I’m not British but I did get to vote in the referendum on British membership of the European Union. Irish people resident in the United Kingdom were one of just three non-Commonwealth immigrant groups that were afforded this privilege, which I felt gave me a real stake in the future of the country that is now very much my home.
Personally, while I can certainly understand popular disaffection with the EU, I was never in the slightest doubt about voting against Brexit. On every conceivable level – economic, social, political and cultural – remaining within the Union seemed to make such obvious sense. The blatantly xenophobic aspects of the leave campaign just made the decision to vote in favour of remaining all the easier; a vote for staying in the EU wasn’t simply an informed political choice, it was a vote against Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, and every mean and petty thing for which they stand. So the result of the referendum came as a shock, not because I hadn’t realised that an ‘out’ vote was a real possibility, but because, in the blinking of an eye, a truly great country seemed to have become palpably smaller and colder.
But the outcome of the referendum is an inescapable reality and, with it, a page has turned in British history. Historians had a lamentably limited impact on the debate about Brexit, despite the best efforts of at least some of them. There is still hope, however, that they may be able to influence the choices people make in the coming months.
The pitfalls of Brexit seem almost too numerous to contemplate. They also seem to increase daily as we descend yet further into political chaos. Indeed, the atmosphere of national jeopardy fuelled by the hour-by-hour machinations of the political elites would be pretty exciting if it wasn’t all so serious. So many things about the result of the referendum give cause for concern that it’s hard to focus on one especially unsettling outcome. Yet whatever else may worry us, the degree to which the UK’s impending exit from the EU has undermined Britain’s relationship with Ireland, and the integrity of the peace process in Northern Ireland, should give everyone on these islands pause for thought.
Given the shadow of uncertainty the result of the referendum has cast over the ongoing peace process, it seems like a good time to reflect on the role history played in respectively fuelling violence and helping people move beyond violence in Britain and Ireland within living memory. The story of the Northern Irish conflict is one of cruelly unexpected death, widespread bereavement, and lives blighted by fear, anger and bitterness. But it is also the story of a remarkably resilient people whose desire for peace led them ultimately to reconsider their attachment to the past and embrace compromise and reconciliation.
For this was a war – and a peace – that was all about the memory and interpretation of history.
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Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another EU state. From the early 1970s until the late 1990s that border was heavily militarised and dotted with army checkpoints and watchtowers. The peace process, which, crucially, was aided a great deal by the EU context in which it evolved, meant that the border had essentially ceased to exist physically for the past fifteen years. The region is unlikely to be re-militarised, but when the UK leaves the European Union there will have to be a functioning border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which, if the Leave campaign’s promises of controlled immigration are to be delivered upon, will presumably have to be policed as such. These altered dynamics directly threaten the close political, social and cultural relations between North and South that have been painstakingly fostered since the emergence of the peace process in the mid-1990s. As with so much about the referendum, no plans seem to have been put in place to address this potentially very dangerous outcome.
One of the more compelling arguments David Cameron put forward as he led the ill-fated campaign to keep the UK in the EU is that steadily increasing levels of inter-state communication and collaboration have helped preserve peace in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. It is certainly true that those who envisioned a more unified Europe during the darkest days of the Nazi terror hoped that greater economic and political integration would ensure that European states would become so interconnected that it simply wouldn’t be possible for them to go to war against each other. It is also quite obviously the case that no inter-state conflict has occurred in Western Europe since 1945. Yet while no two western states have gone to war over the past 70 years, there has been a great deal of political violence in the region, most notably within the United Kingdom, which was the scene of consistent and often intense violence throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The peace process has trundled on since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and in the past decade or so Islamic fundamentalism and right-wing extremism have generally been regarded as greater threats to British security than Irish republicanism. It has thus been quite easy in recent years to forget just how devastating the conflict we still euphemistically refer to as ‘the Troubles’ actually was. In strictly military terms, the war in Northern Ireland could accurately be regarded as a ‘low-intensity’ conflict, a case of asymmetric warfare that required a military commitment but never the full deployment of the armed forces. And yet between 1969 and the Provisional IRA ceasefire of 1994, over 3,500 people lost their lives as a direct result of violence in Northern Ireland or emanating from the region. This includes approximately 1,000 members of the British security forces, over 720 of whom were British soldiers, and about 500 Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. As is usually the case with urban guerrilla warfare or terrorism, however, most of those who died were unarmed civilians; no fewer than 1,800 British and Irish civilians were killed over the course of the conflict, often in extremely violent circumstances.
