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Republicans no longer entrenched in their view of Ireland's Great War dead

Although Martin McGuinness won't be at the official Somme commemoration on July 1, he will visit sites of the carnage, a move unionists - who don't 'own' the battle - should see as progress, says Malachi O'Doherty

Published 25/05/2016

British troops go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme
British troops go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme

If I was a unionist I would want Martin McGuinness to attend the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme. I would not be disgruntled at his decision to accept an invitation to mark the centenary. In fact, I would probably be punching the air at the news - though unionists don't do much air-punching, do they?

That he would want to go would surprise me, but I would grab this opportunity to present him with a record of carnage in a conflict which almost trivialises the Irish republican struggle that erupted in the same year of 1916, then trickled down the following century.

Here was bloodshed on a massive scale, as men were ordered out of the trenches and into the machine-guns of the Germans, to be cut to shreds in the muck, piling on top of each other and rained on by shrapnel and body parts.

I would welcome McGuinness to the Somme, if only for the chance to adjust his sense of proportion so that he might be wary of ever again calling the Troubles a "war".

Horrible as the Easter Rising was, with its 400 dead in a week, 57,000 British and Irish soldiers died on the first day of the Somme - that's 20 times as many dead in one day as in the whole period of the Troubles since 1969.

Yet republican lore treats the Great War as a sideshow to the main event.

In the bars here, they sang The Foggy Dew:

It was better to die 'neath an Irish sky

Than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar

Or in Flanders, or the North Atlantic, for that matter.

The far greater number of Irishmen who went to war in Europe, rather than stay to fight Britain on Irish soil, were written out of republican history as deluded saps, people who had shamed themselves and missed the main event.

And many of them kept their mouths shut, having come home to a transformed Ireland that didn't want to acknowledge their story. But what they had been part of had been immeasurably bigger, immeasurably more tragic and horrible.

And a visit by a former IRA leader to the scene of the biggest battle in the history of the British Army, to pay respect to those who died, has immense significance.

It will erase the tradition of putting republican memory before the memories of the greater number of people who fought in Europe.

It will concede something that was anathema to republicans for almost a century: that those Irish who were used as cannon fodder at the Somme and herded into the guns by incompetent generals - the "donkeys" - were our brothers and that their sacrifice was greater than most of those who stayed at home.

Why would a unionist not relish extracting such an acknowledgement from Martin McGuinness, such a reversal of an inane old prejudice, even if it is only expressed in his symbolic presence and not in the pleasing words of a confession of past ignorance?

Well, one reason may be that the unionism is clinging to an old prejudice of its own; that the Somme was, in some way, most important as a unionist sacrifice. For that is the place it has in much of their history and lore. Like other globally significant events since, from the Iraq invasion to the Brexit vote, here things have their real importance in how they play out in the sectarian mix.

So, as for republicans the Somme has been the irrelevance of deluded Irishmen fighting the wrong war, for unionists it is the pledge of loyalty that earned them the right to remain British in Ireland. And each view has irritated and amplified the other.

And a million graves in France retain a significance that relates to nothing that any of those men had in mind in the moment before the bullets struck, or the mine exploded under him.

Yet, that seems to be the hardest lesson to learn about the Great War; it was not about us, except that it was all about us as British - as we all were then - and as Europeans, who might have come under German conquest.

The folly of imagining ourselves as central to such a massive turn of history stays with us, in the quibbling over Martin McGuinness attending the Somme centenary commemorations.

That fantasy was at work in the thinking of the Irish Republican Brotherhood when it plotted the Rising, imagining somehow that Ireland would be more free under the Kaiser, or that a victorious Kaiser would have been more easily shaken off.

And it is there in the romantic nostalgia among unionists for a day on which Ulster made a difference and earned the right of payback from the Crown.

The difference we made that day was only to the size of the mountain of dead, as our people were piled on with the others. But everything is about us - even the Middle East today.

And one fear of unionists may be that, when Martin McGuinness commemorates the Somme, he will gain a moral advantage over them; be seen to honour their dead while they boycotted the commemorations of the Easter Rising.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it accepts the line that the Somme represents one side of an historic quarrel and the Rising another.

The Somme doesn't belong to unionists. Among those thousands of men who charged the guns that day were Irish nationalists and republicans, who had bought into the idea that Britain would be indebted to them and give them Home Rule - just as unionists had bought into the idea that the same Britain would keep them in the fold on the same terms.

The whole bloody business was far too big for anyone to own and the memories are harboured still in too many diverse families around the world for anyone to claim to speak for them all.

Then there is the practical argument; that maybe it would be better now if McGuinness did not go. He will become the story, or the focus of protest, and that huge grief may be diminished again to the size of a local squabble.

Still, the prize for putting up with that momentary distraction will be that republicanism will pay its dues to the far greater number of Irishmen who fought in the trenches than fought in the streets of Dublin, or the ditches and lanes of Cork and Tipperary.

Unionists, or others, who fail to see that as some kind of progress, or even as a victory, are dull indeed.

Belfast Telegraph

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