Humanity must always trump politics and the past

Humanity must always trump politics and the past

THE tweet by Sinn Féin TD and chair of a leading Dail Committee, Brian Stanley, that has caused so much political outrage in Ireland, shows us at least one thing.

It shows us that, sadly, however much things change, they stay the same.

When it comes to our past we are stuck and seem unable to move on.

Stanley tweeted, on the anniversary of the infamous Kilmichael Ambush in west Cork, the following.

‘Kilmichael 1920 and Narrow Water 1979 the 2 IRA operations that taught the elite of British army and the establishment the cost of occupying Ireland. Pity for everyone they were such slow learners.’

Kilmichael and Narrow Water combined resulted in the deaths of thirty nine men.

Thirty nine people. Thirty five British soldiers, three IRA men and a tourist.

Thirty nine human beings. One of whom, at least, was only 19 years old.

I’ve been to the Kilmichael ambush site a few times.

I first went there after reading Tom Barry’s Guerrilla Days in Ireland.

Reading that book and standing at that famous site it is hard not to feel the presence of history.

It is a gloriously atmospheric, wild, spot.

It is impossible, standing there, not to be caught up in all the old songs.

It is impossible not to think of the bravery of those men who took on the might of an Empire.

It is impossible not to feel the full Irish romance of it.

But if you stop and listen, if you listen beyond the wind blowing across the poor fields, if you listen beyond the silence of the Irish countryside, what can you hear?

Can you hear men crying? Can you hear men dying in the long grass?

Can you hear men calling out in pain from the hard road?

Can you hear them praying or calling for their mothers or their lovers?

And if you do, do you turn away because those voices are English?

Do you only listen to the Irish ones?

Does our humanity only extend to those we deem to have been on the right side? To those we agree with?

Narrow Water, or Warrenpoint, wasn’t even the ‘fight to the death’ that Barry described Kilmichael as being.

In this case two remote controlled bombs killed soldiers, the second killing those who came in response to the first.

One was a driver of an army truck who was 19 years old and reports state ‘all that remained of his body was his pelvis, welded to the seat by the fierce heat of the blast’.

Also killed that day, by the British Army firing across the nearby border, was a 29-year-old Londoner who had travelled up from Dingle where he’d been visiting family.

Now some people might read the bare facts of those events and feel no doubts.

They may stick squarely to their beliefs and prejudices.

They might consider, for instance, that the 19-year-old driver was without doubt an anti-Irish zealot, who believed in all his heart in the might of Britain, and can be dismissed as just the abstract enemy.

They will not consider that he might just have been a kid getting off the dole.

They might think the tourist shot randomly across the border is just collateral damage.

They might be able to hide all that death amongst symbols and songs. They might look at it and try and make a clumsy, distasteful, political point.

But does Irish history, do all of the manifold injustices committed against the Irish by our more powerful neighbours, give us the right to abandon our basic, shared, humanity?

What, in short, makes the blowing to smithereens of a 19-year-old boy, acceptable?

The Famine? The Black and Tans? Bloody Sunday? What?

Brian Stanley’s tweet, alongside the point scoring between the DUP and Sinn Fein in relation to the North’s Covid response, shows us how far we have to go.

It shows how blinded we still are. It shows how wedded we are to a past that never did get us to the future.

It shows an Ireland addicted to worn out feelings and beliefs because we lack the courage to find new ones.

Brian Stanley has fully apologised for that tweet and people across the political spectrum have spoken of his decency.

There is no reason not to believe that.

Can we not, though, take that decency with us when we speak of our past and make sure our humanity trumps our politics?