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4 July 2002 Edition

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Maskey lays Somme wreath


As symbolic acts go, this one could hardly have been any more, well, monumental.

In laying a wreath to the dead of the Somme on Monday morning, Mayor Alex Maskey made a powerful case for Irish republicanism in its best and purest form, the form which seeks to disregard religion and, ultimately, past antipathies, in the name of unity.

It was also a remarkably graceful, individual act of reconciliation by a man who the British Army tried very hard indeed to kill for 20 years or more.

Mayor Maskey's act was important in a number of other ways. Firstly, on behalf of republicanism, he acknowledged the scale of loss and grief experienced by the Protestant community at the Somme. Secondly, he took a vital first step in the process to enable the nationalist and republican communities in the Six Counties, and on the island of Ireland, to acknowledge those members of their own families who, for very different reasons, fought and died on the British side.

He said: "It is in recognition of the sorrow, hurt and suffering left behind for their relatives, friends and comrades. My objective, beyond this, is to seek to identify common ground for all of us in this generation."

Like Martin Meehan, whose grandfather, Cornelius Clarke, lost his life in WWI, there are a significant number amongst us who can name a father, grandfather or great-grandfather who joined the British Army before 1969. Many of them will have fought in one of the world wars. Mostly, however, we tend, for quite obvious reasons, to remember, and commemorate the grandfather or great-grandfather who fought for the IRA in 1916 and beyond. Action in the service of the colonial occupier, no matter how individually heroic it may have been, is difficult to celebrate.

Of course, central to this difficulty is the fact that the Somme commemoration industry has been so thoroughly and often so cynically appropriated by Unionism that to attempt to engage in any sort of acknowledgement of the contribution made by nationalist Ireland has been rendered completely impossible. Remember those images from Portadown two years ago when Orangemen and their loyalist paramilitary friends consciously set about to recreate images of the trenches on Drumcree Hill and thus present their case as analogous to World War I?

The visual shorthand of the fluttering union jack, mud and barbed wire was presented to the world as if the desire to assert and maintain an imagined ethnic superiority, violently if necessary, on others was in some way an heroic stand against oppression (although, some would say that that is exactly what the British were doing in 1916, so perhaps the Orange have greater insight than we give them credit for).

To commemorate a grandfather and great-grandfather who fought and died on the British side in WWI meant having to buy into that nonsense, and with it the whole imperial and unionist ideology which accompanies it. Standing beneath a union jack and a picture of the queen every July and November is really not an attractive proposition for nationalists and republicans.

Unionism has for over 80 years claimed the Somme as an intrinsic part of its culture of political heritage, offering the image of thousands of Orangemen going over the top, shouting "For God and Ulster" to face the Boche, And so they did. But this image effectively excluded the majority of the people of Ireland and it also wrote out of history the thousands of Irish men who went over the top beside them, men who believed the duplicity of John Redmond when he told them that in joining the war effort they would be fighting to "defend small nations" and that Home Rule would be their reward.

As Mayor Maskey said, depoliticisation of commemoration is the key, establishing a form of ceremony which does not alienate almost the entire population and which allows nationalist Ireland to recognize the sacrifices of previous generations whilst still firmly rejecting the overarching political architecture which impelled them into such sacrifice.


A difficult walk into history


The walk itself wasn't too far. It wasn't even a 'dander' in Belfast parlance, more of an amble or a short stroll of a Sunday afternoon. It would be over in a minute if you walked too fast. There was little exertion; no breath loss involved not even a flutter of a heartbeat. But tens of thousands of people's eyes were watching.

In over 80 years, no one else in republican Ireland had ever walked the distance or even thought about walking the distance.

The walk and the walkers were resplendent of symbolism: ten Sinn Féin Councillors, including Mayor Alex Maskey, former Sinn Féin Councillor Sean Mc Knight and Liam Maskey, Alex's brother, walked the 200 yards and broke the mould of nationalist and republican history.

The occasion: the 86th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme last Monday. The location: Belfast City Hall. The event: Mayor Maskey laying a laurel wreath at the cenotaph to Irish First World War dead.

