Friends in common troubles: lessons of the Somme


‘War is not a personal affair, else there would be no war’: The Battle of the Somme

Few years in Irish history are more potent than 1916. So deeply is that year ingrained in our collective psyche that the number alone is enough to describe it. It needs no elaboration.

Like many aspects of our bi-polar society, 1916 means strikingly different things to this island’s two main traditions.

We have come through the commemorations of the Easter Rising more or less with our dignity intact. Now Easter yields to July 1 and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in European history: the Battle of the Somme.

It would be a mistake to see the two events as separate. The Easter Rising and the Somme are part of the same narrative – a convulsion in world history as it grappled with the transition from autocracy to democracy, and from empire to self-determination.

Unionists have nurtured the Ulster Division’s blood sacrifice on the Somme. It is part of their narrative. History has been crueller to the nationalists who died in the war. Lost in the melee, their deaths were seen as individual acts rather than a collective sacrifice for a common cause. And crueller still, their own people – stunned by the aftermath of the Rising – shunned them.

Private Arthur Baxter, writing of an Irish comrade at the time, said: “When he had his leave from France, he daren’t go home, you know. There was a place in London where the like of him went. He told us he’d be killed if he went home, being in the British Army, you see.”

The new Ireland that rose from the ashes of Easter 1916 wrote these soldiers out of history. Only in recent years has there been a coming to terms with their lives and loss.

Many Irishmen on the front had torn loyalties. Wearing a British uniform, their cause was Irish home rule. Among them was the poet Francis Ledwidge who died in Passchendaele. His lament for Thomas MacDonagh is one of the most powerful poems of the Rising. “He shall not hear the bittern cry/in the wild sky, where he is lain.”

Like the Rising commemoration, it is important that the Somme anniversary is treated with respect and marked with dignity. It must be used as an opportunity for healing rather than further division.

In that context, the decision by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to accept an invitation to visit Flanders and the Somme next week is a welcome one.

For too long we have been trapped by history, this visit represents an opportunity to be liberated by it; to reach an understanding of the enormity of the Somme and its impact on the lives of those who fought and died there, those who survived, and their families.


Martin McGuinness: Deputy First Minister

At a most basic human level the Somme is a story of loss and man’s inhumanity to man. On the first day 19,240 allied forces soldiers died, and more than 35,000 were wounded; 141 days later more than a million allied and German troops had been injured, and over 300,000 lay dead.

But at another level the Somme is part of our common history – unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican, militarist and pacifist. By understanding the past, we gain insights that give us a better understanding of today. If we are to take full advantage of that, we need leaders who are brave enough to take risks and who are willing to face up to the past.

The Queen demonstrated that eloquently during her historic visit to the Republic. In the Garden of Remembrance she set the bar high when she had reason enough to demure. Her own family has faced tragedy in Ireland. Mr McGuiness too has reason enough to turn the other way. That he has taken the more difficult course is to his credit.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with the words of a private who fought at the Somme. Arthur Wrench wrote these words in November 1916. “Coming through Mailly, I saw a wounded kilty of the Argylls walking arm in arm with a wounded German and passing the coffee stall there. One man ran out with a cup of coffee which he handed to the Argyll. He in turn handed it to his stricken companion after which they limped on their way together, smiling. Enemies an hour ago, but friends in their common troubles. After all, this war is not a personal affair, else there would be no war.”

“Friends in their common troubles.” I can think of no better description of us today.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on May 27 2016

Northern Ireland needs more than a kick up the arts


Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Turandot – the bloodbath on stage mirrored in the arts

The elections are over and the horse-trading has begun for a programme for government in Northern Ireland. Soon enough we will know who will be heading up the new Northern Ireland Executive departments.

Most people will have fingers crossed that the new programme for government will be a triumph for hope over expectation. The last assembly wasn’t exactly a role model for excellence in governance.

But elections can have a cleansing effect, and with a first minister now with a personal mandate to govern there is the opportunity for a new beginning. Arlene Foster has the opportunity to write her chapter in the history books, let us hope she proves up to the task.

