If I were the First Minister of Northern Ireland (God forbid on all our behalves!), I would attend at least some Easter Rising commemorations. I would do so because I would be seeking to represent the whole population, and for some of the population the Easter Rising is an important and indeed positive event in their historical narrative. It should be obvious that is not necessary for me to be endorsing that positivity in order to represent people in that way, in the same way that it is not necessary for all RTs to be endorsements.
However, we should also be very clear that the First Minister has every right not to attend any. For many people in Northern Ireland, even frankly some of Nationalist background, the Easter Rising is an anachronism from a century ago. Others prefer as a matter of course consistently to look forward, not back. Others regard it as a markedly negative event, and they do so for a wide variety of different and even competing reasons (from regretting the break with Britain, to regretting as a matter of principle to use of terrorism, through to regretting the inevitable division of the people of Ireland caused by the Rising and the reaction to it leading inevitably to partition). The First Minister, it is often noted, is a dual office, and the deputy First Minister will no doubt attend where relevant – so her absence does not leave her office unrepresented.
There is also something else here that, judging by a recent debate on the BBC’s Nolan radio programme, at least some Nationalists and even Progressives have not grasped about the 1998 Agreement. The document itself is very clear – the “people of Northern Ireland” may opt to be “British, Irish or both”. It is therefore clear beyond any doubt that they may opt to be exclusively Irish (i.e. not British) or indeed exclusively British (i.e. not Irish). There is also a requirement for “mutual respect”, i.e. for respecting that someone may opt not to hold a particular national affiliation in any way at all. The very reason there is a First Minister and a deputy First Minister is to cover that accepted fact of our identities.
I ran a recent course on “identities and symbolism” (and such like), at which I did a class on “Remembrance”. In advance, I asked someone from a Nationalist background (whom I know to be a supporter of the SDLP) what “Remembrance” meant to them. “Honestly? Nothing.” It may be hard for Unionists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly British background to tolerate that response, but under the Agreement (as well as the basic requirements of tolerance in a diverse society) it must be regarded as genuine.
Therefore, it may be hard for Nationalists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly Irish background to tolerate that if you asked many Unionists what they thought of the Easter Rising, you would get the precise same response. For a vast bulk of Northern Ireland’s population, it honestly means nothing at all. Again, to be clear, that is not my view, but it is not unreasonable for that opinion to be represented.
As ever, we are struggling in Northern Ireland with the basics of democracy. We have to learn – more than anywhere – to tolerate the expression of opinions with which we vehemently disagree, and to debate issues (including our history) without simply cutting off those who come at them from a different angle. The struggle with democracy is far from unique to us, of course.
What we are unique in struggling with is that we are forced to manage particularly exclusive and frankly selfish expressions of identity, as we come to terms with something simple but consequential: there is absolutely no requirement in the Agreement for “British” and “Irish” identities to overlap.
You know what? There probably should have been…