Belfast Telegraph

So important whole island remembers its Somme heroes

By Charles Flanagan

Today, in the grounds of Belfast City Hall, I will stand together with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy Lord Mayor Guy Spence to lay a wreath to mark the 99th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. I am honoured to represent the Government of Ireland at today's commemoration, the first Irish Cabinet minister to do so.

As I lay a wreath this morning, I will be thinking of all those from this great city and this island who so tragically died or were injured 99 years ago on that first terrible day of the Somme and in the harrowing days that followed. I will be remembering all the thousands of young men who left their homes and families and fought through the summer and autumn of 1916 before enduring the harsh winter conditions in the trenches in France.

And I will think about how, for so many families, particularly in Northern Ireland, the name "the Somme" carries a special weight and resonance.

The brave deeds of the 36th Ulster Division on that first day of fighting, where the gains they made came at such a heavy price, have a central place in the hearts of many, particularly those from Ulster. The 5,500 casualties of the 36th Ulster Division on July 1 were men drawn almost entirely from unionist communities from cities, towns, villages and townlands across Ulster. Nearly 2,000 of these died in the first few hours of fighting.

A few months later, in September, the 16th Irish Division had 4,330 casualties at the Somme, of whom 1,200 were killed. These men came mainly from Ireland's other three provinces, Leinster, Connaught and Munster. The total number of Irish casualties at the Somme cannot be calculated with precision, but what we can say with certainty is that they affected families on every part of the island.

In Ireland, for too long, the Irish role in the First World War and the thousands of individual men and women who took part in it was allowed to fade into the background. However, this is changing and we have begun the often difficult but always rewarding process of looking again at our history and trying to understand the complexity of all of the events as they happened at the time.

In the year ahead we will have an opportunity to seek a better understanding of two seminal events of a century ago which profoundly influenced people on this island: the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. We have the opportunity now, with the more objective perspective of history, to look again at these events in all their complexity and understand why singular and closed narratives of each event assumed such significance in different communities over the years.

We do this because it is important, a century on, to face the difficult, complex realities of that historic decade that brought both jurisdictions on our island into being. We do this because we know that even in the seeking of such understanding come opportunities for greater reconciliation.

We are all commemorators, interpreters of history, and each of us can play a role in acknowledging the complexity of the past. Through generous acknowledgement, we can help to build a future where the past is no longer ransacked to sustain the contentions of the present.

As we move through this Decade of Centenaries, I and the Irish Government will play our part. Next year, as part of this commitment, the Irish State will formally commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. We will gather in Dublin in solemn remembrance of the loss of life at the Somme a century before.

We will do so because the Somme was not only Ulster's loss, but also Ireland's loss.

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

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