And all was silence…

12 Nov

Helen’s Tower, Conlig, where the 36th (Ulster) Division trained before the Somme.
photo © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Let me start by reminding any newcomers to my little bit of cyberspace that I am a pacifist. I can’t abide violence, and I loathe the idea of war – its a cruel, senseless waste of life. And so, when it comes to this time of year and the sombre tones surrounding Remembrance Day and the war dead I feel a little conflicted.

My attitude has changed over the years. When you’re a child it seems pretty cool to be driving around in a tank blowing people up. But then you suffer the loss of someone and death takes on meaning. And you get older and you think about the implications of having to fight for your country – a bunch of complete strangers for the most part – and risk being killed or maimed by some horrible weaponry held aloft by some other folk who look just like you, only with different markings on their uniforms.

Maybe its because I grew up during the tail end of the Troubles here, and I can just about recall the fear of going into certain bits of the city centre because of what you might encounter, and the seemingly endless reports on the news about the latest tit-for-tat shooting or bombing. What’s the point? So they don’t agree with your politics, does that really justify killing?

The answer of course is, it doesn’t.

Remembrance Day during my secondary education was always interesting and poignant. We stood around the large Victorian hall, the faces of the school’s war heroes looking down on us from their black and white photographs mounted on the wooden wall panneling – a chilling reminder of how many people who once shared the same space that we did, who had been lost. Remembrance Day always used that space utterly effectively with the school’s lone piper heard in the distance “They grow not old…” getting closer and fading away. Like the closing moments of Blackadder Goes Forth, there is something there that just tugs at one’s sense of reality.

While I cannot condone the slaughter of so many on both sides of the conflict during the 20th century’s World Wars, I can feel sorry for their loss and the pain left for their family and descendants. Of course, that generation of men (and women) returned from war entered into a strange new world, and as time wore on there was a generation who hadn’t experienced the terror and threat of war, who weren’t forced to serve their obligatory military service. The last intake in the UK was in 1960 and in many ways it isn’t surprising that there was a generation who grew rebellious and alternately protesting against the threat of war, but who in this country at least did their best to send us back there.

It is a shame that remembering the war dead has become a political act in Northern Ireland and that to wear a poppy is seen by some to be aligning oneself with the British armed forces and so in some way represent an anti-Irish faction. Originally used by the American Legion in 1920 to remember their war dead, the symbol of the poppy has grown to represent all of the war dead – specifically in the 1914-1918, and 1939-1945 wars, but also conflict since. The emblem comes in many forms, and not everybody who wears a poppy has necessarily contributed a donation to the British Legion’s Poppy Appeal campaign for example. One could make one’s own. The symbol is surely there to represent all of those who gave their lives in Europe in the protection of other countries. The British and Irish soldiers fought not just for the UK, but for France, Poland and all the other oppressed and invaded nations and innocent people.

Why then is a poppy seen as political in Northern Ireland?

By remembering the tragic scale of the loss we honour their memory and legacy, and any right thinking individual will use the moment to drive home the conviction that such a fate should not befall us again.

Yes, the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland has been controversial and far from without fault, but to bite one’s thumb and declare that tens of thousands of soldiers died to protect all of us (North, South and beyond) and it doesn’t mean a thing is disrespectful in the extreme. God forbid that we ever enter a state of war again.

It is with this in mind that I have only the highest praise for Belfast’s incumbant Lord Mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (of Republican party Sinn Fein) who yesterday broke ranks with his party’s long established stance, and attended the Remembrance Day wreath laying at Belfast City Hall. There are those who have picked fault because Ó Muilleoir did not wear a poppy for the occasion – though I have seen photographs of the crowd, and not everybody who was there did either. Wearing a poppy is not essential to remembering the dead. And nor is being a republican politician any reason to not pay one’s respects. In this divided country of ours, Ó Muilleoir has done what so few others seem prepared to do, and has sought to be seen to represent all the people of the city, unionist and republican, protestant and catholic.

This is undoubtedly one of the most important symbolic gestures a man in his position could have performed, and it is an example that I hope Lord Mayors to follow, and indeed other politicians across the country, can follow. I certainly never expected to find myself nodding approval of a representative of a party that has represented some of the worst of this country over the last 40 years, but the steps made and reaching out across our metaphorical divide demand respect, and put many others to shame.

I don’t approve of war, but I can pause to reflect on those who fight and their causes. I have stood in this country before republican and loyalist graves and murals and taken time to read their inscriptions and pause and reflect on their causes. I don’t have to agree, but I can try and understand, and that ultimately is all any of us can do. Attempt to understand, and maybe show some compassion.

It is hard, but the Remembrance Day has never been a day of celebration or victory, instead it is mournful, sombre, and deeply reflective. I have never attended a Remembrance service I haven’t shed a tear at, and have never felt like picking up a gun and waging war myself. And as such, this country needs to remember not just the British soldiers, but the soldiers from all over Europe who fought, and the many thousands of Irish men (both Catholic and Protestant) who enlisted with the British services so that their country would remain free. Belfast was bombed by the Axis forces long before the Northern Irish Paramilitaries got to it –  and those bombs were indiscriminate.

One hopes that in years to come people will not talk so much about the fact that republicans are standing alongside unionists on Remembrance Day, but of a distant memory when a nation’s united loss was marked by further division and upset.

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