Hamill’s Beat - Decade of anniversaries will be a big test for us

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Brace yourselves! We’re facing a decade of anniversaries. It’ll be a big test. Will we keep our reputation for simple-mindedness or will we at last show some signs of growing sophistication?

Nelson McCausland recently announced funding for Gaelic games, soccer and rugby but there was nothing for our oldest and most popular ‘sport’. Cross-community it isn’t but it’s equally popular on both sides. It’s old-fashioned coat-trailing.

In its halcyon days hardly a Saturday went by without a march and counter-march somewhere. People travelled from all arts and parts to take part. Recently it may have lost some of its appeal. As its champions grew older, when it no longer suited their political careers, they distanced themselves from the ‘sport’ they had done so much to promote. But there’s a danger that a new generation of zealots could emerge and they could try to revive the time-honoured pastime. Our decade of anniversaries will provide them with many golden opportunities.

Kick-off won’t have anything to do with the Olympics. We didn’t get our act together in time for that. (More on the Olympics later.)

The unionists’ big do next year will be the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. Back in 1912, the Liberal government in London was determined to push on with Home Rule for Ireland. Unionists were literally up in arms. On “Ulster Day,” (28th September) 417,414 signed a solemn pledge, to resist Home Rule by all necessary means and to refuse to recognise the authority of any parliament the British forced upon them. Many signed in their own blood. It has to be ironic that ‘unionists’ were planning rebellion!

For republicans the centenary of the 1916 Rising will be the main event. England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. With neat Christian symbolism, the rising began on Easter Sunday. Sections of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army seized key buildings in Dublin including the GPO. The following day, Patrick Pearse came out onto the steps of the famous O’Connell Street building and declared the establishment of the Republic. The proclamation was an honourable document. It pledged the Republic to cherish, “all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” When the rising collapsed all seven leaders who had signed the proclamation faced a firing squad.

The Covenant and the Rising were seminal in the history of this island. They helped to spawn later developments in the turbulent decade. It ended with the tragedy of partition. There isn’t any doubt about the heroic idealism of many involved in both the signing of the Covenant and in the Rising. Despite that, only the most unsophisticated could now say that either event ushered in a great utopia on earth.

In case you think the idea of commemorating these events with provocative marches and counter-marches is fanciful, just consider what happened the last time around. Celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 drove even moderate unionists into a state of apoplexy. Imagine then what they did for the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee. It had 12 members or ‘apostles’ with Ian Paisley as its leader.

The largest republican parade was to be from Belfast city centre to Anderstown. Severe restrictions were imposed on it after Ian Paisley announced plans for a counter-march to the Ulster Hall. Two weeks later severe rioting broke out after Paisley led another march through the Catholic Markets area.

In the intervening half century we’ve endured human misery on an industrial scale but also many more positive developments. Even the once extreme DUP and Sinn Féin parties eventually realised that they needed to understand each other and to try to co-operate. So, have we grown up a bit at last? Time will tell.

Read more from Norman Hamill every Tuesday in the Journal