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Lessons of the past can help with future

Editor's Viewpoint

Irish history may be regarded and related as parallel narratives - depending on whether your perspective is unionist or nationalist - but it is far more complicated and enmeshed than is commonly acknowledged.

If this decade of centenaries - including the Somme and the Easter Rising - has done anything, it has broadened the outlook of all but the most blinkered.

The celebrations of these pivotal years in the history of this island have been imaginatively developed and managed. The choreography has been astonishing, given the backdrop of the intervening century, with the Queen paying tribute to the men of the Easter Rising and Irish government leaders openly acknowledging the sacrifice paid by their ancestors fighting for, rather than against, the British.

Yesterday, at Messines in Belgium, there was another commemoration of a First World War battle, one where men of the 36th Ulster Division and 16th Irish Division fought side by side against the Germans.

It is shameful that it has taken most of the past 100 years for the heroics of those men from all parts of this island to be celebrated openly and with pride. In the past, Irish soldiers who fought in the First World War were derided and scorned when they returned home and on this side of the border the narrative barely mentioned those soldiers, concentrating on the equally heroic actions of the Ulster soldiers. But this revision of history to set the record straight has not continued into our accounts of more recent conflict, the Troubles, which disfigured the last three decades of the 20th century.

We only have to look at the difficulties local politicians have in trying to deal with the past. Little wonder, perhaps, when they cannot even agree on the definition of a victim.

There is no common acknowledgement of how and why those three decades of violence occurred, no agreement on how to tackle its legacy and still the victims, like those Irish soldiers scorned by their fellow citizens all those years ago, continue to suffer in silence.

As the parties go to the polls today, they seem as divided as ever on the way ahead, sticking rigidly to their versions of recent history. The lessons of the past do not translate easily to the present, with the result that division becomes the status quo. Surely it will not take another century for the communities here to bury their differences, as they did regarding the recent centenaries.

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