Theresa Villiers – 2016 Speech on the Somme Centenary

Below is the text of the speech made by Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Belfast on 29 June 2016.

I am very grateful to you for coming here this morning and for providing me with an opportunity to reflect on events of 100 years ago.

Before I do that, however, I thought it right to address the situation following the EU referendum.

The people of the United Kingdom gave their verdict last Thursday and voted to leave the European Union.

But I fully appreciate the need to bridge the divisions which emerged during the referendum in recognition of the many millions who voted remain, including a majority here in Northern Ireland.

So I want to give these re-assurances.

First, there will be a careful and detailed negotiation to determine how we implement the decision taken last Thursday.

I and the whole government are determined to get the best deal for all parts of our United Kingdom.

And I will do everything possible to ensure that Northern Ireland’s interests are protected.

In the negotiations to come, the Prime Minister has promised that we will involve the Northern Ireland Executive as well as the other devolved administrations.

We will also be engaging with the business and farming community in Northern Ireland on this important task on which we are embarking.

And we are already working with the Irish Government. We both want to keep the open border for people and business.

The UK has always been an open and outward looking country, a great global trading nation. And that is what we intend to remain.

So we are committed to securing a long-term economic relationship with the rest of Europe that provides for the best possible terms of trade in goods and services.

And we will look to put in place the strongest possible economic links with friends like the United States, and the Commonwealth, and other important partners like China.

Opening up important new potential opportunities for Northern Ireland.

There will inevitably be some adjustments and the Government is ready to take any appropriate action needed to deal with those.

But as the Chancellor made clear in his statement on Monday, thanks to the difficult decisions we have made, the UK economy is fundamentally strong.

We have robust growth, our deficit is down and employment is at record levels.

So we should take confidence from the fact that the UK is ready to deal with whatever the future holds from a position of strength.

Finally I would like to say this.

This Government remains fully committed to the Belfast Agreement and its successors and to the institutions they establish.

The Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will all continue to reflect the unique political relationships throughout these islands.

In fact as a result of the result last week, more decisions than ever before that affect Northern Ireland will be taken in Northern Ireland with your devolved institutions one of the main recipients of the powers to be brought back from Brussels.

Following the result last week some have called for a border poll.

The Belfast Agreement is very clear on this.

I am obliged to call such a poll if at any point I believe there is a majority here for a united Ireland.

I do not believe that to be the case.

All tests of opinion point to continuing strong support for the current political settlement, including Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

So this Government will continue to provide stability and govern in the interests of the whole community.

We remain determined to do the best for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.

Although the referendum has dominated the news headlines since Thursday, this should not mean we overlook the importance of the centenary which takes place on Friday 1st July.

On that day I will have the privilege of joining the Prime Minister, members of the Royal family, political colleagues and thousands of members of the public at services in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

First of all, we will gather at Thiepval at the site of Lutyens’ magnificent Memorial to the Missing which bears the names of over 72,000 British and South African soldiers killed at the Somme but who have no marked grave.

Then along with many of Northern Ireland’s elected leaders I will go on to the Ulster Tower, near to the site of the Schwaben Redoubt which was the object of the Ulster Division’s assault on that fateful July morning one hundred years ago.

As many of you will know, the Ulster Tower is modelled on Helen’s Tower at Clandeboye where so many members of the 36th Ulster Division drilled before they set off for France.

This will be my third visit to the Somme as Secretary of State and these annual ceremonies are without doubt one of the most poignant and moving events that I attend as part of my official duties.

The Battle of the Somme began at 7.30am, on a sunny morning and was to last for 141 days.

It has left an indelible mark on our nation’s history.

It is deeply ingrained in the national consciousness of the whole United Kingdom, with barely a community, village, town or city untouched by the sheer horror what happened there.

In total the British Army sustained some 57,000 casualties on the first day.

Almost half the 120,000 men in the 143 battalions who went over the top were cut down by a lethal blizzard of machine gun, rifle and artillery.

It is widely viewed as the darkest day in British military history.

By the time the Battle ended on 18 November casualties had risen to 419,655 men.

And the furthest the British and French forces advanced during those four months was 8 miles along a 20 mile front.

No doubt the debate will continue to rage about the tactics that involved slaughter on an industrial scale, though as one distinguished historian put it recently:

“If there was a way of fighting the First World War that did not involve trying to smash frontally through formidable enemy defences, neither side discovered it”.

