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Memorial at Messines is the enduring legacy of his efforts for peace

By Paul Clark

When Glen Barr died last October, I attended his funeral at Ebrington Presbyterian Church, in Londonderry. As we were leaving the church, I spoke to a number of mourners, one of whom was Paddy Harte Jnr. He is the son of the man who, along with Glen, founded the Messines Project in the 1990s.

Paddy Harte Snr was too frail to travel from Raphoe in Donegal; but it was important that he was represented by his family. I asked his son to pass on my appreciation for his efforts, over many years.

Paddy Harte and Glen Barr had had their differences latterly, but that must not take away from their seminal work in the Nineties, when the two men broke new ground with the Messines Project.

This week, Paddy Harte died and so a door closes on a part of Irish history which I have been privileged to observe, and report.

I first came across Paddy Harte when I was a junior journalist in the Seventies. I interviewed him in his constituency of Donegal North East, where he served as TD for 36 years, until his retirement in 1997.

Paddy represented a border constituency, during the most difficult of times, but he wasn't afraid to look across that border.

As a Donegal TD, his most direct route to the Dail in Dublin was through Northern Ireland. The road took him past the scene of the Ballygawley bus bomb in 1988 which killed eight soldiers and wounded another 28.

In the aftermath of the attack, I remember Paddy Harte - without any fuss or fanfare - deciding to stop at the scene, to pay his respects.

There were no votes in it; and he was criticised by republicans. But, here was a man, who was consistent in seeking to understand and reconcile the different traditions on the island. Representing a border constituency, he had that understanding.

It was no surprise, then, when, years later, I found myself reporting on the early efforts of Paddy and Glen Barr to set up the Messines Project.

They were two men from diametrically opposed political views, but they could find common ground in the battlefield of the Somme.

As they stood underneath the arch of the imposing memorial to the missing at Thiepval, Paddy and Glen pledged to remember the Irish dead of the Great War - all the Irish dead.

Witnessed by people from different backgrounds, and from all over Ireland - as well as television cameras - the two men set about accelerating the change of our mindset to remembering the war dead.

They decided to work with the young, Catholic and Protestant, from all over Ireland. It was a major effort. Its aim - not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It was also hugely symbolic, because these people were similar ages to those soldiers who had fought and died side by side in France and Belgium.

They channelled their collective anger into a new organisation which became known as The Journey of Reconciliation Trust. With the support of the British and Irish Governments - due in no small measure to these two men - the 'Island of Ireland Peace Park' in Messines became a joint memorial to all those from the island who fought and died in The Great War.

This extraordinary initiative was officially dedicated by the Queen, and President Mary McAleese, on November 11, 1998. It was another step along the road in transforming British-Irish relations.

Not content with his involvement at Messines, Paddy Harte was the leading light in the publication of the 'County Donegal Book of Honour'. It was designed to reclaim the memory of those from the county, who had died during the Great War.

The book awakened people from a collective amnesia. Very quickly, it was out of date - and out of stock. Donegal County Museum will be publishing the latest edition, in November, to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War.

Paddy Harte and Glen Barr could have been affectionately dubbed 'fish and chips'. They were always together, and, in their day, were never out of the papers. Messines will be their enduring legacy. We owe it to both men to ensure that their work continues and that the disgraceful neglect of the Irish of The Great War will never be repeated.

Belfast Telegraph

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