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1 February 2016 Edition

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Commemorating our history with respect, generosity and inclusivity – Joe Austin

Uncomfortable Conversations

• Battle of the Somme

Understanding the multiplicity of narratives emerging from the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme presents a real opportunity to develop a shared culture of commemoration across this island

THE 1916 commemorations present Irish society with a unique opportunity to reflect on and to interpret the events that shaped who we are. It is also an occasion to celebrate the lives of all Irish men and women from 1916 onwards who shared the common goal of building a new Republic, a New Ireland.  

The 1916 Proclamation presents two noteworthy challenges.

Firstly, it is an opportunity to engage with the differing unionist narratives and experiences that also engage with the historical complexity of that period.

Secondly, the 1916 commemorations should be seen as a unique opportunity to promote mutual respect and parity of esteem which at its core seeks to promote reconciliation and healing among all sections of our people. 

The story of 1916 cannot be told, let alone fully understood, without reference to the other equally historically significant events – the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force through to the First World War and the subsequent partition of Ireland. 

Understanding the multiplicity of narratives emerging from the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme presents a real opportunity to develop a shared culture of commemoration across this island.  

The planning, design and delivery of significant commemorations should be informed by respect, generosity and inclusivity.  

As Chairperson of the Belfast National Graves Association, my focus in this significant year of commemoration is two-fold. 

Primarily, with the Belfast 1916 Commemoration Committee, my focus is to commemorate this significant historical event and in so doing uphold and celebrate the lives of all Irish men and women who died in successive struggles to deliver the vision of the 1916 Proclamation.  This will be done in a manner that is respectful, sensitive and dignified. Our collective focus must be to make these commemorations openly inclusive. 

Secondly, and as importantly, the Decade of Centenaries – as a common historic reference – presents an opportunity to all republicans for a renewed engagement with the unionist community.

The Uncomfortable Conversations initiative launched by Declan Kearney in March 2012 empowers and mandates republicans to engage with the unionist community, their narratives of the past so that we may better understand each other. If we are genuinely to ‘reclaim the vision of 1916’ it must be on the basis of equality and parity of esteem for all traditions and indeed shaped and informed by the traditions of others who have made Ireland their home.  

2016 presents all traditions on this island with the opportunity to engage in a new conversation – a conversation that is forward looking and which learns from the past, a conversation that seeks to heal the wounds and division of our past conflicts. Such conversations will be uncomfortable for many as we are collectively introduced to the ideas, thoughts and aspirations of others.  

In recent months I attended a First World War commemorative event hosted by the NI World War I Committee, events for Polish National Independence Day and also went to the Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall with Mayor Arder Carson. The presence of republicans at remembrance events is a clear statement of respect as we seek to remember all who died as a result of the First and Second World War I.  For me it is simple. In respecting the memory of the republican conflict deceased, I am also acutely aware of the need to acknowledge all lives lost at the Somme and indeed in our most recent conflict. We must all be sensitive to the human tragedy and loss as a result of all conflicts

In all my efforts I have also found willing and respectful partners from within the NI World War I Committee, the Royal British Legion and from within the loyalist community. This work must be enhanced and strengthened. It demands maximum participation.  These relationships are the bedrock to building a culture of shared remembrance.

The vision of a New Republic was mapped out in the 1916 Proclamation. It charted a future in which sovereignty rested with all the people of Ireland: the Green and the Orange.  The Proclamation remains a freedom charter that republicans commit ourselves and our cause to. It seeks to guarantee religious and civil liberty for all and is rooted in the principles of anti-sectarianism. It defined equality. It addressed Irishmen and Irishwomen as equals.  

Consolidating and stabilising the peace means that republicans must understand and be respectful to the key historic events that shaped unionist culture and identity. As republicans we must make a huge effort to engage people from the unionist community in 1916 commemorative events. These events must be open and inclusive. Our words of reconciliation must be matched by our presence at key commemorative events that are important to the unionist community. 

The best way to ‘Reclaim the Vision of 1916’ is to be guided by the principles, ideals and vision of the Proclamation to build a future together, a future which is not closed to the lessons of the past but which looks to the future with confidence.

Joe Austin is also a former Belfast City Sinn Féin Councillor and is Sinn Féin’s constituency manager in north Belfast.

Editor’s Note: Guest writers in the Uncomfortable Conversations series use their own terminology and do not always reflect the house style of An Phoblacht.


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