February 29, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Al Millar

Al Millar hales from east Donegal. He was educated in Raphoe and went afterwards to Trinity College Dublin. He currently living and working in north Antrim.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Al Miller

"I learned about the facts of the 1916 Rising at secondary school in Donegal. The sense of its power and significance as part of the founding mythology of ‘the nation’ for the ruling political elites of the Republic of Ireland (and large numbers of citizens) was completely lost on me then. I came to an improved understand of that in adulthood. This process of understanding is ongoing."

BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" AM: 

"I can well understand why most Irish Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans have the deep need, variously expressed, to ‘get their country back’ after being conquered and colonized. Many terrible things happened and if I was from that background I would likely feel the same. However, I personally do not need to ‘take back’ or ‘reclaim’ and I do not feel the Rising made me any freer. I have considered from time to time what would require more courage, to go to the GPO at Easter 1916 or go over the top at the Somme and concluded that such comparisons are not constructive, and both acts required immense courage. But I am also reminded that a courageous act in the name of an idea, does not make a good idea, this is certainly so with the 1916 Rising. The document itself is mostly to do with the justification for the violent reconstitution of an independent Irish nation, the necessity for which, as I suggested before,means little to me. The few lines on guaranteeing ‘civil and religious liberty’ etc are pretty basic democratic ideals, with actual implementation being the only real measure of the worth of the words. On social matters and most things that aren’t connected to constitutional conflict the ROI hasn’t done too badly, a lot better than some other places. On ‘cherishing’all equally - well ‘cherished’ is not a word I would use to describe how the community I am from was regarded.  The Irish Republic being ‘entitled to’ claim the ‘allegiance’ of all Irish people, would be in conflict with the spirit of recent treaties, you would think? A lot of the document seems dated, which makes the undated devotion to it by many today all the more disturbing."

BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" AM: 

"I can’t remember when I learned about the Battle of the Somme per se. I knew about the Great War from wearing the poppy to Church and as a child was aware of the two inscribed memorials listing the names of members of the congregation who had perished. But it wasn’t something often mentioned. My first memory of the Battle of the Somme in particular is associated with TV documentaries citing its immense significance to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. The narrative I remember told how this act of sacrifice by the 36th Ulster Division made it very difficult for the London government to abandon Ulster Protestants to a United Ireland, which was how it turned out."

BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" AM: 

"The Battle of the Somme does not have the same huge meaning for me that it so obviously has for many in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. That is not to say that the courage, sacrifice and slaughter has no impact at all, of course it has, but it is not at the centre of my sense of nationality, history, or politics. I don’t feel the strong link between the battle and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK that so many seem to feel. Men from practically every country in Europe and beyond were ‘dying like cattle’ (from Wilfred Owen) all over the continent at that time also.  Yes, their British patriotism and loyalty means something to me, but not perhaps as much as for many others. However the way that some would play down or rob Ulstermen of any British motivation at all for their actions in the now fashionable ‘Irishmen fighting together’ narrative does those men an injustice, I feel."

BJS: "As a person of Irish and British nationality is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" AM: 

"No! I’d have preferred an alternate history where Carson had the sense to throw some sort of political concession to the Home Rule Party (HRP) to save them electorally in the 1918 election, which was in some ways a far more important date.  It would have been better had the HRP survived, in spite of the Rising, and with Unionists, worked out something democratic and half reasonable together. But wishful thinking is of course nonsense and probably the die was cast when WW1 broke out. For me the Rising marked the violent failure of Wolf Tone’s inclusive ‘Catholics Protestants and Dissenters’ vision, setting in motion the events that would see the demise of the HRP which always had a robust Protestant nationalist participation, (Parnell led the party don’t forget, Joseph Bigger a Belfast Presbyterian was one other of many). This chain of events eventually  brought to power an almost exclusively Catholic political elite, with two out of three of Tone’s ‘sects’ no longer empowered  players in what became the Republic, and also set in motion the economic, cultural and demographic collapse of Protestants over most of the ROI – yet the inclusive idealism resounds unshakably true for republicans still? The Rising certainly did nothing to strengthen the sense of identity and belonging of Protestant minority communities in the border counties, or anywhereelse.

BJS: "As a person of Irish and British nationality is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" AM:

"No it’s not as important as other things, though of course it means something. My sense of Ulster Scots Presbyterian heritage means far more to me in terms of identity and belonging to this island than the Somme offensive. Though I support commemorations I also feel that there are 400 odd years of history of people like me here in Ireland, and one event, though hugely important, shouldn’t cause people to forget about everything else. Politically speaking, the event is very central to the identity of many who might be called ‘Carsonist Unionists’ and I am not a ‘Carsonist Unionist’."

BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" AM: 

"I have no plans to do either as yet. The 1916 Rising is not something I would want to either ‘celebrate’ or ‘commemorate’ though I would have no objection to attendingas an onlooker or bystander, and I would probably find it very powerful. Given where I now reside, it is highly likely I will encounter a Somme commemoration event in some form. Again I would find it very powerful, but more perhaps because of my awareness of the power it has over others, than because of the power it has over me."

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)?" AM: 

"I haven’t given it much thought. I am genuinely baffled how they can have such a morally ambiguous event so linked to the founding mythology of their state. On the one hand Enda Kenny pulling Mrs Humphreys, the Presbyterian Republican bunny out of the hat to front the Centenary is very, very, thin wallpaper covering a very thick very un-Presbyterian wall! On the other hand the rhetoric about reaching out to all comes across sincerely enough from herself and her government, but don’t scratch too deep maybe? 
Arlene Foster is right to be aloof, as the most senior Unionist in Ireland she has to look to that tradition. Somme commemoration narratives tend to centre on the universal sense of waste and human sacrifice, as part of the wider Great War period. Conditions in Europe couldn’t be more different then and now. Europe is now at peace and the EU has helped cement strong friendly relations between the warring parties. The issues that led to the Great War are long dead politically. This allows Irish Nationalists and Republicans a good space to overcome their reservations about Irishmen’s Great War involvement in the British Army and take ownership of those who fought, in a legitimate parallel interpretation to the British Unionist one.

The moral template for the 1916 Rising is radically different. The constitutional issues that drove the 1916 Rising are not dead politically today. The Proclamation is not yet actualized, and a large constituency of voters still vote to make it so; dissident republicans still use violence in its name. Though the Union is safe for the moment, with even a majority of Catholics apparently uninterested in a united Ireland, not far underneath the ‘peace’ the constitutional conflict goes on. Nationalism/Republicanism still wants to eliminate Unionism by a border poll - the issue is still live. Arlene is right to register her distance, to abstain from ‘commemorating’. However it’s equally important that she does not adopt a blanket ‘Carson says NO’ attitude to the whole thing. It’s good that she attended that event organised by the Church of Ireland. They are doing the commemoration wall for everyone killed in the Rising, not just the 78 Republicans, and as someone in the media coverage recently suggested, perhaps she should attend the unveiling of that also."

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?" AM: 

"Things have improved immensely over the last two decades, but there is still a long way to go. The forces of liberalism in the Republic of Ireland have increased in strength in recent decades and that is very good. I come from a small border community, with a difficult history and an origin in colonization, with cultural, religious, and family links to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. Though things have improved a lot I still don’t feel my Ulster-Scots heritage is particularly well respected or understood. In that sense I am unhappy with the state of ‘culture’ – but things are improving. Wouldn’t now be a good opportunity for the Republic of Ireland to take the lead in terms of a new improved form of cultural recognition?

It disturbs me how socially un-progressive Northern Ireland is, especially on issues like Gay rights, abortion etc. In this latter issue the Christian Right Catholics and the Christian Right Protestants are engaged in some political common causing, which is I suppose is good, in a certain way, but, being secular minded, I am generally on the other side of the debate on this and other social issues. It is disheartening to see progressive forces so relatively weak in society. The sectarian muck slinging, especially on social media, continues with resonant power. The so called non-sectarian part of social media has some shocking sectarianism, perhaps made so startling because you expect better. But people, especially younger people, are getting more cosmopolitan and Northern Ireland is becoming more culturally cosmopolitan with secularizing forces nibbling the old catholic and protestant tribal certainties. In spite of grumbles society here in NI works far better than many people give it credit for. It is still a good place to live.

BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" AM: 

"Unionists need to become more open to the idea of their own minorityness in Ireland and try to recapture a sense of Irish nationality that used to be commonplace among Irish Protestants, whilst maintaining their other core collective British/Protestant/Loyalist/Ulster-Scots identities (whichever, if any, that applies to them). This is something Unionismacross the board, at least at political level, does not appear to want to entertain at the present time. Suspicion and engrained attitudes still hold far too much sway. Though progress has been made, Unionist politics still plays too much to negativity and fears. Nationalists also have a long way to go. They need to learn to acknowledge and validate beyond the superficial and symbolic, the deep sincerely felt otherness of Unionists,more especially those senses of identity offering allegiance to what was described as ‘a foreign people and government’ in the 1916 Proclamation – British, Loyalist etc. Imagining Ireland as one, you would think, should be accompanied by an imagining of a Protestant Unionist minority built within that in a modern respectful way, as apples to Poles, sexual minorities, Muslims, etc – sadly, though progress has been made, there is far too much generalization, moral supremacy and demonization.  Hopes – a rosy peaceful future or one with further ‘troubles’ – I don’t know! hoping for the former obviously, but think realistically it could go either way. I think if both sides worked on their part of the above points, the future would stand a much better chance of being rosy."

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