I see speedy reaction in unionist circles to that speech by Eamon Gilmore (about which I plan to blog later this week). The reaction is interesting in that it raises the wider issue of how we deal with dead combatants.
One answer would be to leave them in peace. The dead, whatever they may have done or not done, are beyond our reach. We can’t actually honour them or dishonour them, since they are beyond our living world. Despite the fact that we would recoil in horror at the thought of a corpse or a grave being treated disrespectfully, the dead person doesn’t mind one way or another. They can’t, because they’re dead.
What we really mean when we talk about honouring the dead is honouring the memory of what they have done. Clearly if you believe X to have been a noble, courageous person who lived his life for his country or even gave his life for his country, you may wish to give public expression to that admiration. By doing so, you hope his memory will be kept fresh and others, perhaps, inspired to act in a similar (although not necessarily the same) fashion.
That seems to me eminently reasonable, regardless of who X was. Clearly we all have different people we admire among the living. Likewise we revere the memory of different people among the dead. It seems to me to be verging on dictatorial to demand that people forego the commemoration of someone on the grounds that we don’t share a similarly positive view of that person. Different people have different loyalties, and we must allow them room to give expression to those loyalties.
Where the difficulty arises is when, in commemorating X, I bring my commemoration to the doorstep of people who have no time for X and whose loyalties lie with Y, his deadly enemy. That seems to me to be using the dead as a weapon against those we disagree with. So I would see a considerable difference in commemorating X in an area where his memory is held dear, and exporting my commemoration to an area where X and his memory is disliked/detested. That’s why as a rule I’m opposed to marching of all kinds, because there’s the danger at least that X’s memory is exported, so to say, to places where it will excite indignation.
To come back to particulars, then. I believe unionists were fully entitled to commemorate the signing of the Ulster Covenant, even though I would not regard the Covenant and its aftermath as desirable or something i would wish to honour. Similarly, I believe nationalist and republicans are fully entitled to commemorate the Easter Rising or those who died on hunger-strike or others they hold dear in their memory. It seems to me wrong that unionist politicians should urge the need for republicans to show ‘sensitivity’ in how they commemorate 1916 or any other year. If they don’t attempt to export that memory and deliberately bring it to the doorstep of those who don’t share their thinking, then how they conduct their commemoration is a matter for them and others of like mind. Those of unlike mind should accept that and restrain their desire to give advice on matters in which they have no part.