I’ve just come from having my breakfast ( yes, it was lovely, thanks), during which I listened to the top story on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. It was reporting the rioting that took place between police and loyalists near Castlecourt shopping centre last night. It also moved on to consider the republican parade scheduled for tomorrow in Castlederg.
The Castlecourt area rioting was explained by a unionist interviewee. The problem was that a republican parade approved by the Parades Commission had been organised by dissident republicans, which he appeared to believe meant they were in favour of violence. A disappointing but not too surprising analysis. For a start, not all dissident republicans - that is, republicans who disagree with Sinn Féin’s strategy and think that being part of government here is not the way to a united Ireland - not all dissidents are in favour of violence, and to assume they are is to distort the issue. But maybe more important, this line on last night was a case of blaming the victims for the violence that ensued. The anti-internment parade, regardless of who organised it or were included in it, was a legally-sanctioned parade remembering an unjust system: internment without trial. Because you don’t like some people doesn’t mean that their demonstration lacks validity.
The Castlederg issue was then discussed with Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff, who did something you could interpret as foolish or brave, depending on your viewpoint. He made the point that the people holding the commemorative parade in Castlederg believed the dead IRA men were Irish patriots. You’d consider that foolish if you believed that certain trigger words like “IRA” and “patriots” tend to send some people into a state of combustion. You’d consider it brave if you believed that he was simply describing the facts and hence the motivation for the march. The interviewer Justin Webb pointed out that, although approved by the Parades Commission, the Castlederg parade should perhaps be abandoned, as it might well give offence to people whose relatives had died at the hands of the IRA. Again, McElduff said something that was either foolish or brave. He pointed out that the relatives of the 165,000 people who were incinerated in a bombing raid on Dresden during World War Two might well feel offended at the annual commemoration of British armed forces every November. If you believed that the actions of the British armed forces were legitimate violence by a ‘proper’ army - the position taken up by the unionist interviewee (I apologise for not catching his name) - then you’d see the comparison of the Castlederg parade with Remembrance Day as absurd/offensive. If you believed that the actions of the British armed forces - in this case, in killing tens of thousands of German civilians - were at least as cruel as anything perpetrated by the IRA, you’d see McElduff’s comparison as legitimate and revealing.
In the end it comes down to tolerance. Republicans have to accept - and for the most part I believe they do accept - that unionists have a view of the conflict which casts the IRA as murderers who skulked around ditches and weren’t part of any real army ( the view of the unionist interviewee this morning). Unionists have to accept - and I don’t think I’ve ever heard any unionist spokesperson do so - that to republicans, the IRA men and women who died during the conflict were Irish patriots. Until there is an acceptance that people on the other side are sincere in the views they hold, and that fact is acknowledged, we’re going nowhere. The attempt to control the narrative of the past so that your opponents’ views are obliterated, and any attempt to give expression to them through commemoration parades or media interviews is outlandish and offensive, means we’re doomed to a ghastly stalemate.
We all, unionist, republican and neither, get a short time on this planet. It’s past time we found ways to respect each others’ views on the past, even if - especially if - they clash with our own. Otherwise we face a moronic and bleak future.