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Ulster Marching Hides Change on the Ground

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Each year when Northern Ireland's marching season comes round, we are reminded of the tensions which still exist on the streets of places like east Belfast. When these appear on the TV screens of viewers in England, Scotland and Wales, many conclude that things have changed little since the Troubles supposedly ended. Nobody with any knowledge of Northern Ireland will deny that it remains a deeply sectarian society in so many aspects of life from education to sport. However, such perceptions overlook the less newsworthy but nonetheless dramatic efforts of many people on both sides of the 'divide'. Some of these efforts go on unnoticed by the media, at grassroots levels of society, and sometimes involve the most surprising of people and the most surprising of topics.

One of the most controversial areas of history and remembrance in Ireland as a whole over the past century has been the First World War. Indeed, some of the most controversial parades commemorate the war. With involvement in the conflict commemorated by Unionists as a mark of their loyalty to 'King and Country' there was little place for Nationalist Ireland in remembrance. That changed in the mid-1990s when people north and south of the border began to discover a more nuanced and complicated past. This work continues to this day.

About ten days ago, I attended an event in Belfast which marked a step along the way and was very different to recent street scenes. This was the launch of the second edition of a book about the 6th Connaught Rangers during the Great War, the result of work by the 6th Connaught Rangers Research Project, launched in 2006. One might expect such a group to be the usual type of military history buffs. But the impetus for this work came from An Eochair, a group of Official Republican former prisoners. They soon drew in people from across the broad Nationalist community, tapping a vein of interest in finding out about the Catholics from Belfast who had enlisted in 1914-18 but later been forgotten.

The project members have spoken much to their own community about their research, but they have also reached out. Among the 80 or so attending were loyalist ex-prisoners, men who would once have had no truck whatsoever with Republicans. Yet those who have been on the frontline themselves, well know the dangers of allowing the events of the past to continue to divide. It is fitting that they are now able to come together in reaching some understanding of what was once divisive but now may offer a shared story.

I am very wary of seeking to place an agenda on the past which does anything other than recognise the difficult aspects of our history. I don't think we do anyone a service if we do not recognise difference. We have to appreciate that in many cases men from the different communities enlisted and fought for very different reasons. It is in nobody's interest to seek to strip away community identities. In particular, if we artificially play down difference, I feel we do a disservice to the men who enlisted for Home Rule and to defend Catholic Belgium, or in great contrast, other men who enlisted against Home Rule and for King and Country. Let us not forget their motivations if we wish to respect their memory. However, in tangible ways, there is a shared story of the First World War for both communities. The postcards which were sent home were the same across the divide. Those pictured in the Connaught Rangers book could be found easily in homes in the Shankill, lovingly stored. The daily experiences of war were much the same. The grief at bereavement was precisely the same. Such experiences do offer some basis of a shared human story.

How that story develops in the future in places like east Belfast is for local people as much as it is for anyone else. A crucial question here, with 2016 approaching, is how to relate the fallen of 1914-18 to remembrance of the Easter Rising? In addressing it, I do feel that we live now in revolutionary times. Ironically, the greatest recent act of revolution when it comes to remembrance was instigated not by a rebel, but by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, when she chose to pay her respects to those who fell for Ireland against Britain prior to the formation of the Free State. Until then, it would have been impossible to imagine any Unionist or Loyalist from these parts performing such an act. But now that the Queen has done so, I wonder if others might do the same? I simply raise the possibility. As Yeats wrote, 'peace comes dropping slow'.