Tomorrow is Armistice Day. Although commemorations are more commonly held on Remembrance Sunday, in the UK, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is marked by two minutes silence, in memory, in particular, of those who died in the First World War. Hostilities ceased, on the Western Front, at that time in 1918, after four years of mechanised warfare had wrought devastation on a generation of young men.
Yesterday, whilst recording an episode of Blogtalk NI, I was asked to consider the issue of remembrance and in particular controversy which often becomes attached to the simple act of remembering, in Northern Ireland. In retrospect, I am dissatisfied with the answer I gave and pre-emptively, I would like to add a few thoughts here.
Slugger O’Toole provides a useful snapshot of febrile debate which can attend simple, reverential acts, such as wearing a poppy, or laying a wreath. If you have the time, and the patience, there are pages and pages of it. In addition there are also serious, contemplative, generous posts, which do the subject justice. Conall McDevitt argues that the Republic of Ireland should have its own monument at the Western Front, in order to remember properly war dead from the south.
Perhaps the nastiest piece of commentary surrounding remembrance, this year, comes from the Andersonstown News and its ‘satirical’ columnist ‘Squinter’. It describes the period preceding Poppy Day as “the traditional three-week orgy of Up Yours Fenian Face”.
This ‘analysis’ might masquerade as humour and it certainly represent the most hostile interpretation of remembering offered in any newspaper, but it is a particularly acute example of a more general sickness which afflicts this province.
There are a disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland inclined to perceive hostile intent in any tradition, political opinion or culture to which they do not subscribe. It’s all about them. Making them uncomfortable, rubbing their noses in it.
This preternatural sensitivity is not the sole preserve of either side of the constitutional question. Whilst quiet, dignified acts of remembrance can be construed as petulant displays of anti-nationalism by one commentator, an interest in a minority language or enthusiasm for a particular sport can be perceived as inherently anti-unionist by another.
Neither is the phenomenon confined to niche publications like the Andersonstown News. Brian Feeney’s output consists of little else. The use of ‘Fenian’ as a pejorative is regularly ascribed to any unionist who happens to dissent from an opinion held by the journalist. The Maze stadium is a much more trivial issue than remembrance, but all sorts of nefarious motives were implied of football supporters who happened to favour an arena in Belfast.
There have been efforts, of course, to hijack particular traditions and events, in order to use them as political weapons. Republicans have misused the Irish language and that has hardened some unionists’ prejudices against it. Similarly, it has been reported that loyalist paramilitary groups have attempted to attach themselves to legitimate Remembrance events, to the horror of genuine ex servicemen.
We should be politically sophisticated enough, however, to separate such instances from the norm.
In the vast majority of cases, almost uniformly in fact, acts of remembrance are solemn, dignified and sincerely felt. They are undertaken in a spirit of respect for sacrifice and sorrow at loss, rather than with an underlying sentiment of ‘up yours Fenian face’. Surely any reasonable person will instinctively understand the difference?