Quite apart from those killed, about 50,000 people – again, mostly civilians – were injured during the Troubles, many of them to the point of permanent disability. These figures, of course, don’t take into account people who escaped injury but were psychologically traumatised by their experiences and those who suffered intense bereavement as a result of the killing (and mental health problems remain a major issue in Northern Ireland). Nor was the conflict contained within the relatively small area of the six counties, a region not much bigger than Yorkshire; violence consistently bled across the border to the Republic of Ireland and to Britain, where London, Birmingham, Brighton, and Manchester were all bombed with significant loss of civilian life. The sheer number of British soldiers stationed in the North – some 22,000 at the height of the Troubles in the mid-1970s – also meant that families in Britain who had no other connection to Ireland were touched by the conflict in a very real way. In diplomatic terms, the war put a continuous strain on relations between the UK and Ireland, with the North being a constant bone of contention between the British Foreign Office and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Atrocities committed by the British security forces also occasionally stoked popular Anglophobia across the island. At a time when Anglo-Irish relations are warmer than at any other point in history, it is sobering to remember that in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, an angry mob burned the British embassy in Dublin to the ground.
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Rigid, exclusive and often highly territorial understandings of the past directly fuelled the violence that erupted so catastrophically in 1969 and the polarisation and cultural entrenchment that would mark the next few decades. On the one hand, nationalists across the island, and Republicans in the North in particular, regarded themselves as heirs to a rich and ancient Gaelic culture, whose ancestors had been systemically dispossessed, marginalised, exploited, and murdered by colonists from the neighbouring island. On the other, many Ulster unionists were proud of a history of colonial settlement dating back to the early 17th century, in which industrious, god-fearing Scottish and English Protestants carved out a niche of British civilisation in an otherwise wild and inhospitable corner of Ireland. Importantly, the memory of moments of suffering or victimhood experienced by the tribes that clung to these narratives helped sustain them. For Unionists, there was, and remains, the 1641 Rebellion, the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. Nationalist identity, by contrast, was informed by memories of the Cromwellian conquest, the 1798 Rebellion, the Great Famine of the 1840s, and a hundred other moments of calamity and betrayal.
Yet the modern historical episode that would have by far the greatest influence on the perpetuation of divided identities in Northern Ireland, and across these islands more generally, was the First World War. Well over 200,000 Irishmen, from both political traditions and all walks of life, fought in the war, and somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 of them died as a result of military service. They served in every branch of the British armed forces and often served with great distinction. As military conscription was never enforced in Ireland, moreover, most of the Irishmen who fought in the conflict were wartime volunteers. Their motivations for volunteering were often quite complex, but one major reason that so many Irishmen joined up is that they were strongly encouraged to do so by their political and spiritual leaders, and by the British government. The war was consistently sold to the Irish people as a conflict in which Irish interests were very much at stake, and in which Ireland was a quasi-independent and willing participant. The conflict was also widely interpreted by Irish political leaders, both Nationalist and Unionist, and indeed by the Catholic and Protestant clergy, as a morally righteous endeavour; as a just war. Irrespective of their religious or political backgrounds, many Irishmen who joined the armed forces, at least during the first two years of the war, thus believed they were fighting for Ireland and were regarded as patriots.
And while Unionists and Nationalist soldiers rarely served together, they shared similar experiences of violence, loss and deprivation on the Western Front and elsewhere. Yet the Easter Rising of April 1916, and the social and cultural forces it unleashed, would fundamentally transform the country to which many Irish veterans returned in 1919. Ultimately, the Rising, the subsequent War of Independence, and the partition of the island would ensure that the ways in which the Unionist Community in the North and the Nationalist community across the country engaged with the memory of the First World War were very different indeed.
For the men and women of the Unionist community in Ulster, the memory of the Great War in general and the Battle of the Somme in particular took on an almost sacred significance over the course of the 20th century. The blood sacrifice of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division, who sustained such terrible losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, was regarded as having purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence. Commemoration of the war is thus not simply an element of Unionist culture, it is absolutely central to way Unionists understand themselves and their place in the world.
