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Time to learn the lessons of history

Time to learn the lessons of history
3 min read

Chair of the All-Party Group on the Irish in Britain, Conor McGinn MP reflects on the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

In this week that marks the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, I was reminded of the old cliché about Anglo-Irish relations; that what the English can never remember, the Irish can never forget.

The Easters of my childhood in a staunchly Catholic and nationalist community were duly informed by the unchallengeable facts that, as Eamonn McCann wrote, “Jesus Christ died for the human race and Padraig Pearse for the Irish section of it”.

On a sunny Dublin morning, as I took my seat alongside other guests for the State Commemoration of the Easter Rising, I remembered those simplicities of my own youthful mind and older ones around me then. During dark days of violence and war, orthodoxies aren’t questioned, history seems an imperative and enemies are clearly defined.  Conflict might be hard on the heart, but in some ways, in the heat of battle at least, it can be easy on the head.

On Sunday, as I watched the UK Ambassador to Ireland Dominic Chilcott take his seat, I thought to myself that making peace and reconciliation is the complicated thing. I thought the same when I watched the Irish Ambassador to Britain Dan Mulhall lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day last year. Leading by example and showing you mean what you say can be hard on the body, mind and soul. The tortuous and circuitous negotiations over the last 20 years in Northern Ireland are testament to that. In those lie the transformation of British-Irish relations, a nexus forged through trying to resolve the unresolvable and a desire to move beyond a seemingly impassable barrier. That tests and strengthens a relationship and gives it even greater depth.

In 1916, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic vowed to cherish all children of the nation equally. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement enshrined the right of everyone in Northern Ireland to be Irish or British, or both. A lot happened before, in between, and is continuing thereafter. There are still competing visions for Ireland’s future, North and South, that sit alongside uncomfortable and ongoing disputes about its past.

But those two simple statements validating and recognising the identity and citizenship of everyone on the island of Ireland point to a better future, wherever it might lead. They should be the self-evident truths upon which we continue to build and work together as countries and peoples, equals and friends.

I think the last week, indeed the last number of years, have made that old cliché about Anglo-Irish relations redundant. Far better the words of The Queen who said when she visited Ireland in 2012 that “with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.” That’s not about anyone forgetting or remembering too much or too little, it’s about all of us ensuring that the next chapter of British-Irish relations start with our commitment never to do those same things again.

Conor McGinn is the Labour MP for St Helens North

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