Ben Lowry: Why unionists should have been in Dublin on Easter Sunday

Sunday's parade on O'Connell Street in Dublin. Scores of thousands of people and hundreds of dignitaries but no unionists were present
Sunday's parade on O'Connell Street in Dublin. Scores of thousands of people and hundreds of dignitaries but no unionists were present

It was fine weather last Sunday in Dublin, although the forecast had been uncertain for the key day of Easter and the outlook was bad for the days on either side of it.

But the sun was shining most of the morning and early afternoon, during the main commemorations and parade on O’Connell Street to mark the 100th anniversary of the Rising that changed Irish history irrevocably.

I was one of the journalists in a media stand placed close to the entrance to the GPO, which was the centre of the rebellion and the focal point for the anniversary events.

Looking at the nearby stands full of dignitaries, I felt increasingly sure in my conviction that unionist leaders, or at least some of them, should have been there.

It was like a relative whose absence from a family celebration is no surprise after a long feud that has not been fully resolved, an absence that is particularly understandable given that the celebration marked one of the reasons for feud, but whose absence is nonetheless conspicuous and poignant.

If a unionist had gone on Sunday, they would have been sitting in pride of place, near the Taoiseach, the president and past Taoisigh and presidents.

But the fact that you will be treated as an honoured guest at an event is not a reason for attending if you have principled reasons for not going. The arguments against unionists attending any Rising celebration (for it was in effect a celebration, albeit a sombre and dignified one) were powerful.

I won’t rehearse the arguments against the legitimacy of the Rising, because impressive people have done so – not just revisionist writers such as Ruth Dudley Edwards and Kevin Myers, but Catholic critics such as David Quinn, John Larkin and Father Seamus Murphy, as well as a political moderate, David Ford.

One of this week’s most read stories on the News Letter website was the 3,500 word speech by John Bruton, the ex Taoiseach who rips apart the idea that 1916 was a just war (it is still online here).

Yet still I think unionists should have gone on Sunday.

I think that despite the fact that I believe that one of the biggest crises facing unionism is the rapid distortion of the Troubles to depict the British state as having been murderously in hock to loyalist terrorists. This a big lie about a state that plainly acted with restraint in the face of paramilitary terror and prevented civil war.

This distortion (in which the coming legacy inquests are set to play a starring role) is a bid to legitimise a sectarian Provisional IRA campaign that was clearly repudiated at the ballot box by all main communities in Ireland.

Both the Provos and the dissidents today claimed to be the true inheritors of the legacy 1916 Rising leaders – and in a sense they were and are, in that all three assumed a mandate that was not there.

Admittedly, therefore, my own position – that unionists should have gone to Dublin, and that any distortion of history is a very serious matter – is harder to reconcile than that of, for example, Arlene Foster, as outlined in this newspaper today, of both rejecting the narrative and boycotting the ceremony.

But I still think unionists should have gone, and for a number of reasons.

There are times when diplomacy and civility should trump the concerns that an invitee has about accepting an invitation, both on a personal and a national level. It is rarely crystal clear when that time has been reached.

I feel that 100 years is a fitting point at which to end a snub that was once appropriate.

It would have been quite wrong for a unionist to attend the 1966 Rising commemorations when De Valera was still at the helm in the Republic.

Some years ago David Trimble made some unkind, even unpleasant, comments about the Republic of Ireland, which he insisted were taken out of context. But one of his observations, about it being mono-cultural and sectarian, would have been a reasonable description of the earlier decades of De Valera’s Ireland.

His government’s treatment of the World War Two deserters was cruel and, while justifiable in the strict legal sense, outrageous given that they were fighting such an obviously just war as the one against Hitler – a fight that De Valera declined to join.

The Republic has now pardoned those men.

It has changed as a society in countless other ways, overwhelmingly for the better (although some of my early memories are of the less materialistic Dublin and Donegal of the 1970s, and there was something to be said for that way of life).

The sensitive and non triumphalist way in which the authorities in the Republic have approached the centenary has been notable.

Ireland is now a sufficiently settled and mature country that it is open to questioning on some of its own narrative.

Unionists in turn will have to engage with dubious aspects of our own history, such as Michael Portillo’s description in today’s paper of the “dark period” of Conservative Party support for threatened loyalist insurrection against the state in 1914.

Having said that, unionist anxiety at ‘Rome Rule’ then was understandable and borne out by events: the Republic in its first decades was a society heavily under church influence in the way that unionists had dreaded.

Now it is a society that tries to demonstrate its pluralism. This was apparent when the authorities facilitated the 2006 Love Ulster parade in the heart of Dublin, which was another time that I was on O’Connell Street (to the extraordinary background sound of loyalist bands). There was trouble that day but that was not the state’s fault.

If unionists had gone last Sunday, it would not have been an entirely comfortable experience for them. The formal reading of the proclamation would hardly be music to any unionist ear.

I understand the ambivalence that can be felt on such occasions. In 2011 I was in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance for the Queen’s visit. It was simultaneously a moving moment of reconciliation and also a disconcerting affair – the UK head of state bowing to a history in which British service personnel were needlessly targeted.

But Sunday cannot have been entirely comfortable for Martin McGuinness either. He was well-dressed (although it was the first time I have seen him look almost old) and he looked the natural statesman as he applauded the passing military. But he knows that the servicemen and women who were enlisted in the 1990s or before had – as part of their duty – to stop the IRA. Plenty of them still loathe the Provisionals.

There are three other reasons why unionist attendance last Sunday would have been fitting.

The first reason is the implications of that aforementioned fact of the narrative of 1916 being under more scrutiny south of the border than before.

The critique is gaining ground with the passage of time, not losing it. If that debate was not happening, a continuing unionist snub would be right.

Also, Northern Ireland is now protected under the principle of consent. Regardless of what any terrorists might do or say, the territorial claim has been gone for almost 20 years, and abandonment was endorsed by 97% of Republic voters.

Finally, while the unionist view is that the Rising was unnecessary, the British did mishandle the response to it. This is understandable in the context of the Great War, but that mishandling contributed to the situation that we are now in.

Any unionist who attended on Sunday would have earned local, island-wide and even some international kudos (and yes, I did include local in that – it would not have damaged them electorally except with a tiny fringe).

Having shown respect for an occasion that their neighbours cherish, he or she would then have had a more receptive audience in the Republic when they went on to explain politely why they cannot accept the narrative.

The Ulster Unionist Party did not do the first part of that sequence (attend) so it will be harder to get people to listen when it does the latter this week – tries to explain the unionist view, through a series of talks at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Even so, holding such events is the right thing to do.

I will be back in the city for it on Wednesday, and writing about it in Thursday and next Saturday’s paper.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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