Belfast Telegraph

We should commemorate our history as fact, not propaganda

By Liam Clarke

The most obvious thing about Easter 1916 is that it happened nearly 100 years ago, so we should now be able to remember it without triumphalism or point scoring.

Think of the funeral of Richard III in England - the Wars of the Roses and his life were remembered, but few felt the need to take a side. The events being recalled were longer ago, but there were no Lancastrian demonstrations of condemnations of Richard over the princes in the tower, whom Richard possibly murdered to secure the throne.

That is how history is processed and its lessons harvested. A century should be long enough to start doing it. It has already happened to some extent with nationalist attitudes to the Irish fallen in the First World War.

Still, calls for unionists to "respect" and perhaps support republican commemorations in the north would need to be more carefully pitched.

Unionists need to be convinced that the past is being remembered, but there is not a hidden agenda of passing the torch to the young.

Padraic Pearse, the leader of the rising, counted on blood sacrifice to mobilise people against Britain. This thinking is reflected in the proclamation.

It states: "In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State.

"And we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations."

Dr John Dunlop, the leading Presbyterian churchman, is credited with saying the Presbyterians don't read between the lines, they only see what is actually on the lines. Hearing this proclamation being read out to colour parties, often by veterans of the recent IRA campaign, many unionists won't read between the lines, either. They will take it as a call to finish the unfinished business of 1916 in arms.

Sinn Fein need to tell unionists that they are remembering an armed struggle that is over, not a tactical pause in hostilities. Statements which said the only way forward now is by politics and the principle of consent would create more space, respect and confidence for the events across the community.

The Republic's commemorations are more promising and hopefully Northern Ireland representatives from across the political spectrum will be able to take part.

One interesting proposal is a project to use the national archives for pupils in the Republic to see what their family was doing in 1916. We could copy that here for centenaries.

In the case of 1916, a few will have been in the GPO. More will have been among the hundreds of British military, police and civilian casualties. More still will have had families fighting with the British Army, more still will have gone about their business and very few will, at that point, have supported the insurrection.

Many of the new Irish will be descended from people caught up in conflicts in the Balkans, or elsewhere, which dwarf anything happening in Ireland.

That is how we come to grips with history; when we start to treat events not as a source of propaganda and grievance, but as fact. Northern involvement in the ferment around the rising is often forgotten. I'll mention one - Captain Jack White, the son of a Field Marshal from Broughshane, who left a distinguished career in the British Army to found the Irish Citizen Army and "put manners on the police".

White was abroad when the rising took place, but the ICA was prominent. We need to recover more stories like this.

History was not always as black and white as we make out.

It is complicated - just like life nowadays.

Belfast Telegraph


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