suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history".

Why is Ireland awash with memorials to killers, rather than the killed?

Mr Lovett quotes the writer Sean O'Faolain, whose father served with the RIC: "Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot ... But they were not traitors – they had their loyalties and they stuck to them."

The ambition of the commemoration committee – a cross-border group that includes retired members of the RUC along with retired gardai – is that these men be given official recognition and have a physical memorial where their descendants can honour them publicly.

In 2012, there was an interdenominational service and wreath-laying ceremony at the RIC and DMP plots in Glasnevin Cemetery that attracted more than 200. The following year, the Glasnevin authorities made such impossible demands as a €6m (£4.8m) insurance bond and security arrangements, so, at the invitation of Fr Joe Kennedy, the Garda chaplain, the event took place, instead, in Mount Argus Catholic church in south Dublin.

It was there again, on August 30 this year, when the 500 present included an assistant Garda commissioner and the PSNI acting deputy chief constable.

Fr Kennedy was assisted by Presbyterian Rev Chris Kennedy and Archdeacon David Pierpoint of the Church of Ireland, and preached a powerful case for honouring those "who laid down their lives for friend, for neighbour, for family and for country".

Grandmother Edwards has been dead for many years and we are supposed to be no longer prisoners of tribal history.

Isn't it time that all those politicians who lecture us on inclusiveness dismantled another wall of bigotry?

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