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3 February 2005 Edition

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Debating the act of remembrance


There was a glorious moment on Saturday afternoon in the Bogside when it seemed as though Gregory Campbell MLA of the DUP had come to participate in the Conflicts of Remembrance panel debate so that he could actually engage with the nationalist community; to share in an open and constructive way the hopes and fears which each community holds, where those respective hopes and fears might intertwine and how the community collectively should remember the victims of 30 years of conflict.

Then he went and spoiled it by speaking. As soon as he did, it became apparent that he had come not to listen or share, or even debate in any meaningful fashion, but rather that he had come simply to harangue his audience and tell them, in his words, "the way it is". That is, tell them that dull, reactionary, absolutist, non-negotiable, blinkered unionist interpretation of the world which nationalists in the North have had unrelentingly shoved down their throats since the creation of the six-county statelet.

According to Gregory, 'the way it is', is that much of the nationalist community in Derry is backward, sectarian and possessed of a ruthless desire to ethnically cleanse every Protestant from the Cityside,

The idea for a debate on how the very act of remembrance can itself become a site of conflict may have been partly prompted by the controversy surrounding the decision last year by Gerry Ó hEára, the Sinn Féin Mayor of Derry, together with Maureen Heatherington, also on the discussion panel, to hold a collective act of remembrance for all the dead of the conflict, without any exceptions. Unionists, outraged that the event included IRA members, publicly and furiously denounced the very idea and boycotted the event.

For Gregory, it was all very simple. He did not like the "liberal tendency" that all victims of conflict should be commemorated equally as part of the process of conflict resolution. Only the 'innocent' dead would be acknowledged by the unionist community, he said, a statement which carried with it the implicit suggestion that the DUP and their like will reserve for themselves the right to decide who is an 'innocent' victim and who is not and is thus not worthy of commemoration.

He wanted to make it very clear, he said, without any ambiguity, that he "would not be prepared to give any support to any remembrance mechanism whereby the murderers were treated in the same way as those they murdered. That is not something I have tolerated in the past, will tolerate now, or will tolerate in the future".

He clearly did not see any contradiction between that position and his willingness to attend commemoration ceremonies for British soldiers who have murdered innocent civilians, in Ireland and elsewhere, and who have since themselves died.

Responding to Gregory Campbell, Ó hEára welcomed him to the Bogside, but also reminded the audience that whilst Campbell complained that in the past he could get no takers for his offers to speak, Ó hEára had himself sat within four feet of Campbell in Derry City Council chamber for the past 16 years without ever so much as exchanging a 'hello' with him. He added that when a journalist had asked Campbell why he would not speak to him, Campbell had responded that Ó hEára was a "non-person". To this day, Campbell simply refuses to speak directly to any member of Sinn Féin.

On the subject of who was 'innocent' and deserving of remembrance and who was 'guilty' and so not, Ó hEára said he was unapologetically part of that "liberal tendency" Campbell objected to, and could not agree with the simplistic good-guys-bad-guys paradigm presented by him. One of the reasons he could not, he said, was because his period in office as Mayor had forced him to consider more deeply than he ever had before the complexities around the issue of commemoration.

He pointed out that the annual British Legion commemoration includes all British soldiers who have died in conflict, not just those who took part in the World Wars. "That includes the people who killed citizens in this city on Bloody Sunday, and it includes British soldiers who have killed other innocent civilians in this community," he said. He asked whether it was reasonable to expect that, after witnessing what happened on Bloody Sunday, he should take part in any event commemorating those very soldiers.

But, he said: "I thought to myself, could I go to such an event? And actually I could. It's very militaristic, with Union Jacks and the Queen — stuff that I would not be all that comfortable about — but I probably still could have gone along. But then I come at this as a republican who doesn't see the world in the black and white terms that Gregory does.

"As we leave this conflict behind, I see remembrance and reconciliation and I see that I have to change my attitude. Every British soldier and every ex-British soldier is not a demon or an enemy that I have to hate for the rest of my life. People like me have to say, that was the conflict, and if that person had been born into my community then perhaps ... or if I had been born into that community then perhaps... All the people who died as a result of the conflict are victims; every one of them."

And he pointed out the irony that, for all the highly vocal insistence from the DUP and other unionist parties that mayors from nationalist communities attend British Legion commemorations, if he did ever turn up at the Diamond on Remembrance Sunday, the likelihood was that the DUP would be the first people to walk away in protest.

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