Professor McAleese, Excellencies, Foreign Secretary Hammond, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure welcome you all to Iveagh House and thank you, in particular, to all who have travelled here for tonight’s event.
I’d like to give a special thank you to our MC for this evening, Dr. John Bowman, broadcaster and historian, who brings great insights to us every Sunday morning via his radio programme.
The idea for this Lecture developed in partnership with the Christmas Truce and Flanders Peace Field project led by Don Mullan who has been an outstanding advocate for the importance of remembering the Christmas Truce.
Don will be joined on our panel later by the distinguished historian and Professor of Modern European History at TCD, Professor John Horne.
In addition to Foreign Secretary Hammond, I would also like to welcome Dr. Andrew Murrison, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland and Prime Minister Cameron’s special representative for the Centenary Commemoration of the First World War.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honoured to introduce our guest speaker, Professor Mary McAleese for tonight’s talk, although she hardly needs an introduction!
Professor McAleese’s election as President of Ireland is something that, in hindsight, seems providential. Ireland’s first President from Ulster was inaugurated in 1997, when the peace process in Northern Ireland was at a critical and delicate stage. The Good Friday Agreement was yet to be achieved. The prospect of long-term peace on this island was still anything but certain.
President McAleese set to work to do everything she could to support the peace process and, with remarkable energy, she began to ‘build the bridges’ that were to become the legacy of her Presidency. Together with her husband Martin, she saw that only by engaging with individuals and communities in an effort to understand and heal the wounds of the past could the vision of a lasting peace and reconciled society be achieved. Reaching out to different parts of Irish society, in communities all over the island of Ireland, became a hallmark of her Presidency.
Professor McAleese’s own experience meant that when she talked about reconciliation, she spoke with personal conviction as well as Presidential authority. As well as the insights from her work in law and journalism, she experienced at first hand the scourge of sectarianism, when as a young girl her family were forced to leave their home in Ardoyne. These experiences propagated a strong desire to reconciliation.
At the earliest opportunity as President, in fact during her inaugural address in 1997, Mary McAleese addressed the issue of reconciliation and the importance of Ireland’s diversity of traditions. She quoted Irish poet Louis MacNeice, calling on us to remember that: ‘a single purpose can be founded on a jumble of opposites’. It is significant that, in this poem, MacNeice explores the life of Maud Gonne, the daughter of a British soldier and English mother, and the widow of an Irish revolutionary – a background which perhaps exemplifies the complexity of Irish identity.
As Ireland emerged as an independent and sovereign state, and in an effort to assert our nationhood, we often chose to overlook the diversity of our peoples, and our historic links with Britain. That is perhaps why, for so long, we were uncomfortable in commemorating, or even acknowledging, the Irish role in World War I or indeed the impact of that war on Irish history.
I would like to use this opportunity to pay tribute to many of you in tonight’s audience – journalists, historians and many others – who have worked so hard to achieve honourable recognition of the thousands of men and women who left Ireland in 1914, and after, to take part in the First World War.
During her Presidency, Mary McAleese did so much to further this exploration of how our past and present go hand in hand. Within a year of her inauguration, former President McAleese stood with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to formally open the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines which honoured the memory of those men from both parts of the island – both nationalists and unionists – who fought and died on the battle fields of Flanders.
In 2011, the former President accompanied Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth when she visited the Garden of Remembrance and subsequently the War Memorial at Islandbridge. The sight of both Heads of State paying their respects together to those who died for Irish freedom and to those who died in British uniform in foreign battlefields was another defining moment in her transformational Presidency. These were ceremonial occasions where the healing links between commemoration and reconciliation were brilliantly and movingly clear.
I have spent many hours in Belfast in recent weeks involved in political talks at Stormont – as has Minister Murrison. Many of these hours have been spent discussing the issue of dealing with the sad and baleful legacy of the past. Even the very words - ‘the past’ - carry a sombre weight and sense of political danger that are disproportionate to the brevity of the phrase.
Sometimes the past seems too complicated, and difficult, to confront. However, I have no doubt that, if left unaddressed, the past will corrode the present and endanger our future.
A silence enveloped the experiences of Irish men and women who fought in the First World War. We did not acknowledge the truth that 200,000 people from this island fought in British uniform. In airbrushing this narrative from our official history, we sought to deny this particular “jumble of opposites” which, if acknowledged, might have nurtured a better mutual understanding between all the people of this island.
The victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict deserve to be supported in their practical needs; they deserve truth; and they deserve justice, where possible. In recent weeks, the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments have struggled with how best to achieve these objectives and how to get the balance right between the various elements. We have also struggled to ensure that advancing reconciliation is the overarching objective of all our efforts to address the contentions of the past.
One hundred years after the First World War, we are belatedly recognising the humanity, courage and ideals of those from this part of the island who fought in British uniform in France, Belgium, Turkey and elsewhere. Let us fervently hope that it will not take a century for us to generously face up to the challenge of dealing with the more recent legacy of violence and division on our island.
Mary McAleese’s Presidency demonstrated that by showing humanity, respect and empathy, the past need not be corrosive or destructive but, rather, reconciling and healing. It is very fitting, therefore, that she will speak to us tonight about the Christmas Truce of 1914, an iconic but sadly fleeting moment of peace, reconciliation and hope.
Please welcome Professor McAleese