Posted By: June 23, 2013


Parick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, June 22, 2013

GOOD news for those of you who are looking forward to the next 10 years of centenary celebrations – the British government has announced details of another one.

Just when we thought it was safe to watch television again after the Olympics opening ceremony and the queen’s jubilee, Britain is now set on a four-year commemoration of the First World War at a cost of £50 million.

The queen will lead “the nation” (Britain has three nations, Your Majesty, but never mind) in commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the war. The event will take place next year in Glasgow, the day after the Commonwealth Games end in the city. (Oh dear, the games will put Glasgow on the map.)

So what exactly is the point in commemorating war, what do these plans tell us about modern Britain, and how will it all pan out here as we stagger from one centenary of violence to another while preaching peace?

Most commemorations are easy to explain. Their organisers aim to achieve reflected glory from a romantic slice of history (and most history is romanticised eventually) which can then be used for political advantage or just plain self-righteousness.

You might reasonably argue that commemorations are genuine attempts to ensure that selected historical events and people are not forgotten. You could be right but, if you take the 1916 Rising for example, which do you think Pearse and Connolly would prefer – a commemorative march or the implementation of their political and social objectives?

So David Cameron is hoping for a surge in what he would call patriotism to boost his re-election chances by claiming ownership of the war’s victims and their bravery – but not the immorality of the empire for which Britain fought the war.

He aims to boost the idea of a one-nation Britain, which is why the queen’s Glasgow gig will be just a month before Scotland’s independence referendum and why the Scots are organising their own events. Commemorating the First World War will help him to varnish the building blocks of Britain’s self-image which largely date from that era – the empire, built because Johnny Foreigner’s spears were no match for machine guns; Britain’s class system and the plucky British Tommy who died for it; the treachery of the Germans, even though Kaiser William II was Queen Victoria’s grandson and, of course, Christianity, which kept Johnny Foreigner occupied while Britain stole his land.

 It was with those values that under-educated public-schoolboys led ordinary working people at walking pace to face German machine guns. The pointless slaughter inspired some of the English language’s finest poetry and when it was over the dead had their names inscribed on what were then called peace memorials. Britain dealt with its past by renaming them war memorials.

The commemorations are being organised by a committee headed by Tory MP Andrew Murrison, minister for international security strategy. (That probably just means phone-tapping.)

Speaking at Wellington public school (annual fees for day pupils: £22,000) he said that in commemorating a “just war” Britain was pursuing a well-trodden path, facilitated by a habit of victory. Well, that is one version of history. Jeffrey Donaldson is listed as the committee’s “special representative” for Northern Ireland. The First World War, he says, was “a very significant war”. (Few things are more unfashionable than dying in an insignificant war.)

The modern reaction to the Great War here is to praise members of the two main Christian religions, Protestants and Catholics, for temporarily shelving their theological differences so that they could kill Germans in the interests of British ownership of much of Africa. How very Christian of them. We tend not to mention that they were duped into fighting on the same side in pursuit of opposing objectives – one for Home Rule, the other against it.

When the killing ended in 1918, we reverted to pogroms and sectarian violence in the early 1920s, adopting an old ethos for the new state of Northern Ireland.

It was that sectarianism which 40 years later produced Paisleyism and ultimately the Provisional IRA.

Together they plunged us into a war in which under-educated and self-appointed generals led ordinary working people to kill an imagined enemy. The survivors would later return to being ordinary unemployed people, while those who fostered the fighting reaped the benefits.

That is why we do not need to commemorate the Great War here. The conflicting promises it offered ultimately duped us into fighting our own great war. They are still fighting it in futility every day in the Stormont trenches. All we are missing is the poetry.