Today, the Irish government will receive an official invitation to take part in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations at the Cenotaph: the UK’s annual flagship memorial event attended by the Queen and senior members of the royal family, senior politicians from across the political divides, former prime ministers, High Commissioners from Commonwealth countries, religious leaders, military officers and, most importantly, veterans from the armed forces.
It is a late invitation – coming as it does on the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and as we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Some 35,000 Irishmen were killed in the First World War; a large proportion of the more than 200,000 who volunteered to serve in the British army during the conflict. At the time, Ireland was a constituent part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland didn’t exist until 1921 and the Republic of Ireland won its independence in 1922.
It is understandable, considering the history of conflict between the two peoples, if not the two governments, that Ireland should be missing from the commemorations. Understandable, but incredibly sad. Previously, the Irish Ambassador had been invited to attend the service; this year he will be invited to lay a wreath.
Matters have improved in recent years following the Good Friday Agreement and the continued development of the peace process in Northern Ireland. In 2011, The Queen laid a wreath to the fallen in the Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, Dublin; and also at the memorial for those who died in the cause of Irish freedom in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance.
This year, a memorial Cross of Sacrifice was raised at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin; and commemorative paving stones to remember the gallantry of Irish Victoria Cross winners have been laid.
In August, the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, joined the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the German President, Joachim Gauck, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry at a commemorative event at St Symphorien Military Cemetery in the Belgium city of Mons, where British, Irish and Canadian soldiers are buried together alongside their German former foes, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons at the start of World War I.
“Throughout the First World War, Irish servicemen stood side by side with men and women from across Great Britain and the Commonwealth,” the government Minister responsible for the Remembrance Sunday Service, Sajid Javid MP, said. “As we commemorate the centenary of the start of the war it is right we remember our nations’ shared sacrifice.”
And so it is. There will be no complaint from me at the involvement of the Irish government in the commemorations. But I wish we could go further. 100 years on from the start of the first conflict and approaching 70 years from the end of the second; is it not time to let bygones be bygones and share this act of remembrance with the German people and government?
Our two nations have been involved in very bitter and hostile fighting in which many millions of people died. That was a long time ago. We should never forget the sacrifices; but we can still do that while recognising, acknowledging and celebrating the reconciliation between our two countries.
The Jewish people have more reason to hate the Germans than any other group of people: six million Jews were slaughtered in the Shoah/Holocaust. And yet the Germans are not excluded from Yad Vashem – the Shoah memorial, museum, educational institution and record centre in Jerusalem. Quite the opposite. German leaders have visited the site on numerous occasions to remember the dead, to lay a wreath and, perhaps, to repent of the deeds of their forebears.
If Israel and the Jewish people can show forgiveness and reconciliation to the German people at that most sacred of sites; surely we can do the same at the Cenotaph?
In June, I was privileged to be present at the memorial services and events in Normandy marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The Queen and senior British politicians, including PM David Cameron, were present along with US President Barak Obama, French President François Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The most moving part of the ceremony on the beach at Ouistreham, code-named Sword Beach for the purpose of Operation Overlord, was the arrival of a veteran – a German veteran. Johannes Börner was a German paratrooper who was sent with a company of 120 men to fight against the Americans at Saint-Lo on the night of 7th July 1944. Only nine of those 120 survived the battle. Mr Börner’s war ended on 21st August when he was captured by Canadians. In front of the world’s leaders, Mr Börner received a standing ovation as he was greeted by a French veteran in a warm embrace.
The Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph is a simple memorial that has remained largely unchanged for decades. It is a moving service at which the nation comes together to remember, to reflect and to give thanks. The inclusion of the Irish Ambassador to lay a wreath is to be welcomed. A similar invitation to the German ambassador would be another welcome step.
If it can be done in Israel at the memorial to the Shoah; and it can be done in Europe on the site of the battles; surely it can be done in London near the mother of Parliaments.