The Living and the Dead both have key roles to Play

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer Dr John Coulter, a former Blanket columnist with an article that originally appeared in the Tribune Magazine on 6/05/2012

With the peace process holding, the living seem destined to spend the future fighting over the dead. The next four years will see a host of centenary commemorations. Already Northern Ireland is capitalising on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage with the loss of more than 1,500 people. What other land would celebrate the deaths of hundreds in the freezing Atlantic waters in 1912? The ship which sank has boosted Ireland’s tourism potential in the teeth of an economic recession.

More worrying are the commemorations planned to mark the formations of many of the militias which emerged a century ago as the Home Rule crisis gripped Ireland. First off the mark will be Unionists, who plan a huge rally in Belfast later this month to mark the centenary of the Balmoral Review. This was an event in 1912 when Unionism’s anti-Home Rule champion, Edward Carson, held a review of thousands of armed members of his newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force. A year later, nationalists responded by launching the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Ireland was set for a bloody sectarian conflict between Unionists and nationalists.

Instead, those religious enemies joined forces and swelled the ranks of Irish regiments to fight in Europe’s blood-soaked trenches. German machine-guns did not distinguish between Unionists and nationalists during the Somme offensive in 1916. In Europe and Gallipoli, Unionists and nationalists fought – and died – side by side. They are also buried side by side in many First World War cemeteries. This poignant reminder seems to be lost amid the controversies surrounding the centenary commemorations for the signing of the anti-Home Rule Ulster Solemn League and Covenant.

To the generation of 2012, the Ulster Volunteer Force is a sectarian loyalist terror gang which emerged in the 1960s and was responsible for some of the biggest atrocities of the conflict.  Nationalists have become enraged by rumours that some Unionists plan to mark the Balmoral Review by parading in 1912 costumes, complete with imitation weapons. The fear is that the commemoration could turn into a show of strength for modern-day loyalist paramilitaries, such as the Ulster Defence Association, Red Hand Commandoes and Orange Volunteers.

Republicans also face a dilemma. With opinion polls showing an increase in support for Sinn Fein in the Republic Of Ireland, will republicans want to create a situation where they cannot march along Dublin’s main O’Connell Street in period costumes? Later this month, republicans will mark the 25th anniversary of the Loughgall ambush in which eight of the Provisional IRA’s top terrorists were shot dead by the SAS during a bomb and gun attack on the County Armagh village’s police barracks in 1987. The eight were members of the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade and have become known as the Loughgall Martyrs in republican folklore.

Even the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party has become embroiled in a death controversy after one of its Assembly members was photographed carrying the coffin of former INLA and Official IRA activist Seamus Coyle. The coffin had been draped in the Red Starry Plough flag, a favourite emblem of the Marxist wing of Irish republicanism.  SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood has emphasised he carried the coffin because the dead former INLA man was a personal friend, but Unionist politicians have criticised his action.

With dissident republicans stepping up their bomb planting activities, many fear it will not be too long before the terrorist death toll rises. And Northern Ireland still has to get through this year’s contentious loyalist marching season.

Meanwhile, the search continues for the remains of the “disappeared”. These were people murdered and secretly buried in unmarked graves by republican terrorists. The bitter truth which politicians must face is that the future stability of the Irish peace process will not depend on the actions of the living, but how people commemorate the dead.  This will spark a new debate on what constitutes “an innocent victim of the conflict” in Ireland. Are some of the dead more honourable than others?

More importantly, are there any such people as “martyrs for peace”?


  1. We have already witnessed loyalism,s answer to qsf,s respect and equality agenda in Loughgall,they erected an sas flag with the logo 9-0 on it,a good post John,I think we are sitting on a potential powder keg, the proposed beacon on Mc Arts fort is typical loyalist response to anything Irish,ie destroy it and trample what remains into the ground,I for one am expecting to see a triumphalist show of strength from the armed wings of unionism and the lol.with republicanism fragmented and qsf in subservient mode,we can expect a return to the old norn iorn orange and prod, qsf,s wish for equality could very well become crumbs from the masters table..

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  3. Today marks the 38th anniversary of the largest mass murder carried out during the "troubles"the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Irish News carries a tiny column on page 4,you could quite easily skip past it.had this been about Omagh I bet it would be spread over at least four pages including the front page.mind you it probably suits the Dublin government,after all the dogs in the street know that London was involved in this carnage and the cowardly bastards in the Dail are more interested in kissing prefidious albions arse than seeking justice for its citizens.

  4. The psni are in trouble over keeping body parts...I can see heads rolling and an investigation that,l probably cost an arm and a leg....

  5. The Rebels Yell!

    John Coulter always provides food for thought and is not afraid to say the unpopular thing

    ‘I think the 1916 societies have a lot to offer grass root Republicans ... I think they must adhere to the principles of Wolfe Tone, ie formulate a 21st century Catholic, Protestant & dissenter philosophy.. and definitely NOT allow themselves to slip into the mire of sectarianism.’

    Tommy McKearney has been promoting this line vigorously for quite some time about a need to re-examine what republican is and means in the world of today.