A SOLEMN ceremony to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme will be attended in Dublin this weekend by the President and Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, in a further sign that Ireland’s historic wounds are finally beginning to heal.
Unionist politicians from Northern Ireland will stand side-by-side at an official state ceremony at the National War Memorial Gardens, in Islandbridge, with their southern brethren in memory of the 49,000 Irishmen who died during the Great War.
Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, recently said of the Battle of the Somme: “More than 5,000 men of the 36th Ulster Division fell in the first two days in July 1916. They fought alongside 200,000 Irish men from every county of Ireland.
“Their bravery was no less than that shown by the insurgents of Easter Week.”
He was referring to the 1916 Easter Rising, a failed military rebellion against British rule in Ireland, which today is at the heart of the Republic’s foundation. The 1916 Rising sparked a resurgence in Irish nationalism which led, in a few short years, to independence and the partition of Ireland. The hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers returning home after the war found that they had been written out of the island’s historical narrative. In Northern Ireland the Somme became a cornerstone of Unionism’s justification: its fallen dead had paid in their own blood to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Although the number of southern Irishmen who served in the British Armed Forces was far greater, the emerging Free State and subsequent Republic chose to forget about the sacrifices of its own citizens.
But the peace process has wrought a profound change in cross-border attitudes towards Ireland’s shared history, and the Somme commemoration this weekend is being seen as a consequence of that.
In an editorial this week The Irish Times said that the 1998 Good Friday agreement had allowed a common history “to be examined anew and to be publicly acknowledged in a completely different way”.
The ceremony comes hard on the heels of the revival two months ago of a state military parade through the centre of Dublin to commemorate the 1916 Rising.
Televised live, the ceremony had been abandoned with the outbreak of the modern Troubles in the North. However, the ruling Fianna Fail party, which Mr Ahern leads, judged that it was a propitious moment to “reclaim” a part of the state’s history, which had been “colonised” by Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA’s political wing. Last week Mr Ahern unveiled a postage stamp commemorating the Battle of the Somme, in a very public acknowledgement of Ireland’s British military history.
Both the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division took part in the Battle of the Somme. Politicians of the time hoped that the common experience of Unionists and nationalists fighting alongside one another would heal rifts in Ireland over plans to grant the island Home Rule. In the event, Unionists saw themselves as fighting to remain part of the UK while nationalists believed that their participation would hasten Home Rule.