Opinion

Chris Donnelly: Selective outrage and the complexities of remembrance

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, pictured right, with party colleague Conor Murphy during a controversial IRA memorial event in Co Armagh, billed as the South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, pictured right, with party colleague Conor Murphy during a controversial IRA memorial event in Co Armagh, billed as the South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, pictured right, with party colleague Conor Murphy during a controversial IRA memorial event in Co Armagh, billed as the South Armagh Volunteers Commemoration. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Barely a skip in the beat of history before the onset of World War I, the British empire and military was responsible for the deaths of some 50,000 people – overwhelmingly children and women – in the concentration camps in which they herded both Boers and blacks in South Africa in the 1901-1902 period during Britain’s war with the Boers.

The inhumane conditions in which they forced the black and white people – separately – to exist and perish as part of their ‘scorched earth’ military strategy was a story that would be repeated a half-century later (just a stone’s throw in years from the start of our Troubles) in another far-off land.

In 1950s Kenya, Britain’s soldiers were directed to once again corral hundreds of thousands of women and children to live in death camps, where thousands were beaten to death whilst others died from malnutrition and horrible diseases. Torture was practised on a widespread basis and in the most horrific ways conceivable, with rape employed as a tactic.

The story of the Kikuyu people does not feature in the British schools’ curriculum, and nor is it raised come Remembrance time each November. Their story has only surfaced on local shores in recent times due to the outstanding work of the Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor, Caroline Elkins, whom many in the British Establishment have sought to discredit.

At the entrance to St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, an impressive monument, the Fusiliers’ Arch, stands to this very day, remembering not those tens of thousands who perished in the obscene camps they were coerced into by the British regime, but rather to the Irishmen who joined the British army to fight the empire’s cause in the Boer conflict – a cause which included the development of those grisly death camps.

Across the north of Ireland today, British war memorials are to be found in the centre of many of our cities, towns and villages regardless of the demographic profile of those urban settlements. Unionists have always made sure that even mostly nationalist areas were graced with prominently positioned British memorials to which, invariably, the loyal orders could annually march to and from on many occasions.

Last year, the ratepayers of Mid and East Antrim funded a new memorial to the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in Larne, whilst Lisburn Council ratepayers (including at the time the residents of Poleglass, Twinbrook and Lagmore) funded a massive UDR memorial erected in the centre of Lisburn in 2011.

None other than John Hume once remarked of the UDR that it was “a group of Rangers supporters put in uniform, supplied with weapons and given the job of policing where the Celtic supporters live".

In 1986, a British Foreign Office figure noted in a memo that the UDR was “an inescapably sectarian body and an obstacle to reconciliation” whilst an earlier British government document noted that the UDR was the “single best source of weapons” for loyalist paramilitaries.

The cynical manner in which a republican commemoration in south Armagh earlier this month was turned into a major news story necessitates us as a society acknowledging the breathtaking levels of hypocrisy involved in deeming acceptable participation in British military commemorations whilst feigning outrage when Irish republicans gather for similar purposes.

Jim Allister has claimed republicans are seeking to build “a falsity of equivalence between victims and victim-makers”, going on to say that “in celebrating terrorists, [Sinn Féin] celebrate their murder count, they delight in the lives destroyed, the orphans created and the homes wrecked".

The new deputy leader of the DUP, Gavin Robinson, went further in targeting Sinn Féin’s John Finucane for speaking at the republican commemoration and declaring “you cannot burnish your credentials as a victim one day and then tarnish the memory of victims and their loved ones the next".

It has been noted before that it is nearly impossible to mark the neck of a unionist politician with a blowtorch, and these utterances provide further testimony to the accuracy of that observation.

By Jim Allister’s logic, we would be compelled to label all those wearing poppies and assembling to honour British forces as being guilty of celebrating the murderous victim-makers of Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Amritsar, Kenya and beyond.

Of course, such a crude accusation would be entirely wrong, ignoring the complexities of remembrance in any land never mind in one marked by both its divisions and contradictions, apparent in that Fusiliers' Arch in Dublin and in Irish republicanism’s annual commemorations remembering its many celebrated figures who at one time served in British military uniforms.

So what is this all about? The selective outrage is an attempt to control narratives of the past, present and future. The very reason those memorials are positioned in the centre of our towns and civic spaces is because doing so historically conferred a special sense of legitimacy and honour, in keeping with the worldview of the prevailing authority of the land. It is for the same reason our streets, universities and even hospitals bear certain names, and why contrived fury is unleashed when suggestion is raised of the appearance of something as innocuous as an Irish language sign inside the doors of a leisure centre in south Belfast.

As unionism continues to lose its grip on the levers of power within this state and society, expect to hear more of this nonsense.