Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Alex Atwood: Our nation is ready to start reconciling remembrance

On the Belgium coast, near the town of Nieuport, stands a World War One memorial. It bears the names of 566 men, who rest in unmarked graves.

One of the names reads 'Attwood. A', a man from Northamptonshire and my great-uncle, who fought and died, aged 21, in July 1917.

I am named after him, as was my uncle Alex, a man from Cork, who served in the Second World War.

Last month, I became the first of this generation of my family to stand before the memorial bearing the name of my great uncle, to lay a small poppy wreath, to acknowledge his sacrifice.

I was humbled. Behind the claim and counter-claim of conflict, there is the story of people like my great uncle.

Nothing I write can convey the magnitude of the First World War, the suffering and the loss. But I now have, in personal and family terms, a sense of what was endured.

I am firmly of the Irish national tradition and I believe people across Northern Ireland want to share more fully in the life of the island.

This will be part of how national life will develop in the future.

In doing so, we will remember that the British Army committed grave wrongs in Ireland and call for accountability for all the wrongs of the state and illegal groups.

But we also need to be wise in acknowledging the sacrifice of people, both of Ireland and of Britain, and of how the life of one island weaves in out of the life of the other.

Visiting war graves and memorials in Belgium one Saturday last month, it was clear that this was happening - sacrifice was honoured and our varied family histories were being unlocked and better understood.

But these visits are not isolated acts of remembrance and respect. They are features of 'the process of national reconciliation' which John Hume spoke so powerfully about 20 or more years ago.

We should seek out ways to give 'national reconciliation' greater life and expression, to fully demonstrate that out of the pain of conflict, 'comes wisdom through the awful grace of God'.

Much is already happening. This decade of anniversaries - the Easter Rising, the War of Irish Independence and the Civil War, the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and the other events scattered throughout coming years - invites a sea-change in understanding, from which will emerge a deeper national reconciliation.

After the years of violence and resistance to change, we have achieved great things - but yet more awaits us. My generation grew up and grew older during the terror. Things are far better now. At the Island of Ireland Round Tower in Messines and the Menin Gate at Ypres, I talked and stood with a younger generation from schools from north and west Belfast and from Inishowen.

How things had changed was most manifest for me at the grave of John Condon.

He was from Waterford and died aged just 14. Standing among others of his age that Saturday in November, I thought of how once before I paid respects to a 14-year-old, but killed in 1972 in our conflict - a St Malachy's College classmate of mine, Rory Gormley. The poignancy was complete.

While the experiences of our young still touch on the costs of conflict, it is different from the past.

Their experience is informed by the need to understand. The respect for what they saw was clear.

It means greater hope in the future. And my great-uncle, Alex Attwood, is now a greater part of my life - and I am the better for it.

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