The most debilitating aspect of argument over Remembrance Day is that the disputants are widely perceived as facing one another across the communal divide.
Mairtin O Muilleoir was assailed last week on social media and in letters pages for allegedly taking a stand with British militarism by attending the Belfast Remembrance Day service.
Insofar as the service was marked, as ever, by reverence for Britain’s armed forces, there was truth in this.
But his attendance also had the character of a cross-community gesture. So to disagree with his presence was to risk being regarded as an opponent of cross-community action.
There will be a resumption of this skewed debate when Martin McGuinness visits the WW1 ‘Peace Park’ in Belgium next month.
The contradictions involved were evident in Mayor O Muilleoir’s statement - “Remember also the fact that many of those who died, many of the Irishmen who died, had joined the British army to fight for the freedom of Belgium, the freedom of small nations.”
He may have been prompted to say this by genuine desire for reconciliation, but he was twisting history in the process. No serious historian argues today that world war one was fought for “the freedom of small nations”.
Maynooth lecturer Brian Hanley’s views on the issue earned him a mention in a Guardian editorial last week as a “nationalist historian”. He spoke for many when he responded: “I am not a ‘nationalist’ historian. Criticism of the headlong rush to embrace the slaughter of the first world war as some sort of unifying force in Ireland is not confined to nationalists. For the record, my colour is red, not green.”
The vast majority of nationalist leaders across Europe embraced the slaughter in 1914 - some on one side, some on the other. It was the interaction of competing nationalisms with rival imperialisms which brought the slaughter about.
Endlessly striving for advantage over one another, the ruling classes of Europe had locked themselves into a series of defence pacts - Germany with Austria-Hungary, Russia with Serbia, France with Russia, Britain and France with Belgium, etc.
A Serbian nationalist assassinated the archduke of Austria-Hungary in protest against Austria-Hungary’s occupation of part of the region. In response, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia then mobilised in defence of Serbia. So Germany declared war on Russia. France then weighed in on Russia’s side. Germany retaliated by attacking France across Belgium. Britain declared Belgium’s cause its own…
This sequence of events is what Mairtin referred to as Irishmen dying “for the freedom of Belgium, the freedom of small nations”. It’s nonsense in the same sense as it’s nonsense today to suggest that wars in the Middle East launched by great powers are waged in defence of “freedom”, or of any other principled cause.
To endorse today’s remembrance events in the name of reconciliation is not only to forget the lessons of history but to blind ourselves to present reality.
Incidentally, Brian Hanley will be speaking about the 1913 Dublin Lockout at a Derry Trades Council event in the Craft Village on December 7th. More on this later.