I am delighted to take part in this debate. I have had the honour of chairing the Northern Ireland world war one centenary committee since 2012 and of representing Northern Ireland on the national advisory group that advises the Secretary of State and his Department.
It has been a privilege to be involved in helping to organise the main events in Northern Ireland to mark the centenary of the war, and I commend the committee I have chaired. Its members have come together from all walks of life to prepare and organise these events in the spirit of cross-community remembrance and reconciliation. Those were the two themes we chose for the centenary in Northern Ireland, because we recognise that remembrance has not always been a unifying theme in Northern Ireland.
Sadly, we saw that all too well in Enniskillen during our troubles, when men and women who had gathered to remember the dead of the first world war were cut down by an IRA bomb. The poppy became a symbol of that but, sadly, there were some who sought to make it a symbol of controversy, of division. I am proud to stand in this House of Commons today wearing a symbol that has become common in both parts of the island of Ireland: the poppy set into a three-leaved shamrock. The three-leaved shamrock represents the three divisions that were raised in Ireland and that served in the first world war, the 10th and 16th Divisions and the 36th (Ulster) Division. It is good that Members of the Irish Parliament are now wearing this symbol, and I am proud to stand in solidarity with them, as a Unionist Member of Parliament here in the House of Commons, wearing this symbol to reflect the sacrifice of Irish men of both traditions on the island who gave their lives in common cause in that war.
As we have navigated our way through this centenary, through the centenary of the Easter rising—a historic event that is important to Irish republicanism—and the centenary of the Somme, an event that is not only marked by Unionists, we must recall that as many nationalist soldiers as Ulster volunteers died at the Somme. We have sought to reflect that, because this is our shared history. I am proud that in every county in Ireland today there is now a war memorial, representing the men from those counties who sacrificed their lives during the first world war, and that out of the lofts of many Irish homes have come the medals of those Irish men who served, as families once again lift the lid on this part of our shared history. More than 40 Irish men won the Victoria Cross in the first world war. Today, the British Government have provided to the Irish Government a memorial stone for every one of those men, and those memorial stones sit today in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, under the shadow of a cross of sacrifice, erected in the cemetery that holds within its grounds people such as de Valera, Michael Collins and the leaders of the Easter rising. Those graves stand alongside the graves of British soldiers, a cross of sacrifice and tablets memorialising the Irish VC winners. That is a mark of the progress we have made in the past four years in making commemoration and remembrance of the first world war a shared experience on the island of Ireland, and not just something that is commemorated by one tradition on one part of the island.
I am struck by the fact that three Members of Parliament from this House of Commons from the island of Ireland fought and died in the first world war: Arthur O’Neill, a Unionist representing Mid Antrim; Tom Kettle, a nationalist from East Tyrone; and Major Willie Redmond, who died at Messines in 1917.
I have always been struck by the story of Willie Redmond. He was carried off the battlefield, mortally wounded, by an Orangeman from County Antrim, from the 36th (Ulster) Division, because at Messines the Irish Division and the (Ulster) Division fought side by side, in common cause. In the winter of 1916, Willie Redmond, writing home to his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author, in the aftermath of the carnage of the Somme, where Irish men and Ulster men had fallen in that terrible battle, stated:
“It would be a fine memorial to the men who have died so splendidly, if we could over their graves build up a bridge between the North and South.”
That is what we have sought to do in the past four years through remembrance of a war in which Irish men from all parts, in every county, in every village and town across the island of Ireland, came forward and fought under the Crown, in common cause. We have recognised this period of our shared history. That inclusive approach to commemoration is surely the greatest tribute we can pay to the Irish men, to the Ulster men, to the Unionists and nationalists, to the republicans who put on the uniform of the Crown and fought in common cause for the freedom of so many in Europe.