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25 January 2016

1916 anniversary a time for all sides to tell their story

Heather Humphreys
Respect: Heather Humphreys

'It's good that the minister responsible for commemorations is coming from Dublin," I said to a friend last Thursday at the Belfast conference The Future Of Our Past: Remembering And Reassessing 1916, organised by the Presbyterian Church to look at attitudes to the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

"She'll just turn up in time to read out a dull speech written by civil servants," he said.

"She's a politician, so she won't listen to anyone."

I was delighted to find he was wrong.

True, Heather Humphreys - the Presbyterian whose elevation to the Cabinet in July 2014 to take charge of the commemoration surprised everyone in the Republic - missed the morning session, but she was there to hear the reflections of the Very Reverend Trevor Morrow.

In 2000, at 51, Dr Morrow - a Lisburn-born Trinity College Dublin graduate who ministered in Bangor from 1978 and in Lucan, north Dublin, from 1983 until 2014 - became the youngest ever Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.

"I was raised in one narrative, Northern Ireland, in which our forefathers who died at the Battle of the Somme are honoured, and yet have lived most of my life in another narrative, the Republic of Ireland, where those who led the Easter Rising are commemorated," he said.

What he hopes for is that, a century on from 1916, we are moving towards a stage where Irish people could have "a shared narrative".

His reflections on how Ireland could move beyond its difficult past were infused not just with his own personal experiences, but those that had emerged during the preceding sessions and highlighted the sheer complexity of the relationships of people from different traditions on our island.

Dr Fearghal McGarry and I, in speaking of the Easter Rising, had talked first about our families: his had included a well-off maternal grandmother who thought London the centre of the universe and was of the class known disparagingly as "Castle Catholic"; and a paternal republican grandfather who fought in 1916 and was interned.

Mine included a paternal grandmother who - though married to an Englishman - became so Anglophobic because of 1916 that she supported all their enemies including the Nazis, and was still pro-IRA when she died in the late 1950s; and a maternal grandfather from Cork who, in 1916, joined the British Army to fight in France.

Philip Orr read to us from his new play Halfway House, set in 1966, in which Bronagh and Valerie, snowbound in a isolated pub, discover in a forthright conversation that, for family reasons, they have widely conflicting understandings of what happened at Easter 50 years before.

He also read extracts from letters from the Somme and showed heartbreaking photographs which, in so many cases, seem to be of children in uniform.

And the indefatigable journalist Eamonn Mallie recollected a childhood growing up in south Armagh when joining the IRA was an ever-present option

Humphreys' speech about how "1916 belongs to all of us" and her frank responses during the question-and-answer session would have been unthinkable even a few years ago

"Given my background as a Protestant and an Ulsterwoman who is a proud Irish republican, I appreciate the need to respect the differing traditions on this island," she told us.

One manifestation of this will be the memorial wall to be erected at Glasnevin Cemetery listing the names of all those who died during the Rising.

She revealed that her grandfather, Robert James Stewart, was one of the 12,000 Monaghan men who signed the Ulster Covenant.

She wanted the "Protestant story on this island" to be fully explored during the decade of centenary events, and believes the time is right for southern Protestants whose families had been affected by events between 1916 and 1922 to come forward and tell their stories.

The message from everyone, including organiser, the Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, was that storytelling and conversation is the only way to bring about mutual understanding.

We need, all of us, to talk about 1916. And to listen.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards