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Queen's symbolic gesture is a challenge to unionists

The symbolism behind the Queen's visit to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin yesterday and today's visit to the Islandbridge memorial has profound lessons for unionists in the north.

The Queen's decision to recognise the sacrifices made by Irish republicans in pursuit of the cause of Irish freedom sends a powerful message to both nationalists and unionists that the political traditions of Irish republicanism and Ulster unionism must find a place within their respective creeds for recognition of the significance of the historical sacrifices made by their adversaries.

That will pose less of a challenge to Irish nationalists and republicans today than unionists, though that was not always the case.

Irish nationalists of all shades have made considerable advances in this regard in the past 15 years, affording a place within their respective political narratives for Irishmen who fought in Britain's wars. Indeed, the sight of Sinn Fein councillors in Belfast laying a wreath at the cenotaph in recognition of the sacrifices made by Irishmen wearing British uniforms during the world wars hardly bears comment in the media today.

The challenge facing unionism is to find a place for Irish republican commemorations of, for instance, the United Irishmen and the Easter Rising in their vision for the future.

There remains a lingering frustration within Irish nationalism regarding the asymmetrical manner in which the respective political and cultural histories of Irish nationalism and British unionism are treated in this part of Ireland. Recent political developments show why this issue is likely to remain in the public realm for the foreseeable future and just how much of a challenge it will pose for some.

Sinn Fein's decision to select the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the new Executive, as we begin a decade of politically sensitive centenary celebrations, will mean that republicans will be seeking to ensure that the once exclusively unionist outlook of the state's institutions is a thing of the past.

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This is important as the recent outburst by the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Tom Elliott, prompted by the sight of an Irish tricolour at the Omagh count centre, indicates that unionist political leaders have yet to come to terms with the significance of the Irish national flag to their nationalist neighbours, never mind the place of political leaders within Irish nationalism.

Tom Elliott suggested that pronouncements by republican leaders at Easter Rising commemorations in the week prior to the election had amounted to provocation; illustrating just how little thought has been given to date by many unionists of the significance of that famous rebellion to nationalists.

While Ireland's involvement in the two world wars of the 20th century is now something that nationalists and unionists can acknowledge together, the historical involvement of Irish Protestants in a leadership role within the history of Irish nationalism and republicanism remains a taboo subject for unionists. Yet if our shared future is to mean anything, then it will require our respective national flags, as well as historical figures from James Connolly and Theobold Wolfe Tone to Edward Carson and King William, being afforded recognition and respect from across the political divide.

The symbolism of this week's events challenges unionist leaders to follow the lead of their head of state in adopting a reconciliatory stance on the issue of remembrance in the Irish nationalist tradition.


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