March 31, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Mark Neale

Mark was born in Larne but grew up mainly in Ballymoney, educated at the genuinely, non-contrived, integrated grammar school of Dalriada. His father is from the Cavan and his mother County Down. His father has a very poor view of the “Free State” into which he was born and brought up, while his mother being a Presbyterian from the Ards, although staunchly unionist, has a romantic view of the men of 1798, interspersed with her father’s my grandfather's role in the 1912-14 period. In his own words: "So my popular history is unionist with a recognition that my forefathers were probably not always that way inclined." Having studied and lived in England for 6 years Mark returned in 1990 and joined the UUP, was elected a councillor in 1997 and has subsequently moved out of politics and now works in public affairs.
Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Mark Neale:
"I probably became aware of it through the popular history, certainly not through school as I dropped history in 3rd form and by then, we had only reached the Tudors (yawn)."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" MN: 
"Genuinely No. The republican politics of 1916 is a foreign country to me. Irish Republicanism was and remains to me a broadly a violent, undemocratic ideology focused on removing the mythical “Brits” out of Ireland. Broadly I identify as one of those Brits and so, I and those like me, have been the target of Republican removal. Therefore I am not perceived nor do I identify myself as one of “Ireland’s children” and I have never been cherished by nationalism or republicanism. So by dint of birth Easter 1916 excludes me, both politically, and by reinvention and interpretation, religiously. By conviction and by study, I’m actually very content with this, as intellectually and politically I don’t believe in the utopian ideals of Pearse or Connolly and practically I have never been attracted to the state that was created in their name."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" MN: 
"Again my Somme awareness would have come to me via popular history, the stories of ever house getting “the telegram” and hundreds in mourning. So realistically awareness would have started around 8 or 9 but serious recognition being much later. 
Representations of the battle would have been via orange banners of JP Beadle’s famous painting. Growing up attendance at armistice day parades etc would have reinforced the folk memory and in the days when WW1 veterans were still round those that were in the 36th Ulster Div would have been honoured and revered."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" MN: 
"Yes, essentially the Somme is part of who I am politically and culturally. Both my wife’s grandfathers fought with the 36th Div on the 1st July, both being injured. In researching my own family I have discovered relatives having served and died in WW1 but in other Irish Divisions, so WW1 is part of my back story. Equally as I identify as British, with a clear though lesser Irish identity, the collective experience of both WW1 and WW2 for the whole of the UK does form a cohesive narrative within which my family has played a role and I exist."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MN: 
"Not really, and certainly not positively. The 1916 Rising, its aftermath and outworking excludes me. I am not part of the Irish Nation that was called out in the Proclamation. Equally the use of 1916, and the imagery of the events of 1916 as being part of the continuum of Republican legacy and legitimacy particularly to justify more recent  political violence, has created in me a strong oppositional response and identity – my Unionism."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MN: 
"It is part of my history and my family history. The event itself has a historic pull and as a symbolic event it has gained and increases to gain resonance. The role played by all the Irish Divisions, 10th, 16th and 36th form part of who I am, the rejection of the Irish men who served in WW1, particularly by the Irish state, has allowed a shared past to morph into an identity that is characterised, wrongly, as “non-Irish” – so I identify with those who fought for King and county."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" MN: 
"I will take part in discussions and academic study and analysis of both of these events. I will not be celebrating the “Rising” as it excludes/d me and those like me, and due the political violence of recent years, the use and misuse of the historical events and commemorations will continue to exclude me. As for the “Somme”, commemorations, I will attend several, including the national remembrance at Theipval on 1stJuly 2016 (I have tickets), in addition undoubtedly I will participate in other organised events to commemorate the sacrifice of all the Irish Regiments. Commemorate or celebrate? – probably both."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" MN: 

"It is not for me to tell others how they should celebrate or commemorate their past, and likewise it is not for others to tell me how I should either. Having said that, the Irish Government have a real dilemma in that legitimising 1916, makes it difficult not to legitimise 1969, especially with the murky role played by the Irish Government in the formation of PIRA. Likewise there is a patronising element to the planned celebrations. Unionism cannot celebrate the 1916 Rising and its consequences the Irish Free State and subsequent Irish Republic. We were a people apart , plus Ireland of the 20th century was a cold house for unionism. Unionists were deemed foreign, and no amount of fanciful nonsense about “our flag – green, white and orange” represents all, cuts it (for most unionists, the Irish Tricolour is the emblem of Irish Republicanism, not a progressive modern state) and unionists were and are more than happy to be excluded. So the fact that the Irish Government has centred part of their celebrations on the tricolour being delivered to every school in the Republic by a member of “oglaigh na heireann” (the official title of the Irish Defence Forces) serves only to reinforce the alienation. For all the wrong reasons, both the flag and the phrase "oglaigh na heireann" are, for me and most unionists, descriptors of violent, illegal, sectarian, Irish republicanism and therefore this too excludes me. And who ever thought it was a good idea to send the military to every school? Politically I’m happy enough to be excluded from this but equally I'm delighted no one in our government thinks its a good idea to send soldiers (say the Royal Irish Regiment) round all our schools with the Union flags helping the children understand WW1! But it tells me something is strangely amiss in the Irish Government, when no one realises how weird this is, how militaristic it is. As for the First Minister attending celebrations of the Rising, she has nowhere to go on this, to expect her to attend shows the same insensitivity and unrealistic expectations that using the tricolour does."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" MN: 

"“Where we are?” No, our understanding and respect for each other isn’t currently where we should be. Yes on both sides of the border changes are occurring and will continue to do so, but are we there yet? NO."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" MN: 

"The Belfast Agreement pathed the way for a new NI at peace with itself and its neighbour, the Agreement and subsequent iterations were to begin the creation of mutually respectful, pluralist states existing as good neighbours. This, in respect of neighbourliness, has begun and that is to be welcomed. Sadly the pluralist state, with respect and tolerance at its core hasn’t been achieved and with the current ultra-unionist and ultra-nationalist enforced coalition at Stormont this will not change any time soon. But I still aspire to the ideal and believe it can be created, a society at peace with itself, mutually respecting each other’s traditions and histories but more than that, tolerating those differences and enabling the development of a society in which we can and do live together."
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