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Eilis O'Hanlon: Why toppling Carson's statue at Stormont is the height of nonsense

Demolishing effigies just because you disagree with the views of the subject is historical revisionism at its worst


Carson’s statue at Stormont

Carson’s statue at Stormont

A toppled Confederate statue lies on the ground in Durham, USA, last week

A toppled Confederate statue lies on the ground in Durham, USA, last week


Carson’s statue at Stormont

As memorials to generals who fought for the pro-slavery Confederates during the American Civil War continue to topple like dominoes across the southern United States, it's only a matter of time before some politically correct smart alec in Northern Ireland calls for the statue of Sir Edward Carson up at Stormont to be pulled down, too.

Is the founder of the Ulster Volunteers and staunch opponent of Home Rule really the right person to stand in front of a devolved parliament that now works (when it works, which isn't that often these days) on the basis of equality between unionist and nationalist traditions?

The Nolan Show could get hours of airtime out of this.

Carson wouldn't exactly have been welcome at the recent Belfast Pride march, either.

As a barrister in the 1890s he was instrumental in ruining the reputation of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.

The author of The Importance Of Being Earnest was financially ruined by the libel action he took to defend himself against accusations of sodomy, which was illegal at the time.

He was subsequently jailed for "gross indecency" and died a few years later penniless in Paris.

Let's just say that, when it came to championing gay rights, Edward Carson left a lot to be desired.

So, should his statue be removed for that reason as well, just because our attitude to homosexuality has, thankfully, changed?

At the risk of upsetting one interest group or another, let's hope not.

The place wouldn't look the same without him. And if he's to go, why not Stormont itself?

Nationalist critics have long grumbled that the history of the "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" makes it an unsuitable home for a power-sharing Assembly.

Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O'Neill surely wouldn't need much encouragement to revive the party's doomed campaign to up sticks and move to a new one instead - perhaps somewhere up the Falls Road with a huge idol of one of the dead IRA volunteers she's so fond of honouring standing guard outside?

All this proves two things.

One is that the acrimonious debates about the past which are causing friction across the Atlantic are not exclusive to the USA (as if we needed further proof of that).

The other is that there are no easy answers.

Carson is remembered as the founder of Northern Ireland, but the Dublin-born statesman was as disillusioned by how it turned out as many Irish nationalists.

As for Oscar Wilde, yes, he was a literary genius who suffered terribly at the hands of the British Establishment; but his attraction to young rent boys from the poorest parts of London would have justifiably ruined his reputation in our age, too.

Should the writer's statue near his childhood home in Dublin be torn down as a mark of our disapproval?

It's easy to denounce people in the past who had less progressive and enlightened attitudes. Without wanting to sound like President Trump, there is blame on "many sides".

That's the problem with history. It refuses to be - no pun intended - black and white. No one was perfect then, any more than we're perfect now.

That goes for Carson also. He stands on the avenue leading to the Northern Irish parliament. In the grounds of the Dublin parliament, Leinster House, there's a statue to Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, who infamously defended the even more infamous anti-Semitic boycott of the Jewish community in Limerick in 1904.

James Larkin, the acclaimed trade unionist, also allowed anti-Jewish material to be published in his Irish Worker newspaper, but 'Big Jim's' statue still stands proud on O'Connell Street.

In Fairview Park, north of the city, there's even a statue to IRA leader Sean Russell, who enthusiastically collaborated with Nazi Germany. The subjects of other statues dotted around the Irish capital include 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke (who made a number of unflattering remarks about Jews in his day and was ambivalent about slavery) and writer Oliver St John Gogarty (another notorious anti-Semite).

Many of those who led the Rising, meanwhile, were proto-fascist crackpots who believed in the words of Padraig Pearse that "bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing".

That didn't stop them being lauded as great men during last year's centenary down south.

Nationalists of old didn't want their beloved Gaelic, Catholic Ireland diluted by alien influences, and, if we met them today, we'd no doubt consider them a fearful bunch of bigots.

But while people in the past may have said and thought and done things that would be considered unacceptable by today's standards, that shouldn't detract from their other achievements.

Take Winston Churchill. He was in favour of using poison gas against "uncivilised tribes" in Africa and believed in the triumph of the "Aryan race".

Even at the time his views were considered extreme.

But, in its darkest hour, Churchill also help save Europe from the Nazis.

Which of these versions of the statesman is celebrated by his statue outside the House of Commons? Which of them should prevail in deciding whether Churchill was, in crude terms, a 'good' or 'bad' man?

And, if his statue is an affront to the many victims of the British Empire, should we also posthumously take away his Nobel Prize for Literature for the same reason?

It's complicated, to say the least.

History wasn't always pleasant, but it makes no more sense to denounce people in the past for opinions they held at the time than it does to insist we would have thought and acted any differently than they did. That's impossible to say.

Perhaps eastern Europe has the best solution. Following the collapse of communism, former vassal states of the Soviet Union had a problem: what to do with all those effigies of Lenin and Marx which once presided menacingly over public spaces?

In the Hungarian capital Budapest the answer was Memento Park, where the statues are displayed alongside other reminders of totalitarianism. It's now a popular tourist destination.

In Lithuania there's a similar attraction, known colloquially as 'Stalin's World'.

They're not celebrations of communism. Far from it. They're simply acknowledgements that communism happened.

Pretending otherwise would be silly.

Public monuments represent history as it was, not as we might wish it to be.

The only thing you can do is try to provide a context and see the bigger picture.

If 'Troubles tours' can rake in cash from revisiting the scenes of some of Northern Ireland's worst atrocities, there's certainly no reason why Carson should have to give up his traditional place outside Stormont just to appease the perennially affronted.

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