One of the disappointments of devolution has been the failure of successive administrations to appreciate the potential of culture and arts. Artists can help us articulate our aspirations; they expand our horizons; and they speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves.

Every society needs a soul, and artists are its custodians.

The arts also provide a space where people from different backgrounds and experiences can come together – a space where healing happens. And Northern Ireland needs healing.

On the face of it, it is a backward step that culture and arts no longer features in the title of the new Stormont department responsible for its oversight. But few tears will be shed for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

But there is a danger that by rolling it into the Department of Communities, the Executive will continue to undermine the Culture and Arts sector, and hasten its decline.

It had been hoped that devolution would have been good for the sector, but it has suffered from serial neglect, particularly in the last administration. For whatever reason, DCAL minister Carál Ní Chuilín showed little empathy for the cultural organisations she was responsible for.

And the arts felt her neglect keenly. The composer Philip Hammond called her “a politician who clearly has absolutely no notion of what is going on in the arts in Northern Ireland, has no notion of what has been happening in the arts in Northern Ireland, and clearly has even less notion of what should be happening in the arts”.

ni chuilin

Carál Ní Chuilín: criticised for her stewardship of the Culture and Arts brief

The minister even became the inspiration for a character in a play at the Lyric Theatre just finishing its run. The role of Donna Ni Duineachair in Here Comes the Night by Rosemary Jenkinson channelled the spirit of the ‘non-culture’ culture minister.

Jenkinson criticised Ní Chuilín’s lack of attendance at arts events – a theme of critics throughout her term. “You just have to have a basic level of knowledge of what’s going on – it’s surely part of the job,” Jenkinson told the Irish News.

Many in Sinn Fein have an empathy with the arts, but Ní Chuilín was not one of them. Her tenure should be a warning to those tempted to put apparatchiks in positions of power.

The fear now is that within a Communities brief the arts will be used as a tool for social engineering rather than cultural expression. Social development is undoubtedly one of the outcomes of a strong arts sector. But that outcome is threatened if artists are forced to pursue a narrow communitarian agenda.

Being in ‘office’ demands something more from a politician than representing their own partisan views – this is particularly the case in the context of the ungainly enforced coalition of our current political settlement.

Posing as an economic department, DCAL identified its priorities as “social and economic equality”. The arts, with their whiff of elitism, were suspect.

Such was the threat that the Arts Council broke cover in the run-up to last year’s budget allocations with a high-profile campaign against its parent department highlighting the appallingly low levels of public subsidy.

At 13 pence a week per head of population, spending in Northern Ireland was less than half that spent in Wales, and the lowest it has been in a decade. The message fell on deaf ears. The figure is now 11p per head.

This is something that needs to be addressed seriously in the development of a new programme for government. Investment in culture and arts repays itself many times over. It generates wealth through the creative industries, and provides ‘soft power’ too.

Much of Northern Ireland’s positive reputation comes from the international acclaim for its artists, writers, actors and musicians – many of whom cut their teeth in organisations subsidised directly, or indirectly, from the public purse.

Hollywood star Liam Neeson began his acting career at the Lyric Theatre. James Nesbitt trod the boards at Ulster Youth Theatre. The Ulster Orchestra and the BBC provided important platforms for Barry Douglas, the concert pianist who became the first non-Russian to win the Tchaikovsky International Piano competition outright since Van Cliburn 28 years earlier.

Queen’s University Belfast – another publically funded organisation – provided a home for some of the finest poets in Britain and Ireland, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson.

The film industry is a commercial beast. But even it cannot survive without access to a steady stream of actors, set-designers, make-up artists, technicians, musicians and composers who learned their craft in the subsidised arts.

Where did the crew of Game of Thrones learn their skills?

