Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Commemorations should unite, not create division

Anzac Day should remind us of the Irish sacrifice at Gallipoli 98 years ago today. It can also bring us together in the present, says Eamon Gilmore

The events of 100 years ago in Ireland – the Home Rule Crisis, the Dublin Lockout, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence – defined relations between the peoples of these islands for a century.

The current decade of commemorations affords us the opportunity to reflect on those events, on where we have come from, to better understand ourselves and each other.

However, as we look to those events, we must also remember that the decade in question was momentous not just in Ireland and Britain, but across the world.

The First World War was a global calamity, unprecedented at the time in geographical scope and loss of life.

Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, is observed across Europe and throughout the world each November. It is a day for honouring those whose sacrifice underpinned the unfolding story of the war and its aftermath.

On this island, in particular, it is a day to come together with those of all traditions in a moment of inclusion, reflection and mutual respect.

It was in that spirit that I was honoured to represent the Dublin government at Belfast City Hall on Remembrance Sunday last year, just as the Taoiseach participated in the Remembrance ceremony in Enniskillen the same day.

A positive development in recent years has been the recovery of the stories of the Irishmen who fought in the war. As we remember those men, we situate their stories within the context of all those who died – on both sides, drawn from all corners of the world.

No anniversary is more solemnly observed in the Australian and New Zealand calendar than Anzac Day, the anniversary of the start of the Gallipoli campaign in April 1915.

As we approach the centenary of the landings on the Gallipoli peninsula, it is right that we should not only remember the sacrifice of those men, but strive also to learn more about them; about their lives, their background and their motivations.

As was the case with the Irish soldiers who fought and died in the war, those Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought at Gallipoli were volunteers, with differing reasons driving them to join up and travel halfway around the world, in many cases never to return.

In remembering the tragedy of the Gallipoli campaign and the particular sacrifice of the Anzac troops, we should also recall the Irish involvement in the battle.

While we have remembered the events of those months in different ways over the past century, it remains a shared history, with Ireland and Australia suffering similar casualty levels. Similarly, the number of Irish soldiers who died in the campaign is comparable with that of New Zealand.

The landing at Suvla Bay, on August 6, 1915, was the first major engagement by an all-Irish volunteer division in the war – the 10th Irish Division.

While men from all nations had fought in previous engagements, the Gallipoli campaign was the first occasion on which such national divisional formations – Irish, Australian and New Zealand – were deployed. In recent years, shared recollection of the First World War has done much to advance reconciliation on this island and between Britain and Ireland.

We saw this at the opening of the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines in 1998 by President McAleese, Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium.

We saw it more recently in the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Garden of Remembrance and the National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge in 2011.

Such events remind us that to remember those who died in past conflicts is not to glorify war itself. Rather, sensitive remembrance of past division and loss can serve to bring us together in the present.

The decade of commemorations represents a unique opportunity to build on this work, to explore our shared history together and enhance mutual understanding between the peoples of these islands.

Beyond that, however, I believe that it will allow us to deepen our links with all those across the world, who share the experience of the War, including Australia and New Zealand.

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