Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Kevin Myers: Why it's time for the Irish ambassador to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph

We have just less than a month to get it right, this time around; for Remembrance Sunday falls on Armistice Day itself, November 11.

And will, once again, the Irish ambassador in London be absent from the Cenotaph as the guns in Hyde Park bark and roll, as the bronze bell calls solemnly over the Mall, and diplomats from around the world lay green-garlands to honour their dead?

Why is this so difficult for Ireland to do?

If Fiji and Canada, India and Nepal, South Africa and Nigeria, can gather in the Mall to recall their men who died in the service of an extinct empire, why does Ireland have such trouble in doing the same?

And how can Irish national pride be nourished on the sullen neglect and a righteous disdain towards those innocents who in 1914 onwards merely did the bidding of their betters?

The Sikh who lays his wreath at the Cenotaph does honour to neither emperor nor the butchers of Amritsar: the Zulu who bows his head before that unpeopled tomb is not praising those who slew his kinsmen at Rorke's Drift and Islandwhana; yet they can stand with members of the diplomatic corps and remember their dead fellow-countrymen of two world wars, and be not a whit diminished by that deed of remembrance.

So where lies the justification for the Irish ambassador to the Court of St James not being present when his colleagues from so many countries across the world remember their dead, and the dead of the country to which they are accredited? That Ireland is not Commonwealth? A petty problem, and one easily resolved. Or is it confirmation that Ireland still is - in Olivia O'Leary's lapidary phrase -Britain's official non-friend?

All else shall change: where dust-devils once blew, the ocean deep now swells, and straight timber stands where formerly ice-floes sailed: yet diplomatic Ireland stays true to its ancestral grudge.

The unending tale of the GPO: one band of heroes, one golden thread of history, one single narrative.

A visit to St Symphorien cemetery in Mons will show you another thread: the Irish dead of August 1914 and the Irish dead of November 1918, the outward slices of a bitter sandwich of tragedy that enfolds the fields of Flanders and Picardy, and the skies above, and the seas beyond. No headland, dune or plain which was visited by British forces during those four dreadful years went untrod by Irish boot or unnourished by Irish blood. Other Irishmen fell from the skies in flames, and frozen Irish fingers despairingly slipped from the gunwales of floundering lifeboats.

We were legally at war; those who served went at the command of their political masters, and were showered with their bishops' blessing.

Does Ireland stand taller now because its ambassador in London is absent from the service which remembers their sacrifice?

And would our neutrality somehow or other be compromised by a diplomatic presence at the Cenotaph?

Yes it would -but only to dogmatic neutralists, who have turned a temporary ploy of 1939 into an enduring principle, a permanent declaration of a greater virtue than those who go armed.

But piety does not guard a country's beaches or protect its airspace. Steel and sinew alone do that, and we have never had enough of either.

Ireland's defences in 1940 began not at Dun Laoghaire in Dublin but Dungeness, in Kent: and Irish bellies were fed by wheat-bearing allied convoys we refused to protect. If Britain fell, so should we, the helpless fen beyond the dyke.

That fen now stands proudly aloof from the London remembrance of those who perished in the dyke.

Yet 60% of the National Army in 1939 were within two years soldiers of the British army, in which, all told, 100,000 Irishmen served during the war. The first Fleet Air Arm, military and Royal Navy VCs of the war went to Irishmen, and perhaps a hundred Irishmen died in the D-Day landings alone.

Is it good that Ireland does not formally attend the service to commemorate the sacrifices which brought freedom to the lands which now compose the EU?

Is this absence honourable, ennobling or dignified?

Is independent Ireland made prouder and more Irish because its ambassador in London is at home, when so many of his suited peers queue silently on the Mall, as the great bell tolls, and the 25-pounders boom?

Yet such diplomatic distance is utterly outdated.

In the presence of the President and the Taoiseach, the Army last year already commemorated the Irish of the Somme with dignity and military splendour.

All differences between Dublin and London over the North are long since resolved, and the Troubles are well and truly over.

So Iveagh House could change this boycott policy towards the Cenotaph ceremonies over the coming weeks; and must, for the honour of Ireland, change it by next year, when we shall be marking the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

Those who use their freedom to turn their back on the men who fought to make that freedom possible are diminishing themselves and their country.

Ireland is made stronger, truer and freer the day its man at the Court of St James finally lays the wreath that our dead deserve.

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