When I wrote two weeks ago that we are entering into the sticky end of the decade of commemorations I had no knowledge the Fine Gael government in the south were going to prove me right so quickly. Their announcement, and then cancellation of a singular event commemorating the RIC, and the Black and Tans, in Dublin horrified many on the island. Fine Gael announced an event for which there was no demand, few people wanted, and even fewer would attend. So, they cancelled a commemoration which even their more extreme forefathers would have baulked at.
The initial announcement resulted in the Irish population north and south sharing evidence of the actions of the RIC since its formation. Evictions of starving tenant farmers, carnage on the streets of Dublin during the 1913 Lockout, and the worst extremes of violence during the Tan War, up to and including the assassination of the Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, whose 100 anniversary occurs in a few short weeks. In a few days there was more articulation of the illegitimacy of British occupation in Ireland than I can honestly remember. It was like everyone had watched The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Michael Collins at the same time and let out of a darkened room together.
The lesson is of course that Irish people are generally proud of their history of resistance to British colonialism and do not want to see its impact airbrushed.
However the move was not only unsupported it was also damaging in a more contemporary sense. Its singular focus has provoked a reaction that has affected the potential for the difficult yet positive conversations that are essential for national reconciliation. We desperately need constructive engagements regarding how we do memory on our island with a population that includes very different views of our past and shared history. Many of us are engaged in building relationships aimed at developing a vision for a new Ireland, and most of us are confident that we can accommodate all narratives and traditions, and will be the better for it.
Sadly, the response to the move by Charlie Flanagan, who is an honourable man and positively motivated, was seized on by elements who wish to pretend the response implies Britishness on this island is unwelcome. We must hear and meet genuine concerns to that end with thoughtfulness, but we must also call out any opportunism, false narratives or spin. There is too much at stake to be glib.
The issue of how we remember and how we engage with contentious narratives isn’t easy. It is an island-wide project with reconciliation at its heart. And it is the real challenge of our generation. It requires respect, trust and reciprocation of generosity. We know too well what lack of acknowledgement of experience, or no reciprocation can mean. Remember when the RUC, the partitioned orphan of the RIC, got a George Cross medal for bravery without mention of collusion, shoot-to-kill or systemic torture? That singular recognition has not been remedied to this day and still embeds the harm of those violations.
Remembering can be done better. In fact, it has to be if we are to have a new Ireland, fully embracing of its past, its entire population and hopeful for a better future. Revisionism and air brushing cannot be part of that, but neither can dismissal of experiences.