Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Boyne Water

William Prince of Orange, Northern Ireland, Battle of the Boyne

Today is the 321st anniversary of the victory of Prince William of Orange's armies over those of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda in the modern-day Irish Republic. Actually the military engagement itself took place on 11th July by the Gregorian calender and 1st July by the old-style Julian calender. The 1st of July 1916 in turn being the day of the 36th Ulster Division attack against the Schwaben Redoubt German lines north and south of the River Ancre at the start of the Battle of the Somme. The Ulster Division, which had been forged from Carson's orginal Ulster Volunteer Force and the Young Citizens Volunteer militia, were the only British forces on the day to meet their military objectives and suffered 5,500 killed, wounded or missing in casualties.

As every last child of school age in modern Britain knows - not - William's success on behalf of the Reformed faith at the Boyne ensured the continuation of the Protestant Ascendency in the British Isles and arguably the birth of modern British parliamentary democracy.

The overwhelming majority of people across the world who share feelings of goodwill towards all the people of Ireland would surely agree that the epilogue to the modern Ulster conflict must lie with former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's extraordinarily moving closing comments in his May 2008 address at the battle site and in the prescence of then Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley:

"The past will remain important to us all. We cannot change what has gone before. We should not and must not forget our history. But as we gather on this famous battlefield, it is not history that concerns us now. It is the future. In the future, let us respect each other and our different identities. In the future, let us value each other and our rich traditions. In the future, let us understand each other and our shared history. Let us work together for all of the people of this island. Let us be reconciled with each other. Let us be friends. Let us live in peace."

At the same ceremony Paisley insisted that the killing times be ended forever while his wife Eileen recalled seeing Ireland from the window of a transtlantic flight from the United States:

"I wished I could swim for I would jump out and swim the rest of the way home to Ireland. It was so precious and so green and so fresh and so welcoming. It was home and that is the thing about home."

The past week has brought the sad news of the death of Alliance Party of Northern Ireland founder Sir Oliver Napier - one of the few politicians from the early Seventies who clearly grasped the fundamental interconnectivity between political conflict and political engagement in wartorn Ulster. One wonderful tribute made to him on the main Northern Ireland political blog would note: "I am surprised that someone says above they never saw him angry as he always came across on TV as permanently angry, like an extremely frustrated but dedicated schoolmaster trying to explain simple algebra to the densest members of the fourth form for the hundredth time."

As reflective of the sheer distance of time I find it of considerable interest how many of the major political actors from the earlier stages of the Troubles and of Paisley's generation are now deceased. Alongside Napier these include Northern Ireland Prime Ministers Terence O'Neill, James Chichester-Clark and Brian Faulkner; British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan; Irish Taoiseachs Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald; Northern Ireland Secretaries of State William Whitelaw, Francis Pym, Merlyn Rees and Humphrey Atkins; Irish politicians Connor Cruise O'Brien and Neil Blaney; leading Ulster Unionists Harry West, Jim Kilfedder, Enoch Powell, William Craig and Northern Nationalist leaders Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin.

The same applies for many of the higher profile paramiltaries of the early Seventies such as Republicans Sean Mac Stiofain, Daithi O Conaill, Maire Drumm, Billy McMillen and Seamus Twomey. Likewise for Loyalists John McKeague, Charles Harding Smith, Billy Mitchell, Sammy Smyth and Tommy Herron. Several of these individuals dieing in violent circumstances.

Today here in modern London when I consider this annual celebration in Northern Ireland and Scotland of the indestructible bonds of history and heritage across the Irish Sea - and with regard to a shared Britishness that often no longer exists in a Great Britain that is also practically extinct -it truly does seem like an eternity ago when, during the Twelfth celebrations in the Belfast of the appallingly violent first few years of the Troubles, literally every Protestant home in the city would appear to be flying a Union flag or Ulster flag during this period of July. In those days Orange Order membership in Northern Ireland was an extraordinary 60,000 strong and the crowds watching the parades were enormous.

In fact - all political qualifications aside, if that is at all possible of course, and without even interfacing at all with the poet John Hewitt's observations about the complex construct of Northern Irish Protestant identity in its British, Irish and Ulster constituents - the more we progress through our own troubled, disconnected and alienating times I honestly can barely believe that that kind of broad-based cultural display of British identity ever happened anywhere at all in these islands.

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