Future progress may depend on ability to transcend conflicts of the past

Posted By: August 11, 2016

Letters to Editor. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, August 11, 2016


 Martin Mansergh

While we all take sides in historical conflicts, the consequences of which still affect our lives today, future progress may depend on our ability collectively to transcend the conflicts of the past, recognizing that the black and white political polemics that surrounded them may not always correspond to a better understanding that there were much more complicated realities. Significant progress has been made with regard to commemoration of those who died in the First World War. Initial nationalist support for and involvement in the First World War and heavy sacrifices throughout are now widely acknowledged and respected, where for a long time this was suppressed. Last week, I attended a ceremony at Richmond Barracks in Dublin – where the hall used to hold prisoners from the 1916 Rising has just been restored by the State – at which the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness unveiled a bust of the soldier poet Francis Ledwidge. He wrote a famous poem that was a lament for Thomas McDonagh, the executed 1916 leader who was a fellow poet, a year before he himself was killed on the Western Front. Surely we can acknowledge that they were both patriots.

Of course, the First World War was caused by imperial rivalries, irresponsible brinkmanship, and intriguing warmongers to be found in every participating country, and the result was an horrendous war of attrition costing millions of lives. Let us also acknowledge that Irish separatists had been waiting 60 years or more for Britain to become embroiled in an international conflict. Most historians accept that the rising would not have occurred outside this context. Irish soldiers in British uniform were told by their political leaders that they were fighting for Irish freedom in the form of Home Rule (or freedom from it, if they were unionist). The volunteers in 1916 were fighting for complete freedom, but of course they did not get it. De Valera, who was the leader of the subsequent phase of the independence struggle, always acknowledged the debt to Wilsonian principles, after America entered the war on the allied side, and in particular the principle of national self-determination, even if Wilson was personally totally unsympathetic to Ireland and even if Lloyd George never recognised its application to Ireland. The period 1918 to 1923 saw the consequent emergence of about a dozen new states in Europe, including the Irish Free State. The gallant allies in Europe, who had been counted upon, were for nothing in all this. The point that is not yet widely grasped is that, seen historically, the statehood such as has been achieved was not only the work of the separatist volunteers, but was also the product of a new international order that resulted from the allied victory to which Irishmen also contributed. We also tend to forget that on the Western Front at least Irish soldiers were fighting to free homelands of France and Belgium from German occupation and possible annexation, and there was nothing particularly imperialist about that. People can serve their country with effect in different ways, and we should be slow to excoriate them for doing so.

Martin Mansergh

Tipperary, Co Tipperary