26 June, 2002
The Memory of the Dead;
Seeking Common Ground.
Speech by Mayor Alex Maskey in Belfast City Hall
First of all I want to thank all of you for your attendance. My election as Mayor was a few short weeks ago. In the interim I have been coming to terms with the many responsibilities and protocols. The notice of this event has, accordingly, been very short. I thank you all the more for your positive response in attending.
Yesterday, in my Mission Statement as the first Sinn Fein Mayor of Belfast, I said I would address the issue of commemorations and in particular the issue of the Somme Commemoration to be held here at Belfast City Hall on Monday next, 1st July 2002. To state the obvious, I am doing so from the perspective of an Irish republican; the first Irish republican Mayor of Belfast.
We live in a society which is divided; a society which is emerging from 30 years of conflict. We live in political conditions which challenge us all. I pledge that I will do my utmost to rise to those challenges.
The related issues of flags, emblems, badges, memorials and commemorations inevitably assume an elevated importance in a divided society, where they become tools of the political dispute. I have no magic wand to wave. I doubt if anyone else does. But I am utterly convinced that the route to the resolution of these matters is through good faith dialogue and discussion.
That is why, in my Mission Statement, I expressed my desire to contribute in as meaningful a way as possible to a comprehensive debate around how we commemorate historical events so as to find formulas we can all live with now and in the future.
Seeking Common Ground
Today I want to address the issue of memory and the role personal memory has played in the shaping of Ireland's history.
History, memory and associated rituals are important psychological anchors in the cycle of any individual life. The same can be said in relation to the life of a nation.
History helps define us as a people. And it is people by their actions who make history.
We are often reminded that it is the victor who writes history. History is laden with value judgements. We inherit history. It is then up to us to make sense out of it for the times that we live in. The history of the people of this island is complex, layered, has many strands and indeed, many versions of those strands.
Ireland's history for centuries has been dominated by colonization, conflict and division. In response to these conditions there emerged the history of Irish rebellion. Parallel with that history there is another history; the history of those in Ireland who joined the British Army. For many nationalists those who joined the British Army are dismissed as not warranting esteem. This is reserved for those whom nationalists hold as patriots. The flip side of that coin requires no elaboration.
In a recent book on the history of the British Army it was stated that there would not have been a British Army but for Irish volunteers, not conscripts mind you but volunteers. To some this might be a surprising fact. Or perhaps an unwelcome or unpalatable one. The reality is that a substantial number of Irish men enlisted in Irish regiments of the British Army and fought and died in Britain's wars; including British wars here in Ireland.
As an Irish republican I, of course, have a republican political view of history. I am a separatist. I am anti-imperialist and anti-sectarian. I am for the unity of Ireland and its people and for the political independence of a unitary all-Ireland state. But the challenge for me, indeed for all political leaders, is to recognise the worth and the integrity of the individual soldier as perceived, honoured and commemorated by those he or she left behind; to identify with the sorrow, the hurt, the suffering as something we all share; even if we are not always prepared to acknowledge it. That is, the common humanity at the centre of all this.
Ireland has a long history of soldiering. In the context of the politics of this island many soldiered for and against Irish independence. Many others soldiered in the ranks of the British military overseas. Yet others soldiered in the ranks of the British Army and for Irish independence. This is our legacy. It is complex. This is what we have to come to terms with.
Today we are challenged to find a way to remember without necessarily adhering to the war aims and objectives of those who fought and those who died. To find a common ground which, over time, we can willingly acknowledge and share.
There is no shortage of difficulties and impediments to any attempt to address this. Our history is one of the factors and not least the history of the past 30 years of conflict. Three years ago, in the Irish Times, the Reverend Terence McCaughey wrote;
``For too many.., the intense obligation to keep faith only with our own dead is paramount, and the best we can expect from the ``other side'' is that they face up to the deaths they caused. We are still a very long way indeed from having a shared sense even of who the participants in the conflict have been or what role they played - not to speak of agreeing on who exactly the victims of these years have been.''
These are all challenges to be overcome. It will not be easy. But this is an important part of the context in which we consider all of the related matters.
As we approach the 86th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st it is worth recalling that the complexity of this island's history was indeed reflected, perhaps encapsulated, in this period.
The parliamentary leaders of the time - on the one hand Redmond and on the other Carson and Craig - sent out a call to arms to their supporters. A call to British arms; to fight variously ``for the freedom of small nations'' or ``For God and Ulster''. Irishmen responded in tens of thousands.
