Children in paramilitary uniform is a bad idea... however you dress it up
Northern Ireland society has a long way to go while the culture of violence is still celebrated so openly, says Fionola Meredith
Last Sunday, people in Northern Ireland and around the world came together to honour, in remembrance and gratitude, the bravery of those who have died in conflict. In traditional manner, these events were marked by great solemnity and dignity. This year's Remembrance Sunday had a particular resonance for many, because it marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, in which so many British and Irish soldiers were slaughtered.
On the same day, in west Belfast, young children, dressed in full paramilitary regalia, joined a parade to commemorate a teenage IRA terrorist who blew herself up with her own bomb 25 years ago.
Remembrance Sunday is a military occasion. The parade for Patricia Black was a paramilitary occasion. But no reasonable person - by which I mean no non-indoctrinated person - could draw a moral equivalence between the two.
Predictably, Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly tried to turn it back on the Brits.
On BBC's Stephen Nolan show, he claimed it was "a biased question about a particular section of children". He asked: "Do you have a problem when it comes to cadets wearing British Army uniform? Or in memorials for British Army that they also wear berets and all the rest of it? If you are going to be consistent, look right across the board - because young people do this throughout Ireland, throughout Britain."
Here's the thing: you do not have to be an unreserved admirer of British military actions - past or present - to feel your stomach turn when you see kids dressed up as IRA terrorists. You merely need to be human... and humane.
Paramilitary uniforms are bizarre, whoever is wearing them. They are often fairly flamboyant affairs, compared to those worn by regular armies, and their adherents have a magpie tendency to take inspiration from a range of diverse sources.
It's bad enough to see adults in this get-up, but when it comes to witnessing pre-teen children in berets, neck scarves and reflective sunglasses, you do despair, because you know exactly what is happening.
It might look absurd, almost comical, but this is deadly serious. It is how sectarian conflicts renew and reproduce themselves, passing down through the generations.
These youngsters are required to take on adult hatred and its accompanying murderous narrative. They are required to endorse a very selective version of history. They must celebrate it, venerate it, make it their own. Some of the kids in Sunday's parade were so tiny that their green berets were slipping down over their foreheads. It was a chilling symbol of the weight they are being asked to carry.
Patricia Black's admirers were not the only paramilitaries on parade this weekend. On Saturday, the funeral cortege of ex-UVF terrorist Sam "Pinky" Austin was led by men in black paramilitary regalia, wearing the crest of the UVF. Austin, a former leader of the UVF inmates in the Maze Prison, was arrested with two associates in a bomb-making factory in 1994. There were no mirrored sunglasses on this occasion. Instead, Austin's funeral escorts favoured chunky military jumpers and matching woolly hats, complete with crest, pulled down over the ears.
What does the appearance of these oddly attired men signify? These were adults playing dress-up this time, not children, but the underlying message was similar: we are still here, we are not going away and we demand legitimacy and respect, both for ourselves and for our dead.
What can we do if some parents decide to deck their kids out like junior paramilitaries?
The basic answer appears to be: not much. Nobody seems willing - or even inclined - to take on such an inflammatory and hyper-sensitive issue.
Also speaking on the Nolan show, the Children's Commissioner for Northern Ireland, Koulla Yiasouma, sounded nervous and unwilling to be drawn in.
She said: "I have to make sure that relevant authorities are keeping children safe, and let's not forget that it's parents who decided that their children take part in what was deemed to be a legal parade.
"I would be concerned about images of children in any sorts of involvement with any sort of paramilitary regalia or images.
"I will be contacting all the relevant authorities, including the Parades Commission, to make sure the best interests of these children have been protected and there are no child protection issues."
Pressed again on the issue of whether she, personally, thought it was acceptable for children to participate in such parades, Ms Yiasouma said: "Whether I think it's right for children or not is not really for me to say. Do I think it's okay? Probably not, but that's not within my remit, telling parents how to involve their children in legal parades."
A squirming "probably not" is not a sufficient response from the woman tasked, at great public expense, with safeguarding and promoting the rights and best interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland.
True, the parade was legal. And you could make a good case for claiming that it is the parents, not the State, who have primary rights and responsibilities over the behaviour or appearance of their children, including whether or not they take part in parades like this.
So, yes, technically - bureaucratically - it may not be within Ms Yiasouma's "remit".
But we're talking about dressing kids up as terrorists, so they can celebrate the memory of a would-be murderer.
Could the Children's Commissioner not at least state her complete and unequivocal condemnation of that?
The fact that so many people - politicians, commissioners, public figures of power and influence - shy away from outright rejection of issues like these, shows the great distance our society has yet to travel.
Our peace is predicated on a semi-suppressed culture of violence, the threat of which still hangs in the air.
Dressing in paramilitary uniform - whether adults or children, whether UVF or IRA - is one of the ways that implicit threat is maintained and reinforced.
We can't allow political niceties to prevent us from stating that brute fact.