This centenary gives us a chance to reflect once again on whether anything was achieved. Though it can be argued that by relieving Verdun, the battle saved France from collapse, substantially weakened the German army, and prepared the way for the victory which occurred two years later.

But what is not in doubt is the shattering scale of the sacrifice that took place to achieve this, with so many first-hand accounts recounting the pain, the suffering and the horror.

So it is only right that this week we come together as a nation to remember those who fell.

And of course the centenary has particular resonance for many in Northern Ireland because the deeds of the 36th Ulster Division on the first day of the Somme have passed into legend.

After going over the top, the Ulster Division was one of the few that actually succeeded in meeting its objectives that day.

By a combination of astute tactics and speed, not matched on other parts of the battlefield, they had entered the Schwaben Reboubt by 8am and taken over 400 German prisoners.

But the inability of other Divisions to make similar advances left them cut off from reinforcements and massively exposed to a ferocious German counter-attack.

The more the Ulstermen advanced, the more cut off they became, until eventually they were forced to retreat and abandon their gains.

And their initial success came at a huge price, with the Division sustaining over 5,500 casualties.

The heroism they displayed was remarkable.

One war correspondent described their initial attack as:

“one of the finest displays of human courage in the world”.

While Captain Wilfred Spender of the Ulster Division’s HQ Staff famously said:

“I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st. July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world.

My pen cannot describe adequately the hundreds of heroic acts that I witnessed”.

Of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded on the first day of the Somme, four went to Ulstermen.

Theirs were stories of truly astounding levels of courage.

And I was privileged to be present at Bushmills with Her Majesty the Queen yesterday when she unveiled a statue of one of them, Robert Quigg.

Yet the history of Ireland and the Great War is not just about the 36th Division.

We must also remember the incredible heroism of the 16th Irish Division.

Mainly nationalists drawn from the pre-war Irish Volunteers, they sustained an agonising 4,300 casualties in successfully capturing Guillemont and Ginchy in September 1916.

Just as in Great Britain, so across the island of Ireland there was virtually no corner left unaffected by the Battle of the Somme.

In total it is estimated that well over 200,000 men from across the island served in the British Army during the course of the war.

And it is worth remembering that nearly three quarters of them were volunteers, with conscription never extending to Ireland.

Around 35,000 Irishmen, Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists were killed in World War One.

Their contribution and their sacrifice was immense and we should never forget it.

Yet in the decades following partition, the Irish contribution to the Somme and to the First World War more generally often seemed largely hidden.

And I believe that part of the reason for that lies in the consequences of another seminal event in Irish history that took place a matter of months before the Somme and which has also been extensively commemorated this year.

I refer of course to the Easter Rising that began at the GPO in Dublin on 24 April 1916 and which by the time the surrender occurred five days later had resulted in nearly 500 deaths and 2,600 injured.

While the Rising did not achieve its immediate objectives it is entirely understandable why so many see it today as leading directly to the birth of the Irish Free State and ultimately to the foundation of the Republic of Ireland.

In the post-independence era, two conflicting narratives of the year 1916 began to take shape.

For many unionists, the rising was an illegitimate insurrection by a small number of unrepresentative rebels, at a time when the war on the western front was going particularly badly.

This was in stark contrast to the supreme sacrifice that Ulstermen made at the Somme fighting for King and country.

In nationalist eyes the men and women of Easter 1916 gained a revered status, bordering on the mythological.

A citizens’ army fighting for Irish freedom against the might of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen.

And over time, those Irishmen who heeded the call by nationalist leader, John Redmond, to enlist in the British Army and who fought on the western front tended to be disregarded and overlooked.

If anything, in the period after the Second World War and during the long years of the Troubles, these attitudes hardened.

It is one of many examples of the power history has to sustain long held divisions and antagonisms on this island.

In recent years, however, against a backdrop of the significant political progress here in Northern Ireland and the greatly strengthened relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland a number of pre-conceptions and stereotypes have begun to break down.

There is now a much greater focus on the complexities of Irish history during the turbulent decade from 1912 to 1922.

So, for example, we learn of what motivated men like Emmet Dalton.

He was an Irish Volunteer who joined the British Army in 1915, fought with distinction with the 16th Irish at Ginchy during the Somme, reached the rank of Major, and was awarded the Military Cross.   On demobilisation in 1919, he joined the IRA and became one of Michael Collins’ closest associates.

