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Armistice centenary: why Northern Ireland’s culture divide is still an obstacle to remembering the past

There but not there: a “ghost Tommy” sculpture at the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland., CC BY-SA

As city bells chime 11 o'clock on November 11, 2018, Belfast will join much of the world in observing the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. This will be a solemn, dignified – if not altogether inclusive – affair, affirming at the hallowed ground of the City Hall cenotaph the will to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by so many.

In 2013, Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir broke symbolic ground as the first republican lord mayor of Belfast to participate in an Armistice Day event. Previously, November’s remembrance events in Northern Ireland were boycotted due to the association with the British armed forces.

Read more: Explainer: Northern Irish politics

The ground had been prepared as far back as July 2002 when Alex Maskey, the first Sinn Féin lord mayor of the city, laid a wreath in commemoration of the dead of the Somme, a battle that burns deep in the consciousness of Ulster unionists. That the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) divisions had in fact fought side by side on the Western Front has only been commemorated since 1998 by a common Irish memorial at Messines in Belgium.

Soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division at the Somme.

Still, it would be wrong to claim that remembrance of the two “great” wars is now without friction in Northern Ireland. The last-minute Sinn Féin withdrawal from the centenary Armistice event – citing an unwillingness to be associated with “British imperialism” – can only be seen as a retrograde step where even remembrance itself can be weaponised.

Poppies and peace walls

But the wearing of a poppy can still cause offence when interpreted as a crude affirmation of unionist identity. I have just returned to Belfast after living in Scotland for 10 years, where the poppy is worn unselfconsciously. The decision in Northern Ireland to display this symbol of others’ sacrifice is a cause for regret by some, as it can represent a potent and alien badge of Britishness in Ireland.

This situation may be thawing. Sinn Féin’s recent Irish presidential candidate Liadh Ni Riada indicated she would consider wearing a poppy if elected – admittedly to the chagrin of many hard-line northern republicans. A sour note was also struck with the vandalism of the “Ghost Tommies” sculptures in County Antrim in the run up to the Armistice centenary. This had followed Sinn Féin claims of insensitivity to the nationalist tradition.

The Ghost Tommies are a strong materialisation of memory into the spaces of the modern day, but are not immune from protest in a landscape where the “Tommy” does not inspire universal affection.

When it comes to remembrance events, it is the leftover issues of “The Troubles” that remain as stumbling blocks to accepting difference in Northern Ireland. The physical ways in which identity is expressed and acted out has long been a focus of mine as an urban planner – too often space is not appreciated for the symbolic meaning which it conveys. Any planning which tries to impose technical solutions where there is deeply ingrained ethnic division is likely to come up short. Sensitivity to the meaning of places for people is key.

Belfast’s peace wall which separates the republican Falls Road from the loyalist Shankill Road. Philip Ray/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But not all space in Northern Ireland is actively disputed. While residential areas are often brutally one side or the other – carved out by “peace walls”, murals, flags and other forms of sectarian territory marking – in contrast, neutral spaces such as shopping centres can permit easy coexistence and common understanding.

Shared space can involve using the same space to do different things (Belfast hosts marches and demonstrations from both Catholic and Protestant traditions) or involve cross-cultural engagement through the arts, leisure, mixed residential areas and even casual encounters. Here space can be like a marble cake shot through with different layers of meaning depending on the group identity involved. In this sense, commemorative events and practices can be flashpoints between different groups struggling for dominance.

The weight of history

Fifty years ago the world was shocked at the sight of what is now another memory. TV footage showed the largely Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary violently breaking up a peaceful civil rights march in Derry. The brutality of the police that day in 1968 is an image from which unionism has never recovered, and is regarded as the start of the bloody civil conflict known as the Troubles.

Peaceful civil rights marchers are baton charged by the RUC in Derry, October 1968.

Recent claims by Sinn Féin that its armed struggle had its origins in that Derry march have proven controversial. The assertion by republicans that their movement was in the vanguard of the campaign for civil rights in the 1960s has been hotly contested by civil rights activists of the time.

Lifelong activists such as Derry native (and Catholic) Eamonn McCann emphasise that the movement was about non-violent protest for fairness in public, economic and civic life. He claims that Sinn Féin is constructing a false narrative around its involvement on those terms as grounds to legitimise its 30-year armed struggle:

It seems to me that there’s been a systematic attempt by Sinn Féin to hijack what others have done… [they] rewrite history because they can’t face the truth of history.

It was to the vision of Derry man and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume that the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, paid tribute at the city’s Guildhall on October 5 2018. That vision, yet to be realised, called for an equal recognition of unionist and nationalist traditions on the island of Ireland.

While many heads will be bowed at Belfast’s cenotaph on Remembrance Day, joint remembering of the Troubles remains a long way off. Irish republicanism’s attempt to revise the interpretation of the Derry march reveals precisely why Sinn Féin’s recent appeal to unionism to join in a new inclusive, united Ireland is a double-faced contradiction which makes the endeavour a very hard sell. It is a near-fatal flaw existing independently of any present Brexit diversion over the future of the border.

Empathy from both sides in dealing with commemorating the events of the past requires a dialogue which has yet to take place in Northern Ireland. Against more optimistic expectations recently, the late withdrawal by Sinn Féin’s current Belfast lord mayor from the Armistice centenary has not helped.

Listen to The Anthill podcast on remembering World War I here, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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