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16 March 2006 Edition

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Opinion: Republicans must recognise reality of Irish who fell at Somme

Common Irish experience of a futile slaughter

As an Irish republican I oppose British government in this country. Ireland's history has been dominated by conflict. The republican experience of this conflict is one of domination and repression by the British state. In response to these conditions there emerged the history of Irish rebellion. It is inside the frame of rebellion that I find my historical and political roots.

At Easter I remember all those who gave their lives so that Ireland would be free. Yet this political memory sits alongside the personal memory of a grandfather who served with the British Army in India and South Africa and an uncle torpedoed off Dunkirk while serving in the Royal Navy. In my father's family brothers served in the British Army, the Free State Army and the IRA.

While it is my wish to recognise the suffering of Irish soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, I am unable to attend any remembrance ceremony whose format is heavily militarised with regiments of the British Army whose duty remains the defence and protection of the British state in Ireland. I am in no doubt as to the purpose and objectives of those regiments of the British army garrisoned throughout the Six Counties.

The history of the British Army in Ireland is a deep wound embedded in the historical experience of Irish republicans. That wound festers to this very day. This is the reality of my life and that of my community. But that reality must not paralyse me, nor should it hide the challenge of engaging with the historical complexity of our past.

Military service in the British Army has a long and enduring history on this Island. The reasons for joining were varied and complex; being a soldier in the British Army didn't always place the politics of a soldier in a pro-union frame. The history of the British Army in Ireland weaves like a thread through the history of this Island. We cannot escape from this history, we can deny it but we can't wipe it away.

The Battle of the Somme raged for five months ending on 18 November 1916. From January 1916; the beginning of the battle of Verdun, to the end of the battle of the Somme in November the same year, just under a million German, French and British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives on these two battlefields.

Belfast Sinn F?in Councillor Tom Hartley On the Somme, Irish soldiers, shaped by their politics, religion and the Irish diaspora were everywhere. Divisions formed from Unionists, divisions formed from Nationalists, regiments of Catholics, regiments of Orangemen, regiments from Aden, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. The Irish from Glasgow were there, along with the Irish from Liverpool, Tyneside and London. They were there in the kilted regiments of the Scottish highlands. Many thousands of these Irish soldiers were to be annihilated on the Somme battlefield.

Irish soldiers on the Somme participated in a vast killing machine that brutalised and robbed them of their humanity. In the trenches it was either kill or be killed. Irish soldiers bayoneted, sliced, and bombed their way through the ranks of men in German uniforms.

In the trenches you saw the eyes of the man whose body you rent asunder with your bayonet, you saw his fear and his last moments. Irish soldiers were brutalised and tough.

Yet there was a commonality in the experience of the Irish soldier on the Somme. Death on the western front sought out all, irrespective of their political allegiance.

Given the battlefield conditions in which he served, I can acknowledge the individual bravery of a First World War soldier, while at the same time placing his soldiering inside the frame of a war brought about by the clash of imperial powers.

Those who had fought for the 'freedom of small nations'‚ and lucky enough to survive the Somme, returned to an Ireland in deep political turmoil and soon to be partitioned. Many of these soldiers joined the republican struggle, while many others enlisted with the new Free State Army.

In the north, while Unionists sought to create a Protestant state for a Protestant people, ex-soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division joined the reorganised ranks of the UVF, soon to become the A, B and C specials. It was these ex-soldiers who were to fill the ranks of the state murder gangs, who led the pogroms against the nationalist population in the years prior to partition. Others emerged from the carnage of the battlefield to seek out another military experience in the ranks of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries.

Somehow we need to get past our comfortable memory of the First World War soldiers and begin to deal with the grim realities that shaped their memories. In doing so we may come to understand the true nature of their experiences, which remain precious for many on this island. So precious that we need to guard against its appropriation by those who saw soldiers as faceless battalions whose duty was to die for King and Country. In Britain and indeed in Ireland the memories of the First World War soldiers have been moulded into militarised forms of remembrance. We run the risk that, in such a process, their individuality and humanity will be smothered inside the uniforms of today.

In the aftermath of partition, life in the North was dominated by a British and unionist ethos which forced nationalist and republican political expression underground. The history of the nationalist and republican people was denied all forms of civic expression. Many inside the nationalist community still believe that Unionists, in remembering the 36th Ulster Division, failed to recognise those other soldiers who were lost on the Somme at Hamel, Ginchy and Guillemont. They believe the memory of the 36th, has been turned by unionists into a badge of loyalty for Unionism and the British state in Ireland. As a result, many nationalists have felt unable to participate in remembrance ceremonies which, in their view, excludes their participation and by extension airbrushes out the memory and the sacrifice of that generation of their families who fought and died on the Somme battlefield.

We need to recognise the value of memory to all our citizens and the need to remember in an inclusive way. There is a commonality to be found in remembering the Somme, and the participation of Irish soldiers in the futile slaughter of their generation.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

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