The whole affair - the walk, the laying of a wreath, the minute's silence was over in less than five minutes. The consequences, both timing and impact, would, I guessed, last for a more indefinite period into the future.

As the bells of the Presbyterian Assembly headquarters peeled 9am under a threatening Belfast sky, Mayor Maskey, dressed in funereal attire and chain of office, stepped forward from the Sinn Féin group.

In his hands was a laurel wreath, deliberately chosen by Sinn Féin. The laurel wreath, circular and evergreen, represents eternal memory and life.

Alex, an imposing figure dressed in black against the light grey texture of the City Hall granite, stood in dignified silence in front of the cenotaph for a minute after laying the wreath. The inscription on the wreath reflected republican sentiments for the occasion. It read: "In memory of all the men who made the supreme sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme and during the First World War and in recognition of the sorrow, suffering and sense of loss of their relatives, friends and comrades".

This inscription from Mayor Maskey summed up the republican approach to this controversial event, which had caused much soul searching inside republican circles since Sinn Féin first mooted it shortly after Alec was elected Mayor of Belfast on 5 June.

As we left the scene I heard two unionist onlookers: "Can you believe that? Can you fucking believe what is happening?" I noticed an elderly man, a solitary figure, move to the cenotaph after Alex left. He stood in silence and wept. I later found out he was a nationalist from the Falls Road whose grandfather was killed at the Somme. Alex's presence at the Cenotaph made it easier for the man, for the first time in his life, to publicly pay a tribute to his grandfather.

A short time later I sat beside Sean McKnight in the Council chamber. We observed from the gallery the proceedings. Looking at me and looking down at the same time was the frowning face of a huge portrait of Queen Victoria on a wall opposite where we were sitting.

Below us were the seats used by the King and Queen of England when they opened the first unionist parliament, which was based in the City Hall. Beside them was the table used by unionists to sign, some in their own blood, the 'Ulster Covenant' in 1912. All around us was British and unionist regalia.

I felt very little of the warmth that was supposed to replace the 'cold house' for nationalists which David Trimble said unionists had created after partition but which he promised would warm up following the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement.

Before proposing the formal Council motion Alec made it clear that it was unacceptable to him but a shortage of time and sensitivity left him with no other choice but to propose it

In what could be interpreted as acknowledgement of Sinn Féin's 'monumental step' in the words of the Lord Mayor, former unionist Mayor Jim Rodgers was quick on his feet to second Alex's motion. All councillors then stood for a minute silence.

In those few moments of contemplation, I was struck by the fact that the motion, in its narrow focus on the 36th Ulster Division, airbrushed out of history the many other First World War Irish soldiers who died along with those from the 36th Division.

As I stood in silence I looked forward to the day when a unionist Mayor of Belfast would reciprocate Alex's gesture and attend a ceremony for Ireland's republican dead.

A few minutes later, I was standing where I stood earlier watching the Sinn Féin councillors approach the Cenotaph. Only this time I was surrounded by the armed wing of the British government and the unionist establishment, churches and parties.

An armed platoon of the Royal Irish Regiment, formerly the UDR, were on parade. The UDR, notorious for their sectarian killings of Catholics, were never made accountable for their actions. In the corner, the RUC/PSNI band played and around the cenotaph, now bedecked in union flags, more military personnel were on display. Prayers were said for all those who died during the First World War but special mention was made of those in the 36th Ulster Division. As the ceremony came to a close, the British national anthem was played.

I have no doubt that most of those attending this ceremony did so for genuine reasons but it is quite clear that unionist councillors have used the memory of the sacrifice of the 36th Ulster Division as a badge of loyalty to 'their' state and their unionist view of the world. As a result of this unionist policy, many soldiers of Irish regiments in the British Army who died in the First World War were and are excluded from any formal act of remembrance.

Belfast republicans in the person of Alex Maskey took a bold and correct decision to lay a wreath at the cenotaph. I hope it generates the much-needed debate about remembering our dead in a way that enhances the living.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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