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My Lords, I am most grateful to your Lordships for permitting me to speak in the gap. The Minister made a most impressive introductory speech to this debate. He referred to the participation of the two Irish divisions at the battle of Messines in 1917. I can add another significant fact: alongside those two Irish divisions were an Australian division and a New Zealand one. The noble Lord, Lord Birt, referred to the famous 36th (Ulster) Division, but the 16th Division, from the south of Ireland, was staffed entirely from the south into the five regiments from southern Ireland, which were disbanded in 1922.
I was interested to hear about the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, with his Irish forebears; but returning Irish servicemen from the British Army had to be totally concealed within their family. They were treated like black sheep and could never be referred to. There is distressing evidence that has come to light that there were several murders of men who had been identified as having served in the British Army. That lasted right through the Second World War, but then came the remarkable transformation of the British-Irish relationship. There were the significant contributions by the two presidents to the peace process; then the Belfast agreement; the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Dublin; and the visit by President Higgins to London, where he found time to inspect the laid-up colours of the five regiments in St George’s Chapel.
I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Four years ago, it was the UK’s turn to host the meeting. We met in Ashford in Kent and took coaches through to the Ypres battlefields. There are a remarkable number of Irish memorials, even in that smaller bit of the Western Front, in addition of course to the cemeteries. Our Irish colleagues were really impressed by all these, because the graves had not been visited for a century in the vast majority of cases, either by their compatriots or, indeed, by their families. In the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which I think is the largest cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—that remarkable organisation—I came across the grave of an Irish soldier of the Great War, known only to God. One can speculate that it might well have been a crucifix which was the only identifying object—but that may be. My Irish friend was in tears. That is the legacy which we now enjoy within British-Irish relations, and we can pay proper tribute to 30,000 deaths, more or less distributed between those two Irish divisions, and acknowledge the contribution that Ireland made to the Great War.