The idea that the British troops killed during Easter week 1916 should be remembered in the same way as those Irish rebels executed in the aftermath of the Rising is without doubt the most controversial aspect of the centennial commemoration plans.
In April 2015 then Taoiseach Enda Kenny let it be known that some form of remembrance of slain British troops would be included in the programme of 1916 events while there are plans to inscribe the names of dead British soldiers alongside republican rebels on a monument to the dead of the Rising at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. One former British Tory MP has also advised the Irish prime minister to visit the graves of slain British troops.
To hear that proposal coming from Fine Gael or British Conservative lips is hardly surprising, but from a Sinn Fein leader in the North?
But that is exactly what Mitchel McLaughlin, the outgoing Speaker of the Stormont Assembly, is proposing. Speaking this week about the importance of Easter 1916 to republicans, he added:
However, I equally acknowledge the need to remember the larger numbers of British Army personnel, police and civilians who were also killed that week.Is McLaughlin’s a lone voice or does he reflect the views of his party leadership? To answer that question it is worth bearing in mind that Mitchel McLaughlin has been a member of the republican movement since the 1960’s but never saw active service in the IRA; that must be something of a record.
A heating and ventilation engineer by trade, he spent most of the Troubles working in the Middle East but rose rapidly in Sinn Fein’s ranks when he returned in the early 1980’s when SF entered electoral politics and he became an increasingly vocal advocate of the then infant peace process. Hard line IRA activists, however, are said to have loathed him.
It is also a measure of how far out of synch these remarks may be with ordinary activists that not even Niall O’Dowd would go that far!
British who died in Easter Rising should be remembered, says Sinn Fein’s McLaughlin
|British troops load a vehicle during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916|
Stormont’s first republican Speaker has said there is a need to remember the British soldiers, police and civilians who died during the Easter Rising.
Mitchel McLaughlin, who is standing down after 18 months in the post, also admitted he had only learned about the role of Irish nationalists in the First World War in the last few years.
At the first of two events at Stormont to commemorate the 100th anniversary of both the Rising and the Battle of the Somme, the senior Sinn Fein figure said one of the issues facing society here is that many people only know part of their history.
“The events of 1916 particularly symbolise that – with a division in our community over whether 1916 should be remembered mainly for the Battle of the Somme or the Easter Rising,” he said.
Mr McLaughlin said that throughout his term in office, he had been “warning about whether we want the decade of centenaries to be about narrow back-to-back events in which different parts of the community reflect solely on the narrative with which they are most comfortable”.
He said: “Alternatively, these anniversaries could provide opportunities for reconciliation, to come together to learn about our shared history, seeking to respect and understand why we might view them differently.
“If we are truly going to move forward as a society, we have to accept that every event in our history will mean more to some than to others, and often will mean completely different things.
“It should be entirely possible for us to reflect on events which have had a tremendous influence on our history in a respectful, inclusive and non-confrontational way without diminishing our own personal politics.
“We might each have our own difficulties and perspective on aspects of our history, but nonetheless we need to acknowledge that they have all influenced where we find ourselves today. We can’t ignore that our history is a complex weave of background factors and events which shaped and influenced each other.”
Mr McLaughlin said last night’s event focused on Easter 1916 and meant a lot of him personally “because of the ideals of those who sought and died for the cause of Irish independence and the values behind the Proclamation”.
“However, I equally acknowledge the need to remember the larger numbers of British Army personnel, police and civilians who were also killed that week.”
He then went on to ask: “Maybe there might be value for us all in thinking about how someone like me only gains an awareness in my 60s of the role of Irish nationalists in the First World War?
“I have no doubt that this is mirrored by a similar lack of awareness within parts of unionism of the detail of the events around Easter 1916.
“I don’t pretend that looking back on history in a respectful, inclusive and non-confrontational way is necessarily easy to achieve.
“However, attempting to understand it in hindsight and listening to the perspectives of others can only benefit our society today.”
Dr Johnston McMaster, of the Irish School of Ecumenics, will speak at both the Somme and 1916 events organised by the Assembly Commission which runs Parliament Buildings. The Speaker, who replaced the DUP’s William – now Lord – Hay, said as an academic and historian who had worked on reconciliation and commemoration, Dr McMaster was “the obvious choice” to address both the Easter Rising and the Somme – an event which will take place after Mr McLaughlin leaves office.
He said the events have “created the opportunity to address the challenges of historical context, sensitivity and awareness”.
Mr McLaughlin has come in for strong criticism after he argued republicans would not have viewed the murder of Jean McConville, one of the Disappeared, as a crime.
And after a 2011 Historical Enquires Team report blamed the IRA for murdering 10 innocent Protestants in the Kingsmills massacre, Mr McLaughlin responded by saying that the party believed “the denials by the IRA that they were involved”.