Recently I have been considering what motivated an estimated 210,000 Irishmen to enlist in the British Army during the First World War (WW1). That is a question that has exercised minds in Ireland for many years, perhaps more so recently in the context of the upcoming centenary commemorations.
This conundrum is all the more fascinating when we reflect on the fact that the formation, prior to the outbreak of war in Europe, of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers with consequent gun-running operations indicated that we were on the brink of civil war on the question of Home Rule for Ireland.
There is no doubt that in many Irish families there was a long tradition of service in the British Army and that would provide a credible but incomplete explanation. Others may have seen it as a way out of poverty and a means of providing for their families.
But then we have members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers who enlisted for mutually exclusive ideals even though they ended up fighting and dying alongside each other in their thousands on the battlefields at Somme, Messines and Ypres.
It is a fact that members of the UVF joined for patriotic reasons including to fight for the preservation of the British Empire. It is also an accepted fact that many of the Irish Volunteers also enlisted for patriotic motives believing that they were fighting in defence of small nations, (i.e. the defeat of Empires!). Irish Volunteers also believed that the British Government would deliver on the promise of Home Rule for Ireland.
That is why the main focus of discussion and disagreement has always been on those who enlisted out of political motivations and why there is much confusion to the present day on whether or how the sacrifice of those who died in WW1 should be recognised.
As a direct consequence of what has been described as ‘nationalist amnesia’ many annual commemorations to remember the fallen of WW1 have been virtually ignored by nationalists for generations. Undoubtedly, the Easter Rising and the brutal British response, including the executions of the Republican leaders, contributed to a remarkable and generally hostile change in Irish public opinion.
It is perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the tumultuous events of 1914 – 1922 in Ireland that a silence would descend on discussion about the WW1; but can anyone justify that stance today? After all, even if no precise statistics are available, historians agree that at least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000 Irishmen died.
Is it not time for an ‘uncomfortable conversation’ on WW1 commemorations in Ireland and why they are hugely important for so many? Would it not be helpful to know more about the subsequent experience of those who survived the murderous horror of the ‘Great War’? How many friendships forged in the crucible of war and which crossed the political divisions in Ireland continued to flourish in subsequent years?
Or indeed, how many former soldiers enlisted in the newly formed RUC or Special Constabularies after Partition? Or how many other returned soldiers joined the IRA to resist continued British rule in Ireland? What divisions opened up then that continue to this day? Did the comradeship and solidarity of the battlefield founder on the issue of Partition in Ireland?
There can be no justifiable reason to deny the courage or the suffering and sacrifice of the men who fought in WW1. But it is not just those who died fighting for Britain that will be remembered particularly as we approach the centenary commemorations. Nationalist Ireland will also remember, commemorate and celebrate the lives and sacrifice of those who chose to fight for Irish independence and freedom.
We will see remembrance and commemorative events by the established traditions on the island which will present republicanism and unionism with challenges and opportunities. These ceremonies will challenge the commitment of political leaders to the principles of equality and parity of esteem for all political traditions. It will also present them with an opportunity to demonstrate respect for the right to remember.
Therefore let all of us - republicans/nationalists and unionists/loyalists - approach the centenaries of these events in a spirit of respect for difference and initiate dialogue to agree an inclusive and mutual approach to the centenary commemorations.