To understand the present, we need to have grasp on the past
Last week marked the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.
It lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916, and claimed more than three million lives on both sides, with more than 19,000 killed on the first day alone.
Almost a tenth of those who died that first day were from the 36th (Ulster) Division.
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill laid a wreath at the cenotaph in Belfast as part of the commemoration of that terrible battle last week.
It is not the first time that a member of the party has done this — it was 20 years to the day that Alex Maskey, then lord mayor of Belfast, did the same.
But as Mrs O’Neill is also First Minister-in-waiting, the gesture is very significant.
A republican acknowledging the sacrifice of Irishmen who fought and died for the British empire still attracts headlines, even 20 years after Mr Maskey’s act of commemoration.
Remembrance in Northern Ireland remains controversial.
However, there are signs of maturity and understanding that give the hope that we can find a way to navigate it respectfully in the future.
Dig deeper into our history and you find it is a complicated one. We all have links to past events that may not be as binary as modern views of identity would have us believe.
There are families with relatives who fought for the British on one side and others who participated in the Easter Rising.
My family is no less complicated.
I had always known my paternal grandfather fought for the British in the Second World War — the story had been somewhat sanitised over the years.
My father told me he joined the army at the commencement of the war to fight against Hitler.
However, records that were later tracked down showed this was not the truth.
Thomas Morris, known as Tommy, had in fact joined the army in peacetime as a teenager.
He had travelled the world as a member of the Royal Irish Rifles before settling down with my granny, Hannah.
As an experienced soldier, he was called up when the war broke out.
While there was no conscription locally, he had remained a member of the Territorial Army. By then, he was in his early 30s and a father, but his army records show the fitness test prior to being deployed revealed a man in peak physical condition.
He was dropped into Malaya and later captured by the Japanese. My grandmother was told that he was missing and presumed dead.
However, by some miracle, he survived the cruelty of life in a Japanese concentration camp. He was discovered by American soldiers who swept through the area in 1945 following the end of the war.
He didn’t speak much about his experience, but told his children he had seen the mushroom cloud of the Hiroshima bomb.
The United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
They killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict. It brought the war to an end and my grandfather arrived back in Belfast.
In poor health, he died prematurely, his heart weakened by the starvation of his time in captivity.
And that was our family story until, in 2014, the mystery of why Tommy joined the army at such a young age was partially solved.
At a family funeral, my father was handed some documents relating to his grandfather, my great-grandfather, also called Thomas.
Among the documents was a telegram sent to my great-granny, Rose, expressing regret at the death of her husband who died on the battlefields of Belgium.
He was also a member of the Royal Irish Rifles and is buried in an unmarked grave, listed alongside the other dead from his regiment on panel nine of the Ploegsteert Memorial. He died on May 9, 1915, during the first Battle of Ypres.
This was the first time I had heard of this man, who was just 34 when he died.
The 1911 Census showed he was from Cavan, his wife Rose was from Monaghan and they lived in Cinnamon Street, which no longer exists.
He had five children, among them my grandfather.
As Catholics from west Belfast, there must have been a time when involvement with the British Army was no longer spoken about, but historic documents and the Census helped piece the story together.
It could have ended there, but, as I said, we have a complicated history.
My aunt Bridie named her son Thomas, after her father, carrying on the name.
Thomas was handsome, mischievous and also loved to travel.
He worked as a roadie for pop group Spandau Ballet and had just returned home to visit his mother after a tour in Germany.
He’d also worked on tours with other bands, such as Bananarama.
In August 1983, Thomas, known as Kidso, was shot in the back by a member of the British Army.
His killer, Private Ian Thain, made history as the first soldier convicted of murder while on duty in Northern Ireland.
He was sentenced to life in prison but served only a few years before being allowed back in the army.
Named after two members of the army, Thomas lost his life at the hands of a British soldier.
The three members of Bananarama attended his funeral and singer Paul Weller sent a wreath.
In an interview with the BBC One Show several years ago, Spandau Ballet star Gary Kemp described how the death of Thomas, a popular member of the band’s backstage crew, inspired the hit song Through The Barricades.
Yes, my family’s history is complicated, but it’s really no different to many others and that’s why learning about our past helps with understanding our present.
It shows why learning to respectfully carry out acts of remembrance is so important to helping us heal in a post-conflict society.