By Jeffrey Donaldson MP, Chairman NI Centenary Committee.
As we gather this weekend to commemorate those who gave their lives in two World Wars and in other conflicts, 2014 is fast approaching and with it the centenary of a war that undoubtedly shaped the history of the island of Ireland for the remainder of the 20th Century.
No doubt the historians will pore over the detail of World War One and many books and articles will be written about it's impact on Europe and the Empires that fell as a result. There will be opinions on the failure of the League of Nations and stories of the conscripts and volunteers who were mercilessly sacrificed for a few inches of muddy ground. Yet it was on the narrow ground of battlefields such as the Somme and Messines where the fate of modern day Ireland was determined; the blood sacrifice that bought separation for Ulster and a free state for the rest of the island. This is our shared history, yet its narrative has hitherto divided us.
A print of the famous painting by J P Beadle that depicts the 36th Ulster Division going 'over the top' at the Somme on the 1st July 1916 hangs on the wall of my office. It symbolises for me the sacrifice of those young men whose courage enabled unionists to achieve their objective of remaining within the United Kingdom. A century later their legacy lives on but so too does the sacrifice and legacy of the equally brave men of the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions who also died for our freedom. As Chairman of the WW1 Centenary Committee in Northern Ireland I want to see all of these courageous people commemorated. Whether they were Ulster Protestants serving with the Royal Irish Rifles, the Inniskillings or the Royal Irish Fusiliers surging through the German lines beyond Thiepval Wood or Ulster Catholics in the uniform of the Connaught Rangers with their co-religionists from Munster and Leinster battling their way through the mud of Messines, all are worthy of our deepest respect and remembrance.
The initial signs are encouraging. In every county in the Republic of Ireland War Memorials are being erected to the fallen Irishmen who served and died at Gallipoli, on the Western Front and in other theaters of this fateful conflict. Men that wore the cap badges of long extinct Irish Regiments like the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinsters, the South Irish Horse and the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Forgotten for decades, the names of these brave souls will now gain recognition in the communities from which they departed, never to return.
Tragically, the same recognition still awaits thousands of Ulstermen who came from a Catholic background and whose service and sacrifice lacks adequate memorialisation due to the tensions that followed the war. We must find a way of putting that right and perhaps the time has come to appropriately display the roll of honour that lists the names of all the service personnel from every community in Northern Ireland who fought for liberty in those fateful years 1914 - 1918. A century later, we should commemorate the men who made that sacrifice in a way that honours their memory and promotes the reconciliation that Her Majesty the Queen so powerfully embraced when she visited Dublin for the first time.
The title of the old war ditty 'It's a long way to Tipperary' surely symbolises the journey that we unionists must take in recognising that our freedom was not just bought with the blood of Ulster's Protestants but with the sacrifice of Irishmen from every province and of every creed on this island. The courage and political generosity displayed by fervent nationalists like Willie Redmond, brother of the then Irish Nationalist Party Leader who fell wearing a British uniform at Messines and was carried from the battlefield by men of the 36th Ulster Division must be matched by our willingness to rise above traditional allegiances and commemorate all from this island who served and sacrificed.
Redmond wrote before his death, 'It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly if we could, over their graves, build a bridge between North and South." We cannot rewrite the history of the ensuing period or dismantle the constitutional realities that divide this island but we can seek to build bridges that have strong foundations of mutual respect and understanding. As Her Majesty said in Dublin Castle 'so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it'.