Commonwealth War Graves Commission — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:58 pm on 22 June 2015.

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Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative 7:58, 22 June 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for initiating this very important debate. I wish to speak briefly about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s care for Irishmen’s graves, particularly from the First World War. I speak as a member, at least in the last Parliament, of the British-Irish parliamentary group.

In the 80 years following the establishment of the Irish Free State, the official policy of the Irish Government was to expunge from the national consciousness any participation in that war of men from the south of Ireland. Not unnaturally, it was politic for the families of those men to follow their Government’s lead. I am advised by the CWGC that it cares for 8,500 World War I battlefield graves from the two southern Irish divisions and 7,200 from the Ulster Division. It is probably true to say that because of the previous attitude of the Irish Government many of the graves of men from the southern Irish regiments would not have had a visit from any of their compatriots—let alone members of their family—for virtually a century.

Since the transformation of British-Irish relations in the wake of the peace process—culminating, of course, with the visit two or three years ago of Her Majesty the Queen—one of the more heartening developments has been the reawakening in the Republic of interest in the history of the southern Irish contribution. For many families the story has been similar; forebears who were treated as black sheep and airbrushed out of family histories have been in effect rediscovered.

So in the context of this debate I would like to pay particular tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the close and cordial relations it now has with the Government of the Republic, and in particular—which is a little known fact—for the responsibility it accepted from the outset for the upkeep of no fewer than 3,342 graves in the Republic of Ireland of Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, most of whom would have died of wounds in hospitals in Great Britain and Ireland and would have been moved at the families’ request and at their expense to be buried with the familiar Commonwealth war graves headstone alongside their families in the Republic.