Unionist leaders say they are looking forward with optimism for Northern Ireland in 2016 – but have also warned about the risks of rewriting history.
New Year addresses from the DUP and UUP have highlighted the significance of this centenary year for two iconic events – the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising – but also vowed to challenge any historical revisionism.
July 1 1916 saw almost 5,000 young men from the 36th Ulster Division fall on the first day at the Somme, wiping out much of that generation in the defence of freedom against Germany.
The Easter Rising meanwhile – where Irish republicans seized key sites in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic independent of Britain – is seen by some unionists as having inspired decades of subsequent Irish republican terrorism, whereas nationalists view it as critical to the creation of the modern Republic of Ireland.
Referring to both events, Catholic Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin warned of “revisionism or false glorification of the past with its tragic loss of human life on all sides”.
And while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood emphasised mutual understanding in both celebrations, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams extolled ‘the rising’ at length – but neglected entirely to mention the Battle of the Somme centenary.
The New Year addresses included a strong message from new DUP leader Arlene Foster that she intended to take her party forward to improve opportunities for everyone, both she and Sinn Fein leader Mr Adams promoting the Fresh Start deal as the way forward for 2016.
However, the UUP and SDLP leaders both fell strongly into the opposition role, expressing scepticism and disappointment with the agreement, and promising change if the electorate gives them majority backing in the Assembly elections in May.
Mrs Foster said she intended to travel to “every corner of our country” in the coming days to sell her vision; “This New Year gives an opportunity for a fresh start.”
Referring obliquely to her own brush with IRA terrorism – a bomb on her school bus and an attempt on her father’s life – she said such scars “should not hold us back on making Northern Ireland great again”.
This year the DUP will announce “a range of policies designed to tackle educational underachievement” and she is looking forward to cheering on Northern Ireland in the European Championships.
She also plainly acknowledged both the Somme and Easter Rising commemorations.
But DUP East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said he hoped republicans “will not endeavour to rewrite history as some have tried to do with more recent occasions marking violent events”.
He added: “Any type of historically inaccurate or undignified commemorative events are totally inappropriate and could be totally counter-productive as this community tries to build a better future.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said everyone “yearns for better” than what eight years of Sinn Fein/DUP-led government at Stormont has given.
Hoping for success for the Northern Ireland football team and Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton, he added: “The year will see the centenary of the Battle of the Somme when I shall again pay my respects at Thiepval and the Ulster Tower.
“It is also the centenary of the Easter Rising, an event the Ulster Unionist Party will mark by exploring the causes and consequences, one of which was the sequence of events which led to partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.”
Archbishop Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, urged that people of faith will shape their understanding of the Somme and the Easter Rising “in the context of Christian values such as love of neighbour, respect for life, reconciliation, hope and healing”.
He added: “Sadly there are many families among us who shoulder grief and nurse wounds that are still raw and hurting from the legacy of violence and years of unrest.
“We have not yet found a way of acknowledging our troubled past without being tempted to control the narrative, resorting to blame and creating hierarchies of victims.
“During 2016 we must resist being so indifferent to the other’s suffering that we engage in revisionism or false glorification of the past with its tragic loss of human life on all sides.
“Instead we should redouble our efforts to find safe spaces where we can genuinely hear one another’s stories and pain, and bolster friendship, mutual understanding, justice and peace.”
SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said: “What is of true importance is that, whether commemorating those who marched on the GPO or those who marched on the fields of the Somme, they are all of them deserving of respectful remembrance. All of them.”
The Sinn Fein leader said the 1916 Proclamation is “a clear statement of intent for an all-Ireland republic built on foundations of civil and religious liberty, social justice and equality for all citizens. It remains the guiding template for modern republicanism”.
He added that his party is committed to supporting victims and “promoting reconciliation and healing”. He did not mention the Somme.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny – speaking ahead of the first Easter 1916 centenary ceremony today in Dublin – said it had sown a seed which changed the old order and has always been “the moment we have chosen to commemorate as marking the birth of our sovereign nation”.