This week’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Bogside comes in the midst of a decade of anniversaries of many of the seminal events in recent Irish history. Half-a-century on, this week has also seen contention and disturbances surrounding the Apprentice Boys of Derry annual parade in Derry-the very same demonstration that was the focal point for the beginning of serious violence exactly 50 years ago.
But, whilst the events of August 1969 in Derry without doubt played a pivotal role in shaping the following decades, in a wider context it was just one episode amongst many more fraught historical events of the last 100 years.
The decade between 1912-1922 was undoubtedly one of the most consistently eventful in Ireland throughout the twentieth century.
Within those ten years the country went through the campaign for Home Rule, World War One, the Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence, partition, the Irish Civil War and the foundation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Added to that were campaigns for social change exemplified by the 1913 Lockout and the suffrage movement.
In combined effect, each of these hugely momentous events left no strata of Irish society untouched or unscathed by the violence that emanated from them. And, the historical shockwaves of some of these events, most particularly partition, also shaped future events in Northern Ireland that literally exploded onto the streets in the late 1960s.
In the Republic of Ireland concerted efforts have been made in recent years to make this decade of centenaries more inclusive and tolerant and respectful. The civic remembrance of those Irish men who fought and died on the British side in WWI has grown for example and the previously unthinkable visit to Dublin by an English monarch has taken place.
Republican leaders once sworn to end Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in Northern Ireland by any means necessary have greeted her with handshakes and smiles. Uncomfortable conversations around these events have also taken place.
In the North, still three years away from the conclusion of this decade of 100th anniversaries, there is the looming prospect of how the creation of Northern Ireland will be dealt with by nationalists and republicans.
The outward signs at least are of course currently not good, encapsulated as they are by the ongoing absence of Stormont. Overlapping it all is the fact that in the North the events of 50 years ago are beginning to come full circle into the realm of major time passed milestones.
So, half-a-century after the Civil Rights movement rocked the foundations of the Northern state to their core, how have we dealt to date with the commemoration of seminal historical events north of the border?
Professor Peter Shirlow is Director at the Institute of Irish Studies at University of Liverpool and was formerly Deputy Director of the Institute of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University. He has undertaken conflict transformation work in Northern Ireland and has used his knowledge to work with former combatants and non-governmental organisations in Yugoslavia, Moldova, Bahrain and Iraq.
“I think we have dealt with these issues in ways that have shown a lot of maturity, especially when it came to commemorating 1916.
“There was a lot of stretching beyond previously comfortable positions and remembering for example the children and the Royal Irish Constabulary who were killed and a realisation that conflict is just not about the commemoration of those who were on ‘your’ side. We are also beginning to look at women in this period who were made invisible.
“There are many ways in which to understand what happened and they are a lot more diverse than we have been told, but we haven’t yet built this into ways of how to deal with our past,” Peter Shirlow said.
The insistence within each community that their version of the stories of the past are the ‘righteous’ versions has been at the root of inter-communal strife even decades after actual conflict has ceased. Heroic versions of the past are something that Peter Shirlow says that as a society we need to look beyond. He added that his research has indicated that Northern Ireland’s different cultures are not necessarily converging on that issue as yet.
Professor Shirlow is also the Independent Chair of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister Employers’ Guidance on Recruiting People with Conflict Related Convictions working Group.
He told the Derry News: “I have found a very strong sense in the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community that the conflict is finished and there’s a need to move on. They don’t want to engage because there’s a sense it’s in the past, that it’s over.
“More people in the PUL community seem to have drawn a line under it-that it was 40 years ago, so there’s a reluctance to engage. A lot of loyalist prisoners came out and went back to work and don’t appear to have the same fascination with the Troubles.
“The republican view of that is they believe loyalists do not want to engage because they are ashamed. It’s not a practical or a sensible view.
“I’ve done a lot of research within Protestant working-class communities and there’s some acknowledgement of history, some reverence for Edward Carson and a degree of asking where we are going, but not a lot of interest in looking back at what happened during the Troubles.”
The academic also said that he senses with the nationalist and republican community a need that their narrative of events “must be proven right.”
So, the Derry News asked Peter Shirlow about how things will pan out when the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland arrives?
It’s an issue he believes which still very much reverberates within the political sphere today.
“The issue of partition is part of the inter-party talks at the minute. We will have to decide whether Northern Ireland is a ‘good place’ or a ‘bad place’.
“We tend not to concentrate on what we have done well. Culturally we are globally renowned-from Van Morrison right through to Snow Patrol’s Crashing Cars being the most listened to song of the 21st century so far. In terms of sport we recently hosted The Open and we have names such as Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, but we don’t use what should symbolise the positive aspects but concentrate on the fractious issue of conflict. It makes us forget how globally regarded we are,” he said.
Professor Shirlow also contends that the all invasive aspects of one-sided commemoration also often obscure the stories of human bravery and kindness that took place during the conflict.
“There are stories of the Troubles where many people put their own lives in danger to save others. I know someone in Ardoyne who took a policeman into their home and him to stop him being killed. It stops the appreciation of victims being someone’s mother or father, son or daughter. And, I’m sure it’s the same in Derry.
“Commemoration doesn’t look at a lot of life experiences or the fact that people on both sides took risks to help protect each other. Commemoration can largely be about the self.”
The Derry News also asked Peter Shirlow if he thinks that at specific times, political parties push their ideas of commemoration onto their prospective voters to purposefully polarise communities?
“There is part of it that is a response to ‘your’ community and that symbolises that these events have power and politicians are sometimes trapped in that. But, of course parties will use that for their own ends.
“If we united on issues like the health service, education, employment and the environment perhaps there wouldn’t be such a focus on identity. However, there are signs that people are exploring other ways to move forward,” he said.
CAPTION: Professor Peter Shirlow, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.
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