Mitchel McLaughlin: Respecting all our history

Sinn Fein speaker Mitchel McLaughlin regrets that only latterly has he understood that many nationalists died in WW1
Sinn Fein speaker Mitchel McLaughlin regrets that only latterly has he understood that many nationalists died in WW1

This year, Parliament Buildings will be lit up in orange to mark the Twelfth of July for the first time.

I believe it is an important gesture. I am the Speaker of the Assembly of a diverse society.



Its home should reflect that society, including the Orange tradition as one part of our shared history which is deeply cherished by many.

While it will be challenging for some, as a community we must acknowledge the huge influence the Orange tradition has had on shaping our history.

My approach is simple, you can’t expect anyone else to respect your culture if you don’t respect theirs. I therefore welcome the opening of the Museum of Orange Heritage because understanding of our history is not increased without effort.

I recently visited the Somme Heritage Centre in Newtownards, another facility doing significant work. I was struck by how it has given a home to so many memorials to those killed in the First World War after their original locations had been demolished over the years.

Alongside that risk of seeing the collective memory eroded from our community, there is also the danger that we all remember our history in a form convenient to only our own perspectives.

We have a shared history. Naturally, we all view it through the lens of our individual backgrounds and influences. We might dislike aspects of our history or the motivations behind it but in a mature society we should be able to respect the right of others to view history differently. Yet our political narratives are often too selective in the parts of history we recall whilst we continue to shy away from exploring those parts which sit uncomfortably with our own views. Ignoring the complex historical weave of background factors and events which shaped and influenced each other is a mistake open to unionism, nationalism and other.

I regret that I have only been awoken in my later years to the fact that so many young men from my tradition gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War. That “nationalist amnesia” is one of the things which will be on my mind this weekend as I represent the Assembly at the Royal British Legion’s Annual Commemoration at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin.

Next year’s centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme will present the choice of whether we pay attention to only the anniversaries which mean more to us personally or whether we seek a better understanding of that shared history which has shaped us all today. Until now the decade of centenaries has been largely marked by inward looking, back to back commemorations by both communities. Potential opportunities to build respect and understanding have been lost.

These centenaries could have value in challenging all our understanding. Might unionists benefit from considering that many of those young Irishmen who signed up to fight for the British Army in Europe also exercised the choice to support the fight for Irish independence? Equally, in remembering the ideals of those behind the Easter Rising, will nationalists and republicans give the same effort to showing proper respect to the larger numbers of British Army personnel, police and civilians who were also killed that week? Organisers of these events face a huge responsibility to ensure that the commemorations are designed to be accessible to all of those who want to acknowledge and understand our shared history.

The prevailing political discourse too often focuses solely on the pre–Good Friday period rather than the potential of the last sixteen years. As the Speaker of an Assembly representing a society which is more multi-cultural than ever before, I can see that selective views of our shared history, or the idea that cultures must compete against and degrade each other, will not offer a positive influence to those who are coming behind us. Amidst all the political challenges the Assembly is struggling with, it will benefit no-one if next year’s commemorations are a further source of mutual aggravation. Alternatively, giving attention and effort to building respect and understanding between our communities might at least serve to increasing understanding, as a first step towards reconciliation.

• Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly