Posted By: February 08, 2014

Patrick Murphy.Irish News(Belfast). Saturday, February 8, 2014
THERE are two types of history. One seeks to understand and explain the past. The other distorts and decorates the past to justify the present. We have just begun four years of distorted decoration.

So grab your tin hat and head for the trenches as Britain re-enacts World War I. The mother of all war commemorations has started, allowing us in Ireland to re-create the myth that duping Catholics and Protestants to collectively kill Germans somehow represented a golden era of political maturity.

As Westminster abandons significant sections of the welfare state (with help from Stormont this week on public sector pensions) Britain’s dead in the Great War have been conscripted as foot soldiers in a public relations offensive.

The job of most of them, then as now, is to disguise poverty as patriotism at home and dress up aggression as justice abroad.

Oh dear, you say, what a harsh view.

You may have a point, but it aligns you with British Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Are you sure you want to be there?

Mr Gove leads the British expeditionary force, which attacks anyone who questions the view that Britain fought for freedom, in what he calls “a noble cause”. (The British have an odd view of freedom. It apparently means the freedom to deny freedom to others. In 1914 the British Empire illegally occupied over 50 countries and other territories, including Ireland, presumably in the interests of freedom.)

Ah but, you say, Britain was a bastion of democracy. No, actually. At the outbreak of war, 40 per cent of adult British males had no vote. In Germany every adult male could vote in national elections. Not that the Germans were any less imperialistic than the British – they were just that bit slower at collecting colonies.

Mr Gove’s heavy artillery in his battle against reasoned argument is Eric Pickles, Britain’s Community Minister. (Why hasn’t Stormont got a community minister?

Oh yes, we would need two of them.)

Mr Pickles boasts of “British liberties of freedom of religion” – in a country where a Catholic cannot be monarch. (Now, that’s proper British freedom – not that foreign, rubbishy concept of freedom.)

He is organising commemorative World War I events, including funding for two children and one teacher from every maintained school in Britain to visit battlefields on the western front. There they will understand “the scale of the suffering inflicted by the war.” (If suffering was inflicted by war, this war was inflicted by the British government’s decision to fight at that time, the military stupidity of the British high command and, sadly, the foolishness of those taking part.)

Behind Gove and Pickles come the more liberal battalions, led by people like Jeremy Paxman, who appear to suggest that the war was something which just happened, not an outcome of political decision-making to preserve the Empire.

They adopt a less jingoist and more human approach, but they still infer that there was no alternative to war. (Now, where have we heard that argument before?)

Here in the North, history is more complex. Most unionists will slavishly follow Gove and Pickles, but how will nationalists react?

For republicans, the decision is simple: the men and women of 1916 were right to serve neither king nor Kaiser. (They were certainly the only people at that time who offered social and economic objectives to justify their actions.) But the war commemorations represent a dilemma for modern constitutional nationalists in Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

They now accept British rule, the legitimacy of partition and the right of unionism to veto an all-Ireland republic. Despite this, they have been largely snubbed by unionism and prevented from implementing social and economic policy in Stormont.

Will they continue to mirror unionism in supporting the war? Constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, argued in 1914 that a British victory would be good for the Empire, because the war was being fought for right, religion and morality. (Germans can be so immoral.) But modern nationalism’s support for the European Union means it can hardly join Redmond in criticising Germany or justifying war. Alternatively, if nationalists support the 1916 rebels, they are effectively saying that those who died at the Somme were fools. This means that Peter Robinson may never sit in the new, light-blocking stands at Casement Park and all that poppy-laying will have been in vain. Commemorations for the Great War will highlight political nationalism’s current position in no-man’s land. Let us wait and see how it paints history to find a way out. In the meantime, whatever you do, don’t mention the Great War.