Unionist politicians avoid the big day in Dublin

Handout photo issued by the Defence Forces of marching elements comprised of personnel drawn from Army, Air Corps, Naval Service, reserve Defence Forces, Defence Forces Veterans, and selected Emergency Services as they 
march along O'Connell Street, as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations in Dublin
Handout photo issued by the Defence Forces of marching elements comprised of personnel drawn from Army, Air Corps, Naval Service, reserve Defence Forces, Defence Forces Veterans, and selected Emergency Services as they march along O'Connell Street, as part of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations in Dublin

It was noticeable to any northern eyes which were at yesterday’s Dublin Easter Rising parade that no unionists were present.

Citizens of the Republic will have had other things on their mind than Stormont representatives, but for those of us who live in the Province the absence was striking.

Secretary of NI First World War Centenary Committee. Kingsley Donaldson at Easter Rising event yesterday

Secretary of NI First World War Centenary Committee. Kingsley Donaldson at Easter Rising event yesterday

There is a simple reason why this is so.
Parity of esteem is so entrenched in public political appearances that we are used to seeing Sinn Fein and the DUP side by side at events.

If it is a large event, the first and deputy first ministers will attend. If it is a more minor one, the two OFMDFM ministers will represent the Stormont Executive.

Yesterday, however, only one half of Stormont was there. A glance at the stands on either side of the entrance to Dublin’s GPO, centre of the 1916 Rising, and you immediately saw known local names: current and past SDLP leaders Colum Eastwood, Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie (see video) and Alasdair McDonnell.

And then there, in pride of place, Martin McGuinness (see video) was beside former Irish presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and not so far from the leaders of the two biggest parties in the Dail, Micheal Martin and the outgoing taoiseach Enda Kenny, as well as the current president, Michael Higgins.

So if you were not thinking very sharply, you would subconsciously assume that if you cast your eyes a little further you would find Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson and Jonathan Bell and Mike Nesbitt, as well as David Ford.

We know why none of them attended. The legacy of 1916 is still toxic and there are a number of Catholic Irish commentators, let alone Protestant ones, who reject the legitimacy of the rebellion that happened a century ago.

But yesterday’s remembrance and long (largely military) parade was not triumphalist according to some people who were present who would have been uncomfortable had it been so (see story here).

Kingsley Donaldson, brother of DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, (see video) was impressed at how the event was handled.

The retired Royal Tank Regiment Lieutenant-Colonel had been in one of the prime location stands in his role as secretary of the Northern Ireland First World War Centenary Committee, and had been invited as part of the committee’s wider reconciliation efforts during the decade of centenaries.

After the service, he described it as: “An excellent event of which Republic of Ireland government must be proud. Strong symbology and reflective of Ireland today. Refreshingly short on divisive narrative.

“In sum, a maturity that reflects a country (the Republic) that is coming to terms with itself. Nothing I saw or heard today threatened my sense of identity as a UK citizen.”

When the News Letter asked if he was, like his brother, a unionist, he responded with the discretion of a senior military man and did not say exactly where his politics lay but admitted that he came from “a unionist family”.

He said: “People must recognise that not just rebels but soldiers and civilians were killed and injured at the Rising and we feel it is important that their memories are kept just as much as the rebels themselves.

“There is a really difficult narrative here and the Irish government deserve credit for opening it up.”

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, sitting beside party colleagues (see video), expressed regret at the absence of unionists.

“We’re here to represent the northern counties. We are very disappointed that there isn’t greater representation from the unionist parties given the strident steps that the Queen of England and indeed the president of Ireland has made in terms of reconciliation and uniting together the two nations in terms of recognising the past and trying to build a better future together.”

Mr Donaldson said: “I realise how important this is to the people of the Republic of Ireland and a great number of people in Northern Ireland and I feel that it is important that we respect that, even if we do not necessarily agree with the aims of the time when the events took place.”

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Morning View: Attending Rising celebrations is still a step too far for unionists

VIDEO: Disappointing that unionists were not in Dublin, says Dolores Kelly

VIDEO: McGuinness as Proclamation is read and Irish Army passes

Writers praise the sensitive handling of the Easter Rising centenary celebrations

William Humphrey: Easter Rising was a disaster and unity is a pipe dream