April 03, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Alan Burnside

Alan Burnside was born in North Belfast in 1947. He lived on the front of the Woodvale Road from 1953 to 1973 opposite the original Holy Cross Primary School. From 1969 the immediate vicinity of his family home was a scene of frequent public disorder (even today) and occasional murders. His home and the adjacent houses have since been demolished to create a sterile barrier. Alan's education was at Boys’ Model, Methodist College Belfast and Queen’s University for a BSc(Econ). Following ten years in the NI Civil Service, most of it as a Departmental press officer, Alan was in the NI Housing Executive Information Service for 18 months, then three years in the Belfast office of the CBI. The combination of experience as a press officer and the business credibility developed in the CBI encouraged Alan to launch a public relations business in 1982. He is now semi-retired and working mainly at Westminster.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?” Alan Burnside:
"I couldn’t pinpoint any particular time. Just gradually over the years I became aware of the event and its significance in shaping the development of the Irish State. In Northern Ireland it was studiously ignored by unionists until recently (and still is by many) as  being something which happened in a foreign country and therefore irrelevant to Northern Ireland. From the sixties onwards preoccupation was with what was happening in Northern Ireland and despite the sterling efforts of Terence O’Neill hostility to the south and civic disorder grew, much abetted by Paisley."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?” AB
"They were misguided violent-minded patriots determined on a blood sacrifice which may not have actually been needed if the promised Home Rule had been speedily introduced and then allowed to evolve over time through the democratic process into an Irish Republic. The proclamation is stirring stuff but was never implemented. The Republic became a sectarian one-Church state hostile to protestants. No effort was ever made to create a pluralist state which would accommodate the rights of one million protestant/unionists. The nationalist assumption post-partition, was that Northern Ireland would soon fail and, unwanted by Britain, sheepishly join the 26 counties, impoverished as they were."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?” AB:
"From an early age from my Mother. Her 28 year-old father joined the Royal Irish Rifles and was killed at the Somme in August 1916.  I learnt firsthand the devastating material and emotional effect of such a loss on a widow with four children under five. Since my teens I have read much of the literature on the battle gradually extending my interest into the wider Great War then military history generally, reading about the Napoleonic campaigns, American Civil War, World War Two and of course Irish history."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?” AB:
"I don’t see how northern and southern Irish unionists could stand aside from Britain’s wars without playing their part militarily. We can’t claim to be British citizens then ignore our obligations when the country goes to war. Even Irish nationalists joined up in their thousands, albeit on the understanding that Home Rule was assured. This is not a case of being jingoistic but recognising an overriding duty."
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?” AB:
"It’s important in the sense that I reject the claim by Ireland to ownership of all of Ireland. The 26 counties left Britain; we didn’t leave them. They had no right to demand that the six counties should follow them. I have no difficult in being proud to be Irish and being equally proud of my British heritage. I have always had a problem with the shortsighted concept that 'England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. If it wasn’t for the victory of Britain and its allies especially the USA and Russia, post WW2 Ireland would have ended up a satellite state of Germany. Arguably that would also have been Ireland’s fate as well as Britain’s if we had lost the First."
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?” AB
"I see my grandfather’s sacrifice at the Somme as personal tragedy for the family but I am proud he played his part in defeating Germany and putting an end to its European ambitions. I am not prepared to get into debate on the morality of war. I subscribe to the view that all wars are wrong but some wars need to be fought. It’s only recently that Ireland has woken up to the role its people played in the First and Second World Wars and started to commemorate publicly and formally their participation and sacrifice. The State should be ashamed of the disgraceful way they treated returning soldiers and their families. It’s appalling the way they looked to Germany for support In World War One, were ambivalent in World War Two and only eventually realised what a monster Germany was towards the end of the war."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?” AB:
"Everything I have read and seen about the Easter Rising has only reinforced my view that it was an unnecessary tragedy. What’s worse, the action by the 1916 leaders has been used for 100 years of subsequent terrorism by the 'recurring IRA’ (as Eoghan Harris puts it) to justify unelected people committing savage murders and bombings as they adopt the same logic for claiming legitimacy as the Easter Rising participants. These are claims in defiance of successive overwhelming democratic votes for peace and reconciliation in both parts of Ireland. I remember my Grandfather on Remembrance Day every year and will mark the Somme accordingly."
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)?” AB
"I think the Irish Government has done an excellent job on the commemoration. The inclusion of the British and Irish soldiers and the civilians, especially the children, was a welcome move. Anything lesser would have been a narrow and immature view of the Rising. I understand where Arlene Foster (and David Ford) are coming from. They see a continuous thread of unrepentant violence which can be traced from 1916 to 2016. They do not wish to share a platform which can be interpreted as glorifying the origin of that violence. Like them I would not attend but am happy to debate the event, its dubious necessity and its enduring consequences in a civilised manner.”
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?” AB:
"On the surface we have moved on to a sensible relationship on this island. Scratch the surface however and it doesn’t take much provocation from Sinn Fein or unionists, accidental or deliberate, for everyone to get into their trenches again."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?” AB:
"Northern Ireland needs a stable forward thinking government pushing ahead with socially and economically progressive policies especially integrated education. Ireland should also make the catholic church give up its control of schools to allow equality of access for non-catholics. We need an economy and social environment north and south which does not witness the best of our young people emigrating but provides an economic and civilised environment in which they could thrive."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated.” AB:
"Irish politics are dominated by three unacknowledged myths. These are: first, the people of Ireland would like the north to join them in a united Ireland; second, catholics in Northern Ireland would like to join with the south and third, that the UK wants to hold on to Northern Ireland. The reality is that none of these statements is true. The sooner the Irish State deals with the implications of the south not wanting NI and that in the north catholics and protestants could make a better job of sharing NI the better for neighbourliness and politics. And Northern Ireland should face up to the fact that Britain has made it clear it would get out of NI if it could. Perhaps then unionists would behave with more grace towards everyone."

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