Commemorations should not offend any community

Posted By: May 04, 2017

Allison Morris. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, May 4, 2017

It’s stating the obvious to say that there are differing views when it comes to the conflict and those differing views have lead to countless clashes when it comes to how the past is remembered.

An example of this – if one were needed – the reaction both before and after Sinn Féin’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill’s appearance and comments at a commemoration for eight IRA man shot dead by the SAS at Loughgall.

It should also be remembered that one civilian died in the same attack and that also raises the unanswered question, what is the definition of a victim?

Was Anthony Hughes a victim, but the other eight not? If we take that definition, that participants of the Troubles can’t be victims, then had the IRA ambush at Cappagh been a ‘success’ would the RUC men who they were targeting have been victims or not?

If a member of the SAS had been killed in the operation would that soldier have been a victim? 

And so you can see how this one-dimensional view of conflict runs into difficulties very quickly.

The only certainty is that there will never be an agreement on victimhood because there isn’t even an agreement on how the Troubles started in the first place and no talks process will ever change that.

Michelle O’Neill said she was “proud of our freedom struggle” when standing on the back of a flatbed truck in a Co Tyrone graveyard on Sunday.

Her views will have been shared by the crowd of people standing there and therefore caused no direct offense but they did cause offense to others, not at that event and who do not share her narrative of history.

Critics have said commemoration should not be done in a way that offends others.

But in Northern Ireland, there is no inoffensive way to remember.

Republican commemorations can never be inoffensive to Unionists because commemorating any IRA man is legitimizing their actions and therefore legitimizing the very thing that Unionism was and still is fighting against.

When a genuine offense is caused, our political leaders need to take a step back and consider not their own personal views or beliefs but what is the ‘statesmanlike’ thing to do.

Martin McGuinness managed to plow those two fields throughout his later political life, reaching out and making healing gestures to Unionism and Britain, while still remaining a staunchly proud Republican.

Arlene Foster has at times understandably struggled with juggling her own childhood trauma with her role as a political leader but did the statesmanlike thing when she arrived at the funeral of the former IRA man and her one-time partner in government.

And such gestures are in the main greeted with appreciation, the applause the DUP leader received on her arrival in Derry recognition of that.

Loyalists chose to remember with pride the Battle of the Somme and all those men of the UVF who gave their lives in that bloody war.

I feel nothing but sadness when I recall my great grandfather dead in a German trench less than two months after joining the British army in 1915.

And both those views are entirely legitimate and should not cause offense to anyone.

But when loyalists lay poppy wreaths at events to commemorate paramilitaries involved in sectarian murders it offends not just the recent victims but the relatives of those Nationalists whose relatives fought in both world wars.

And this is a key point because with historic war and conflict it is easy to have a sense of historic detachment and understanding, but when we move into our recent conflict it is an entirely different scenario.

[The]Troubles commemorations, no matter how or where they take place will always offend, the raw hurt and controversy will only die with those directly, emotionally linked to the events of that time.

Language needs to be chosen carefully, as a journalist I know words can be powerful weapons and when used in certain ways can cause long term devastation.

But when it comes to the commemoration of the dead, whether they be Republican, Loyalist or security forces, maybe we just need to respect and not exploit people’s right to be offended.