Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day or simply the ‘11th of November’. Whatever you refer to it as, in Northern Ireland the date and the days leading up to it, alongside Remembrance Sunday, is always certain to be accompanied by the same thing- an annual scolding of Unionism and Loyalism. Every year without fail some ‘brave’ journalist or politician will denounce the day and its symbolism as an ‘affirmation of Unionist identity’. And you know what, they can be right…
Armistice Day of course came into being to mark the close of the Great War. The Armistice, the de-facto agreement that halted the conflict on the Western Front, became active at 11am on the 11th of November 1918. Exactly twelve months later the occasion was marked officially for the first time within the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The two minutes silence held at 11am on the day was of course initially singularly a tribute to those who had lost their lives in the Service of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth during the First World War, but soon came to represent all armed forces personnel killed in the line of duty across all conflicts. During the Second World War, to minimise disruption to much needed wartime industries, most of the ceremonial aspects of the occasion were moved to the second Sunday in November, and Remembrance Sunday came into being.
An astounding minimum of 200,000 Irish born served in the Great War, and much, rightly, is made of the Irish Nationalist input, in particular the exploits and sacrifice of the 16th Irish Division alongside the 36th Ulster Division, and of the 10th Irish Division in Gallipoli. Despite partition Irish Nationalism continued to volunteer and serve in Her Majesty’s Forces over the century that followed, and not just in Northern Ireland. During the Second World War alone over 40,000 volunteers enlisted from the then Eire, despite the supposed neutral stance from its government. To this day significant numbers from the Republic of Ireland still journey north or across the English Channel to enlist in famous British military Regiments.
Each year there are concerted attempts to weaponise the involvement of these brave men and women in British Forces. To change the whole concept and context of our annual Remembrance. Because those men came from a certain political or faith background, the act of remembering we are told must be something that is shared politically and communally, turned into something that must be almost neutral. The necessity for it to be ‘for everyone’ requiring symbols of perceived partisanship be removed or minimised, and even the raison d’etre, the showing of respect for the actions of British and Commonwealth Forces, deemed to be a secondary element deserving to be downplayed.
Remembrance Day CAN be for everyone. It can mean something TO everyone. The relatives and communities of those within Irish Nationalism can, should, remember their forebears. They can and should do that in whatever way they see fit.
That however does not mean it cannot also be treated by those who wish to do so, as a mark of respect not just to the dead, but to the communities that birthed them. To the cause’s they fought for. To the nation they fought for. To the values they fought for. To the legitimacy of the conflicts they waged. A statement. A statement of their continued Loyalism to those same communities, causes, nation and values.
Remembrance CAN be an affirmation of Unionist and Loyalist identity. A totally legitimate stance, and which should never be shied away from.
By Quincey Dougan