In independent Ireland, and among nationalists in Northern Ireland, commemoration of the war was much more complex and usually more muted. In the 20s and 30s, major Armistice Day ceremonies were held in Dublin, Cork and Limerick and poppies were quite commonly worn in the Free State between the wars. Nationalist politicians, including Eamon DeValera, also expressed a certain amount of reserved sympathy for Irishmen who had died while serving in the British Army. Indeed, in terms of housing, employment and pensions, veterans of the Great War were often treated reasonably well by the Irish Free State. And yet there can be no doubt that at a popular and official level, there was much more commemorative emphasis on the rebels of the Easter Rising and the men who served in the IRA during the War of Independence than on the Irishmen who served on the Western Front or at Gallipoli. There was also something of a popular notion that the Irishmen who fought the British Empire at home were more patriotic, and indeed heroic, than those who fought the German or Turkish empires. As the century wore on, the memory of the Great War faded across much of the island, and, outside the Unionist community, service in the British Army was rarely recalled with pride or recognised with esteem.
This division in memory between Unionists and Nationalist was very clearly revealed in 1966, the year in which the fiftieth anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme occurred. Commemorations of these events were highly divisive and fed into the cultural polarisation in Northern Ireland, which directly fuelled the violence that erupted in 1969 and would continue until the mid-1990s. The public Nationalist celebration of the men and women of the Easter Rising in parades and ceremonies across the region was regarded with great suspicion, and indeed contempt, by many Unionists, who focused exclusively on the anniversary of the Somme offensive later in the year. The intense focus on the past in 1966 further polarised communities across Ulster and contributed to the rise in prominence of Ian Paisley, a firebrand preacher whose intransigent anti-papist rhetoric was taken straight from the 17th century. In the Republic, virtually all of the commemorative emphasis that year was on the Easter Rising. The mid-sixties thus marked the emergence of the simplistic and misleading idea that, during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath, Irishmen either fought for the British Empire or they fought against it.
By the 1980s, nationalist memory of the period of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence was not necessarily triumphalist, but it was exclusive and territorial in the sense that there was little room in the popular or official imagination for anyone who did anything other than fight against the British in 1916 or in the years afterwards. The 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the Great War and, importantly, those who had been against all forms of violence, were thus largely forgotten in the Republic. Commemoration of the First World War was also generally regarded as an exclusively British or Irish Unionist tradition. The Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday ceremonies that did occur in the Republic during the 1970s and ‘80s took place behind the closed doors of Protestant churches or schools. In a key indicator of division, the public wearing of poppies, a custom staunchly adhered to by northern Unionists, was virtually unheard of among the rest of the population during this period.
The sense on the part of many nationalists throughout the 1960s and the following decades that commemoration of the First World War was, and should be, the preserve of Unionists and Brits was generally a function of ignorance or indifference rather than antipathy towards those who had fought in the conflict. Any cultural association with the British armed forces was anathema to extremist republicans, however, and in November 1987 the Provisional IRA expressed its contempt for Unionist commemoration with one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. The bombing of the Remembrance Sunday service at the cenotaph in Enniskillen was not simply an attack on unarmed civilians, but a sectarian assault on Unionist culture and the public remembrance of the dead of the two world wars. The bombers took the lives of eleven people, all Protestant and most of them elderly, and the incident was widely condemned as an indefensible massacre. Expressions of sympathy for the victims poured in from across the Britain, Ireland and the wider world, and many within the republican movement began to question their either tacit or active support for the IRA’s armed campaign.
The Remembrance Sunday bombing was a particularly dark episode in the history of the Troubles, but it also arguably marked a turning point in the way in Irish people engage with the memory of the First World War. Over the next number of years, the Farset Youth Project, an initiative that was already bringing disadvantaged teenagers from both sides of the divide in Belfast and from Dublin together to explore early Christian history, began to focus on the Irish experience of the Battle of the Somme. These efforts led to a well-attended cross-community event at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in 1989 and to the formation of the Somme Association, an organisation committed to honouring the ‘sacrifices of all those from Ireland who served in the War’ in 1990. Attempts to raise awareness about the cross-community experience of the war in the North coincided with a resurgence of interest in the First World War in the Republic and gathered pace in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994.
The Good Friday Agreement, a historic British-Irish treaty that was years in the making and enshrined some fairly major concessions on both sides, was signed and ratified by voters across Ireland in 1998. In November that year, President Mary McAlesse and Queen Elizabeth II came together to open the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in West-Flanders. The men of both the mostly Nationalist 16th (Irish) Division and the mostly Unionist 36th (Ulster) Division had fought at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and the location was deemed appropriate for a manifestly all-Ireland site of memory, mourning, and commemoration. The park features a modern re-construction of an ancient Irish round tower, which really stands out in the Belgian countryside, along with several stone tablets inscribed with the words of Irish soldiers who served on the Western Front. Importantly, the park also contains a memorial plaque that expresses unreserved regret, on behalf of both communities, for the years of violence in Northern Ireland.
The creation of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, conceived of by the Unionist activist Glenn Barr and Fine Gael politician, Paddy Harte, was a ground-breaking moment in the history of commemoration on these Islands. It is, of course, notable, however, that the memorial was established in neither Britain nor Ireland but on the ‘neutral’ territory of a former war zone in Belgium. Since 1998, instances of cross-community or Anglo-Irish remembrance of the First World War have become more common in the UK and Ireland and still have the power to impress. The first British state visit to Ireland, which took place in May 2011, was such a success partly because Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese directly and publicly confronted the historically troubled relationship between the islands. When the Queen bowed her head at the Republican memorial in the Garden of Remembrance on the second day of her visit, with the same reverence she shows every November at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, even the most cynical among us were won over.
More recently, in July 2014, a project jointly supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Government and the Glasnevin Trust, culminated in the dedication of a Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. These stone crosses, inlaid with a bronze sword, were originally erected in cemeteries across the globe containing the graves of more than forty British or British Imperial dead of the Great War in the 1920s. The one place in which this tradition was not observed was the Irish Free State, where the political climate was such that iconography associated with the British Empire was unwelcome. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War felt like an appropriate moment to rectify this cultural anomaly and, importantly, to organize an event that would bring Irish and British representatives together to express solidarity with the suffering experienced by their ancestors. One of the most symbolic and moving features of the ceremony was the presence of two colour parties composed respectively of soldiers of the Irish Defence Forces and the Royal Irish Rifles, a British regiment composed largely of recruits from Northern Ireland. The latter were the first British soldiers to be seen in Dublin since the early ‘20s, and the sight of them greeting their counterparts in the Irish Army with broad smiles and handshakes made the event seem all the more powerful and momentous. The choice of Glasnevin for the unveiling of a monument to the Irish dead of the First World War was both deliberate and highly significant. The cemetery is also the final resting place of hundreds of men and women who participated in the Irish struggle for independence and the unveiling of the Cross alongside more manifestly nationalist memorials complicates our understanding of the period of the First World War and the Irish Revolution. The message this juxtaposition of monuments sends is that there was a remarkable degree of overlap between the Irishmen who fought imperial tyranny on the continent and those who fought it at home, and one group does not have to be remembered at the expense of the other.
These events, and dozens of other less official but no less meaningful projects, reflect the emergence of a new, more positive and conciliatory commemorative culture on these islands over the past two decades. Politicians, diplomats, community leaders and ‘ordinary’ men and women from very disparate backgrounds now regularly come together to remember their dead in a way that would have been unthinkable just fifteen years ago. There is a distinct irony in promoting a shared memory of the bloodiest war in British and Irish history to help people come to terms with, and move away from, the violence of the much more recent past. But it’s an irony that anyone with an interest in lasting peace should be prepared to embrace.
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Through its border and its shared history with Ireland, Britain is even more connected to Europe than it sometimes remembers. That same shared, complex, troubled history should remind us of other things. It is not so long since conflict tore lives apart within the borders of this state. Cooperation between neighbours helped resolve it. The European Union helped resolve it. Finally, a recognition that Britain’s history is inextricably intertwined with those of its neighbours, helped resolve it.
As we enter an undeniably new era in the history of North/South and Anglo-Irish relations in the aftermath of the referendum, we should remember that the road to peace in Northern Ireland and positive relations between the UK and the Republic was long and arduous. The relative stability that prevails in the North now simply could not have been achieved without years of effort on the part of political leaders, diplomats and, crucially, without the goodwill of ordinary Irish men and women from both of the ancient traditions and both sides of the border. The process of using more complex historical narratives to help people move away from a conflict that was shaped by understandings of the past will not be jeopardised by the UK’s break with the European Union. Peace in Northern Ireland, and thus within the United Kingdom, is dependent, above all, on people’s desire for peace. That desire remains strong, but the climate of uncertainty that now pervades these islands should remind us that lives are potentially at stake and that lasting peace should never be taken for granted.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-editor of the Historians for History blog.