It takes two to tango. Try to tango on your own and you’ll end up looking seriously stupid. Maybe it’s the normal sadness of Summer’s near-end that’s infecting me, but I have a sense of one-person tango beginning to emerge in our little society.
The other morning, for example, I heard a man on The Nolan Show ringing in to express his outrage that Nolan hadn’t been sufficiently ‘neutral’. How’s that? Well, apparently Stephen had John O’Dowd on earlier in the programme, alongside a unionist politician.Stephen, the caller said, had allowed O’Dowd to compare British commemoration of their war dead on Remembrance Sunday with Irish commemoration of their war dead in, for example, Castlederg! The man was livid: he didn’t expect any better from the likes of O’Dowd, but that Stephen Nolan should have allowed him, unchallenged, to draw the comparison!
Shortly after that I read a response to a blog I’d written about bridge-building. I’d noted that Sinn Féin’s declared policy was to build bridges and reconciliation between former adversaries. Hogwash, my blog-respondent said in so many words. How did Castlederg fit into such a policy?
Finally there’s Peter Robinson with his hand-brake or is it commitment-breaking turn regarding the peace centre at the Long Kesh/the Maze site. The First Minister was going back on his word but that, Edwin Poots explained, wasn’t his fault, leaderless Sinn Féin were to blame for that. First their attitude to Union flag flying in Belfast City Hall showed poor leadership, and now their support for this Castlederg commemoration of IRA volunteers killed in the Troubles showed poorer leadership still.
Can you see the common thread? It’s the pride the British have in their ‘fighting men’, living or dead. In some ways you might say such pride is understandable. The way they re-invaded the Falklands/Malvinas, their role in Iraq, SAS activities here and in other parts of the world - these are cited as reasons for holding the British soldier in high esteem.
Except the three respondents in the cases I’ve cited go beyond pride in British soldiery. The Nolan Show caller was appalled that someone should dare to speak in one breath of the British military war dead and IRA war dead. Likewise my blog respondent. The honouring of IRA war dead in Castlederg was cited as evidence that republicans were not interested in reconciliation, even though they agreed to a rerouting which avoided the British army cenotaph in the centre of the town. And finally Peter Robinson, in his 12-page letter, declared the Long Kesh/the Maze peace centre agreement impossible because republicans had commemorated their war dead in Castlederg.
At the heart of these responses is a refusal to countenance any comparison between the British army and the IRA. Why? Because the British army are proper soldiers whereas the IRA were mere terrorists. But hold on. Terrorism is a military tactic, a methodology, not a philosophy. It’s a tactic advocated and employed by ‘fighting men’ down the decades - George Washington, Che Guevara, Michael Collins, the SAS - even Winston Churchill: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
And I haven’t even mentioned the British army’s willingness to work with loyalist terrorists groups in the many cases of collusion here. Now let me be clear. I don’t doubt that many unionists are still hurting from losses during the Troubles, as are many nationalists and republicans. But maybe the unionist indignation at comparisons of the IRA with ‘their’ soldiers has a deeper motivation. Maybe unionism’s refusal to equate the IRA war dead with British war dead springs from unionism’s unwillingness to equate living republicans with living unionists.
Now there’s a thought that stops the music and freezes the dancers in their tracks.