Saturday 25 January 2020

Unionists debating 1916 is a step towards agreeing a common heritage

A woman passes a mural in Dublin, where graffiti artists have been decorating derelict areas of the city with artworks commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A woman passes a mural in Dublin, where graffiti artists have been decorating derelict areas of the city with artworks commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The Irish flag is green, white and orange. Not green alone. So until now, the absence of any considered unionist engagement on what the Rising and its aftermath mean has been a regrettable omission. Even if we think we know what someone is going to say, it still matters to pay attention and consider their position.

Ungracious remarks from the North's First Minister Arlene Foster about the rebels being egotistical glory-hunters don't count - name-calling is not a considered standpoint; while the Brutonist perspective fails to fit the bill because the former Taoiseach doesn't represent unionism, although what he says chimes with it. He says the fierce resistance in north-east Ulster to Home Rule, let alone an Irish Republic, was ignored in a politically irresponsible way by the Proclamation signatories and led to unnecessary bloodshed.

Consequently, I've been eager to learn what Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt might contribute when his party held an event in Dublin this week on the subject. Some sceptics thought it would never come off. Others felt it was as disrespectful as disrupting a Somme commemoration. But I believe unionists are entitled to put forward an alternative view on the Rising. It's their history, too - indeed, Mr Nesbitt suggests 1916 led directly to partition. I'm not persuaded it can be cited in isolation, since that leaves out the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, underpinned by gunrunning, when it became clear that Ulster said no to Home Rule.

However, all of these views feed into the national debate about what mistakes we've made, what we can learn from them, and where we're headed. After all, the nationalist perspective isn't exactly uniform: there are protests about the memorial wall in Glasnevin with the names of 1916 combatants alongside dead civilians and soldiers (some Irish) from British regiments. Brown Thomas's windows decorated with cutouts of James Connolly and others, and behind them designer clothes, have raised eyebrows. Meanwhile, some object to Redmond's face on the old Parliament building in College Green, although I think he ought to be there. He's a stepping stone in our history, steering a course towards constitutional nationalism, even if he was mistaken to act as a recruiting sergeant for World War I.

So what could Mr Nesbitt bring to this rich soup? First up, some of us learned something new: his family's linen business in Belfast city was bombed by the IRA in 1973, he told the Royal Irish Academy audience, suggesting it might be why he entered politics. But he also drew on the framed blank invoice hanging on his study wall.

"It reads 'A Nesbitt & Co Ltd Linen Manufacturers'. And below that, 'The deduction of odd pence is not allowed'," he said. "I think that bottom line sums up our problem. If we hang in for the last penny, if we squeeze our competitor until the pips squeak, we do no service to building the future our children deserve." That sounds like accommodation to me, a word we need to hear more often.

He raised questions about Unionist rule in Northern Ireland in the decades before the Troubles, where jobs, housing and electoral parity were withheld from Catholics. "Did omission or commission contribute to people taking up arms?" he wondered. "It would be right to question how we could do things better." This represents unusual candour from a unionist leader, where the context of the Troubles tends to be overlooked.

Mr Nesbitt's initiative in Dublin was useful on many levels, not least because he did it without slaughtering anyone's sacred cows; when we start to think of each other as human beings with back stories, mutual understanding becomes easier.

Some say he is seeking transfers from nationalists in the forthcoming Northern elections. I say he showed leadership by engaging. Even discussing 1916 represents real headway, because to most unionists it's radioactive. His contribution accepts the principle that it has enduring cultural and political resonance for both North and South.

There is no agreed narrative for what has happened on the island of Ireland over the past 100 years. But there is a common history. And it has affected people differently depending on which side of the border they wound up on. In that spirit of recognising other interpretations of keynote events, I was fascinated to hear Queen's University PhD politics student Sophie Long, a Progressive Unionist, talk this week about how loyalism (as distinct from unionism) views the Rising.

An act of treachery, she said - the rebels seizing their opportunity to stick a dagger into Britain's ribs when it was preoccupied by World War I. Ms Long went on to outline how young loyalist males feel a sense of being cast adrift by the peace process, their anxieties discounted. She was speaking at an event in Maynooth University as part of its Women and the Decade of Commemorations series of events. We need more such interactions. What Ms Long - who is studying post-peace process Ulster loyalism in collaboration with those communities - reported was occasionally unsettling, but it would be more disturbing again to live in a vacuum, impervious to tensions which threaten stability.

Both Ms Long and Mr Nesbitt were interpreting, to greater or lesser degrees, different strands of unionism. It is not a homogeneous mass, any more than nationalism is harmonised or standardised and it's important to take that on board.

These conversations are a step, perhaps only a baby step but that still counts as progress, towards agreeing some elements of a common heritage. In time, common goals might be identified. By working to allay anxieties over identity, culture and a sense of where each of us belongs in the world, we might begin to transcend differences which check both parts of Ireland from achieving their potential.

The last word goes to Ulster poet John Hewitt, whose work incorporates the possibility of multiple identities: "Kelt, Briton, Saxon, Dane, and Scot/Time and this island tied a crazy knot." I have a T-shirt with those words printed on, courtesy of the John Hewitt Society: in fact, I'm wearing it as I type this.

Irish Independent

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