The political dilemma we face today was also faced by that generation. The Irish Volunteers in the nationalist population of Belfast, rather than join the 36th Ulster Division - the UVF - joined the 6th Battalion of the Connaught Rangers. Many in the Glens of Antrim rather, than join the 36th Ulster Division, traveled to Scotland and joined the Scottish regiments of the British Army. Many of these soldiers fought at the Somme. Two Irish divisions fought there, the 36th and the 16th. The Dublin Fusiliers fought in the 29th Division on the first day of the Somme. The Irish Guards also fought during that battle.
The diversity of Irish political allegiances was reflected on the battlefield. Although divided by political aspirations at home in Ireland they died together side by side at the Somme.
In part - and commemoration is a sum of many parts - the initial challenge facing us is to agree how best to remember all those men who died during the First World War. Some 50,000 Irishmen were killed. A quarter of a million Irish men fought in that war.
Writing History: A Tale of Two States.
When the soldiers came home from the First World War they found Ireland a very different place to the one they had left.
The 1916 Rising had transformed the country. Those who adhered to the Irish republican position, ``We serve neither King nor Kaiser'', stayed in Ireland and fought against the British Army and not with it. Sinn Fein had replaced the Irish Parliamentary Party. John Redmond, who had made the call to arms to the Irish Volunteers, had been electorally defeated. The British government was moving fast to partition the island. Many Irish soldiers returning from fighting with the British Army in Europe joined the IRA and fought against the British Army in Ireland.
The outworking of all of this was the partition of Ireland. Consciousness and memory were to be changed utterly in this new political landscape. The context of memory, especially in relation to the First World War, was shaped by the dominance of either a republican or a unionist political ethos.
The new Irish State was emerging from the Tan war and all of the trauma associated with it. Service in the British Army was seen as disloyal to the very idea of an independent Irish State. The memory of family participation in the 1914-1918 war was often heard only in the privacy of family oral histories.
In the northern state the unionist leadership and the Orange Order moved to fuse the two concepts of First World War memory and loyalty to unionism. This policy ignored the broad social and political base of those who volunteered for Kitchener's new armies. It sought to construct an exclusive view of war service and sacrifice, centered on the UVF - the 36th Ulster Division. The unionist leaderships sought to have this war memory worn as a badge of loyalty to their new state. Such a process excluded Catholic ex-servicemen, many of whom had served with the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions, from the public expression of remembering their fallen comrades.
Indeed, the public expression of this is best seen in the manner in which Seaman James McGuinness was treated. The courage shown by Seaman McGuinness and the V.C. he received were of little relevance to the community from which he came. The fact that that community happened to be the Falls Road ensured that the City Fathers of Belfast chose to ignore it also. I am happy that I played a part in ensuring, even years after his death, the City of Belfast finally felt able to recognise his courage.
And, of course, utterly excluded from any consideration were the hapless, shell-shocked young men who were shot by the score for `desertion' and those shot for conscientious objection to the war.
What to do?
And of course, it is not easy for republicans and nationalists to open their minds to what happened during the First World War. And this difficulty has been added to by the conflict over the last thirty years which has seen members of the Crown forces, many from a unionist background, involved in that conflict. The flip side of this coin needs no elaboration either.
I approach this issue as one who has committed my entire adult life to activism in pursuit of Irish national self-determination and political independence. In respect of the commemoration of the Somme, I am guided by a desire to use this occasion to unite and include rather than divide and exclude. As an Irish republican Mayor of Belfast, I believe that I have the duty to point towards an agreed and durable formula for commemorations as the desired destination. I do not have the formula. The ingredients of that lie in the hearts and minds of us all. Pointing in that direction is a start.
Irish republicans recognise the importance of commemorating those who lost their lives in conflict. The Easter Commemoration is an annual event throughout Ireland. Recently the Tírghrá event was held in Dublin to commemorate Irish republicans who lost their lives over the past thirty years of conflict. We believe there is a need for everyone living on the island of Ireland to be able to take part in remembering the victims of wars and conflicts in which their loved ones lives were taken.
It is Sinn Fein's desire to respect that memory, to acknowledge the hurt and loss experienced by the families of those injured and killed and to recognise the bravery and honour with which many have served.