The Communities department has inherited a mission statement that is positively Stalinist in its view about the purpose of the arts and artists: “To promote social and economic equality, and to tackle poverty and social exclusion, through systematically promoting a sustainable economic model and proactively targeting meaningful resources at sectors of greatest inequality, within areas of greatest objective need, in the wider context of effectively developing tangible opportunities and measurable outcomes for securing excellence and equality across culture, arts and leisure, and a confident, creative, informed and healthy society in this part of Ireland.”

Creative people are concerned about equality, poverty and social exclusion as much as anyone, but social engineering should not be their primary purpose.

Sadly, these days political correctness does not allow us to celebrate the arts for their own sake. Everything has to pay its way and demonstrate its worth. But there comes a point at which everything is reduced to dreary utilitarianism.

Seamus Heaney once said: “Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can’t be too optimistic.” The new administration has an opportunity to challenge that assumption.

Over the years, we have tried many things to reenergise society – perhaps it is time to unleash our writers, actors and musicians and see what they can do.

There has been enough keening; some day hope and history will rhyme. You need the arts and artists to make that happen.


Red Ken and the final solution


Under pressure: Ken Livingstone suspended over allegations of anti-Semitism

There’s that infamous joke about the Jew stopped in Belfast and asked to declare his religion. On hearing his affiliation he’s asked: “Yes, yes, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” I know, it’s a poor joke – and I doubt it was funny first time around.

The Irish think history has been hard on them: political and religious discrimination, the loss of sovereignty with the Act of Union, the famine, civil and political unrest. We warm to a narrative of oppression, and wear the mantle of victimhood easily. Our folk singers embrace the theme, and our bookshelves groan under the weight of countless horrible histories.

But in the list of historic injustices, nothing compares to the suffering of the Jews. Their story is one of trial and endurance – even in the centuries before the birth of Christ. But nothing the Egyptians handed down in Old Testament times was comparable to the excesses suffered during the Christian era – culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Forgetting that Jesus was never a Catholic – he died a Jew – the Church actively supported the persecution of the Jews on the spurious basis that they bore collective responsibility for Jesus’s death. It was a case that all original sins are bad, but some original sins are worse than others. It was only in 2000 that Pope John Paul II made a formal apology to the Jews.

He said: “We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”

Throughout the course of history there have been countless crimes against humanity. For many countries, their histories are accounts of murders, massacres and acts of genocide. From the Peloponnesian War – five centuries before the birth of Christ – through to modern day acts of mass slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, man has been committing acts of inhumanity to man.

Every death is a tragedy, and morally there is no difference between the suffering of a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp or a Bosnian Muslim in Srebrenica.

But it is impossible to view the current row over allegations of anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, or indeed broader criticism of Israel, without also being conscious of the enormity of the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that anti-Semitism is not just a problem of the British Left. Two millennia of indoctrination has ensured that anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of our culture. In trying to deal with the current controversy, I think it is important that we recognize the baggage non-Jews carry into the debate.

That baggage should not stop the legitimate questioning of the Israeli government. Its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should properly be called to account for his policies and the actions of the Israeli security forces, and there is much for Netanyahu to answer to. Nor should it stand in the way of the search for a long-term solution to the establishment of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But neither the proper scrutiny of Israeli policy, nor the cause of the Palestinian people, is helped by crass posturing by British politicians more interested (it must be said) in domestic political squabbles than the long-term interests of people living in the Middle East.

I have a bit of time for Ken Livingstone. I like a politician who is prepared to go against the tide and who speaks out against orthodox thinking. But in identifying Hitler – a monster who made an industry out of genocide – with Zionism, Livingstone went too far. He deserves the opprobrium heaped upon him.

In a foolish and hubristic sentence he has undone his political reputation. In the process he has undermined one of his closest political allies and aided those who want to see his party reduced to a footnote in history.

Livingstone’s act of stupidity has exposed the vein of naked intolerance that underpins political discourse – whether that be racism in the debate over immigration; sectarianism in the jostling for position in the Assembly elections; or anti-Semitism in the British Left’s approach to Middle Eastern politics.

While all those –isms remain unchallenged, we are diminished as human beings and we become even more vulnerable to discrimination and intolerance.

So tell me, are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?