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The Somme and the Rising: asking people to broaden their outlook without abandoning their loyalties

By Charlie Flanagan TD

There was a time in Ireland when the memory of the First World War was unacknowledged by the state. That time has long since passed. Today, in the company of the Taoiseach, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, many of my cabinet colleagues, invited guests from across the island, north and south and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I will attend the centrepiece of Ireland's 2016 Somme commemorative programme, a state-led ceremony in the War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin.

Today's ceremony is, of course, part of a much broader government programme of commemorative events marking the Battle of the Somme.

On July 1, President Higgins and Minister Humphreys were among the international dignitaries who took part in the centenary ceremonies at Thiepval in France, which marked the fateful date on which the battle started.

Minister Varadkar represented the government at the Belfast City Hall ceremony, which I was honoured to attend last year on the 99th anniversary, and the government was also represented at last Sunday's service at St Anne's Cathedral.

Ireland's Abbey Theatre, together with Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, London's Headlong Theatre, Liverpool's Everyman and Playhouse theatres and Belfast's own Lyric Theatre have come together to present the iconic Frank McGuinness play, Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

Talks, seminars, cultural events, exhibitions and art installations are just some of the other elements supported by the Irish government's Somme commemorative programme, at home and abroad.

Hundreds of people, from all parts of this island, will be gathered today in Islandbridge. This is in keeping with a tradition established by organisations such as the Royal British Legion in Ireland to hold a Somme commemoration at this time every year.

We will remember the thousands of men from this island who lost their lives during the terrible months of fighting at the Somme. We will mourn their deaths and remember the grief felt by their families and we will reflect on the world as it might have been had they lived.

We will remember, too, all who took part in the conflict, all who were wounded and all those who returned to pick up their lives after the war, returning to a changing Ireland, north and south.

Those were days of conflict and turmoil, of losses on a scale never experienced before and hard to fathom today, and the bravery shown by the men and women of this island during that conflict deserves to be remembered.

Who cannot feel sympathy and respect for the soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division who showed such courage and who suffered such devastating losses on that first day of July 1916? More than 2,000 were killed, leaving nearly every community with cause to mourn.

We will also remember the large numbers of Irish soldiers serving in other divisions who had their first and last experience of "going over the top" on that morning and on all the days of fighting still to come.

The 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 1st and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers all suffered heavily at the Somme. Neither will we forget those who served with the 16th (Irish) Division in Guillemont and Ginchy and we will, of course, commemorate their role on the centenary of those events in September.

Those who fought at the Somme were there for many different reasons: for Ulster; for King; for Ireland; for Home Rule and many other factors. Whatever their differences, they were united by their idealism, their common humanity and, ultimately, their shared experience of the horrors of the First World War.

Knowing their stories and appreciating the individual impact of the lives lost on those who were left behind can only help us to a better understanding of the history of the last 100 years and its continued reverberations into the present.

I know from conversations in the last few years that many felt a real anxiety about how the key centenaries of 2016 - the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme - would be remembered.

I hope that today, more than midway through this significant year, those anxieties have been assuaged and, indeed, that there is a sense that commemorations can and do contribute to fostering reconciliation and greater understanding.

From the start of this decade of centenaries, the Irish government has sought to remember all the events of a century ago, which have so profoundly shaped the history of this island and left us a legacy of complex - and sometimes competing - narratives.

Our approach has been to invite people to broaden their sympathies, without asking them to abandon their loyalties.

I believe that this respectful and inclusive approach to commemorations, which has been shared across the island, has given us new ways of considering and discussing the complex questions of identity and belonging - issues that matter as much today as they did to the men and women of these islands a century ago.

  • Charlie Flanagan TD is the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

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