I f a cat sits on a hot stove, it tends to avoid hot stoves after that. In fact, it avoids all stoves, hot and cold. This shows you that the cat learns from experience; it also shows you that cats can overlearn.
We humans are similar. If we go to a restaurant and have a crap meal, we avoid that restaurant. People may tell us “But I had a lovely meal there only last week!” It doesn’t matter. We’ve learnt from experience.
Which brings us to the Somme commemoration. For years nationalists and republicans have stayed away from commemorations of the Somme. They did so because it involved the British Army and their experience of the British Army had taught them, down the centuries, that meeting with the British army was bad news. There was no point in unionists telling them about the good experiences they’d had with the British Army. Nationalists had learnt to distrust that force.
But had they overlearnt? Like the cat that avoided cold as well as hot stoves, were nationalists and republicans excessively negative about the British Army?
The DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast thinks they were. Mayor Gavin Robinson said last week at a Somme commemoration: “I’m glad so many people did turn out for what was a very poignant and respectful commemoration service here at City Hall.” Notice that word “did” – implying that some people who should have been there weren’t. SDLP Councillor Pat McCarthy was there. He said “Today we have taken another step along the road to strengthen normal relationships between people of goodwill on the island of Ireland and remembering our shared history.”
What both Mayor Robinson and Councillor McCarthy really meant was that Sinn Féin weren’t there. Yes, Martin McGuinness had shaken the queen’s hand but that wasn’t enough.
What can we learn from Sunday’s Somme commemoration experience? Well, we can learn that republicans’ absence from the commemoration ceremonies sprang from their experience at the hands of the British Army. We can also learn that people sometimes say things that miss the point or don’t even make sense. Mayor Robinson speaks of a “respectful and poignant” ceremony. If we learnt anything from the Somme and the First World War, it was surely that imperial wars like it are an obscene waste of human life. Young men were fed into the line of fire of German machine machine guns that fired and kept on firing until their barrels were near to red-hot. For what? The logical lesson to be drawn from such events is that when governments and generals promised that this war is “the war to end all wars” they were lying through their back teeth. You’d also have learnt that those soldiers who bought the lie are best honoured by making damn sure such lies are not bought again. Yet if you caught the news clips of the ceremony at City Hall, you’d have seen the ceremony was essentially militaristic. Instead of a ceremony that said ‘Never again!’ and steered clear of any military element, the ceremony was characterised by marching soldiers and bugles and war memorials. In short, the ceremony honoured the dead for their heroism and sacrifice rather than mourned their deaths by the command of liars.
The other thing we learnt from the Somme ceremony was that the SDLP, as embodied by Cllr McCarthy, believes such commemorations are helpful as “another step along the road to strengthen normal relationships between people of goodwill on the island of Ireland”.
In other words, if you weren’t at this ceremony, you probably aren’t a person of goodwill “on the island of Ireland”.
The other thing that we learnt from Sunday is that people will do anything rather than confront the essential point. The reason more “people of goodwill” weren’t at the ceremony was not because they are not people of goodwill, but because the event honoured unfortunate Irishmen who fought for Britain in that war, died in British uniform. If you see your country deprived of its right to run its own affairs in part because of the British Army, it’s hardly surprising, then, that many Irishmen and women prefer to hang back from ceremonies honouring men who fought and died in that army.
The final thing that Sunday did was to take the words “normalisation of relationships” and wring it dry of meaning. To talk of “normalisation of relationships” between two countries where one country insists on its right to raise taxes, garrison troops, pass laws for part of the other country is to talk Alice-in-Wonderland gobbledegook. Picture this: Ireland stations 5,000 troops in Yorkshire, starts passing laws for that area, raises taxes from its people. You think the people of England would talk of the “normalisation of relationships”?
So. Having absorbed the lessons from this year, wouldn’t it be wonderful if next year we cut out the military strutting, avoided stupid speeches and bowed our heads in mourning for the poor, silent dead?
Wonderful but unlikely. A lot of us are slow learners.