Part of the journey away from conflict must include an examination of how we, as a people, can collectively discuss ways in which our individual experiences and traditions can be recognised and respected by each other. A meaningful examination of how or if we can all remember our loved ones in an inclusive way is an essential part of this process.
In furtherance of all of that, and as my contribution to it, I will set out what I intend to do in respect of these issues, and in particular, in respect of the Battle of the Somme Commemoration to be held here next Monday.
Before doing so, I ask everyone, and I mean everyone, to accept my good faith intentions. This has been arrived at after much soul searching and discussion with many colleagues and supporters.
I am fully aware of the difficulties this causes for Irish republicans. I am fully aware of how it might be received in sections of the unionist political leaderships. All other considerations apart, I believe the quote I have used above from the Reverend Terence McCaughey encapsulates the difficulties that ordinary people - nationalist and unionist - can and will have.
Nevertheless I ask that it be accepted as a good faith, good will contribution by me to addressing the issue and to the overall political and peace processes.
My proposals are those of an Irish republican. They are framed jointly by that reality and my desire to be positive and constructive.
I believe no one expects a leadership figure from any of the unionist parties to attend a Commemoration of the Easter Rising in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast with all of the attendant republican rituals involved in that. I suspect that no-one expects that a leadership figure from Sinn Fein would attend a highly militaristic unionist commemoration attendant with all of the pomp and symbols of British military and political rituals.
These, I believe, are reasonable expectations. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, each of us within our own lights, should be expected to do as much as we can to be positive and constructive in making outreach to each other; to do our best in the circumstances. That is what I am doing. People will make their own judgement on this.
I am not naïve about any of this. I suspect that others involved in politics are not naïve about these issues either. For, the reality is that, for the foreseeable future, there will be separate commemorations for those who died in the service of the Crown forces as there will be for those who died in the service of the IRA. As a minimum, old comrades associations from both backgrounds will ensure that they recall the respective sacrifices on their own terms and in their own ways. That is to be expected.
But, there is a difference, and it is a big difference when any level of democratically elected government is involved in commemorations. Here we must endeavour to find ways to respect all the dead. There is a duty and responsibility on all who hold public office to represent all of the electorate. This is what we collectively need to explore. That is, to seek to identify common ground which we can willingly share so that our commemorations, at this level, of those who lost their lives can be a unifying source and a calming influence on the course of future political developments; or at least a means of minimising division.
We should seek, as a bottom line to be equal.
We should strive beyond that, if possible, to be inclusive.
That is what is motivating me in struggling to demonstrate that there is another road to take when local government is remembering the fallen.
Accordingly, I pledge;
I will, as Mayor of this City, lay a laurel wreath at the Cenotaph at the City Hall on the morning of the 1st July at 9 a.m.
I am laying this wreath in memory of and tribute to all the men who made the supreme sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme and during the First World War. My initiative on this issue is equally in recognition of the sorrow, hurt and suffering left behind for their relatives, friends and comrades. My objective, beyond this, is to seek to identify common ground for all of us in this generation.
I would like to thank the leadership of Sinn Fein for their support for me in dealing with this sensitive issue.
I will not impede or compete with the form and substance of the Battle of the Somme Commemoration initiated by Belfast Corporation many years ago.
In the circumstances of today, I believe this should be reviewed. I will contribute in a positive way to the development of the public debate about the use of flags, emblems, badges, memorials and commemorations.
I will seek to engage all sections of our society in that debate.
I will also Chair the Council meeting before the ceremony at the Cenotaph.
In line with the opinions I have voiced earlier I believe there should be a different motion to initiate this commemoration. Time, however, did not allow for an attempt to reach an agreed political processing of a new formula, and I am mindful that this occasion should not be marred by avoidable political controversy in respect of its minutiae. At an appropriate time, however, I will seek a full engagement with all City Councilors for purposes of reviewing this in line with the desired political destination I outlined earlier.
. I will seek to organise a civic commemoration for all of those who died in this battle and will, as soon as possible, open up discussions with all interested parties in an attempt to give effect to this.
Historical events properly understood, especially in a divided society, can be a source of inspiration for the living. We are the inheritors of the past. Each generation writes it's own history. Let not our children accuse us of distorting history, thereby perpetuating division, when we have a chance of establishing a new beginning. Let us seek to ensure that the history we bequeath to our children enhances all of their lives.
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