On March 2, Thomas Shaw, aged 102, died. He was the last Ulster veteran of the Battle of the Somme. Four months later, the first Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, has become the first member of the republican movement to commemorate that Battle. This has rightly been called a “giant step.” So it is, and the mayor and his party are to be congratulated for taking it.
It is true that Maskey and other party members did not take part in the main commemoration ceremony, which took place some two hours after they had laid their wreath. But that is neither here nor there. Maskey conducted a quiet, dignified ceremony. It recognized that whatever one thinks about the war itself — and few can now have any illusions that it was anything other than a fantastic and criminal waste of life — many thousands of Irish men, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, died on the “torn fields of France,” in the words of the poet Edward Thomas. In fact, some 50,000 Irish citizens were killed between 1914-18, as well as 20,000 Ulstermen. These men deserve recognition. Giving them that recognition in no way implies approval for the war itself, just sympathy for those who made the ultimate sacrifice in giving their lives fighting it.
It is always best to face up to facts, whether they are unpleasant or not. And it is one of the awkward facts of Irish history that far more Irishmen died in the Great War (as it was called) than in all the conflicts fought in Ireland during the 20th century. If one adds up the dead from the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Troubles in the North, the total figure would amount to no more than about 15 percent of those who died in those four short but terrible years of the century’s second decade.
In November 1998, the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, recognized the need to come to terms with this fact when, along with the queen, she opened a memorial at Meffine Ridge in France, the scene of one of the bloodiest actions in the war, to the Irish who died there.
We may well regret the loss of so many Irish lives that would have been better served fighting at home. But they were doing their duty as they saw fit. Whether we agree with them or not does not matter. This is now outside the orbit of partisan politics. Let the historians argue and analyze.
Mayor Maskey and Sinn Fein have shown courage and breadth of vision in stepping up to the Somme. On this matter, their detractors only prove that they are moral dwarfs. They can be safely ignored. But the men who died at the Somme cannot.