Or there is Martin Doyle, of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross in September 1918, joined the IRA in 1920, and later served with the pro-Treaty forces during the civil war.

The role of women has been more clearly acknowledged, not just those who took part in and supported the Easter Rising, but also the 234,046 women who signed the Declaration supporting the 1912 Ulster Covenant opposing Irish Home Rule.

And while it is the radicals who campaigned for votes for women who tend to be remembered today when we consider that decade of suffragette agitation. Perhaps those really responsible for the expansion of the franchise were the millions of women who took on roles and responsibilities on the home front in factories and farms and offices which had previously been the exclusive preserve of men.

Ireland’s role in the Great War has been rediscovered and at long last it has been fully recognised.

The changing view of our history was illustrated by a series of historic events in recent years.

These include the unveiling of the island of Ireland Peace Tower at Messines by Her Majesty the Queen and the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese on 11 November 1998.

The visit of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to the Menin Gate and the Peace Park at Messines in 2013.

And the resumption of the laying of a wreath by the Irish Ambassador, Dan Mulhall, at the cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday.

In March 2014 along with Jimmy Deenihan, who was culture minister at the time, I helped lay the foundation stone for the Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. And I was honoured to be present when this monument was later dedicated to the thousands of Irishmen who gave their lives in the two world wars.

And in August 2014, the Irish President and Taoiseach and his ministers were right at the heart of commemorations to mark the outbreak of war.

I strongly welcome the fact that the Irish Government has organised its own programme of commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, including an event at the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge next month.

All of this is in tune with the approach with which the Irish Government marked the centenary of the Easter Rising earlier this year.

It is widely accepted that tensions around the 50th anniversary in 1966 raised tensions within Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and probably contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles shortly afterwards.

By contrast the Irish Government’s commemorations on Easter Sunday showed it is possible to mark events which are still sensitive and contested a hundred years after they took place in ways which are both dignified and inclusive.

I applaud them for that, and for events such as the service to remember those members of the British military who lost their lives during the rising.

The same inclusive approach was demonstrated at the Rising to Reconciliation event I attended in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in April thanks to the kind invitation of Minister Charlie Flanagan and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

And at the Imagining Ireland concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall later the same month hosted by the Irish Embassy.

Much of the credit for this changed tone is, of course, down to professional historians, uncovering new facts and providing fresh interpretations of past events.

I’ve also been very impressed by the Creative Centenaries # Making History 1916 exhibition at the Ulster Museum and the Reflections on 1916 exhibition at Belfast City Hall.

And by the work of the Community Relations Council and Heritage Lottery Fund to develop and embed the set of important principles which underpins all of this work in Northern Ireland.

Talking to the people behind these initiatives, it is clear that every word has been scrutinised, every picture the subject of negotiation, every display carefully weighed up for accuracy.

All with a view to ensuring that everyone can feel comfortable visiting the exhibition, whatever their background.

Creative Centenaries, who I first met in April at the Nerve Centre in Londonderry, have also produced some excellent resources for schools.

But as well as the historians, I believe the politicians too have played a part in changing the way we look at the events of 100 years ago.

At the beginning of the so-called ‘decade of centenaries’ in 2012, the UK and Irish Governments both recognised the potential for sensitive events like the Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising or the Somme to be hijacked by those seeking to use them to re-open old wounds and promote discord and division.

After all that has been achieved both here in Northern Ireland, and in UK-Irish relations, we therefore determined to work closely together in an effort to prevent this.

While it is never easy to view history with complete objectivity and impartiality, both administrations have been clear that we seek to put historical accuracy and mutual respect for different perspectives at the heart of our approach.

To promote education and greater shared understanding without asking everybody to agree or abandon strongly held positions.

And so far, while acknowledging that even more difficult anniversaries lie ahead, I think we have been successful.

It is an approach that we will continue to pursue as we look ahead to the centenaries of other seminal events, the ‘coupon’ election of 1918 and its aftermath, and of course the Treaty and partition in 1921 and 22.

We have seen all too well how history can divide.

Our ambitious goal throughout this decade is seek to use history to unite.

To build on the political progress that has been made here.

To strengthen further the strong bilateral relationship that exists between the United Kingdom and Ireland, a relationship that will endure long beyond the UK’s exit from the EU.

And to bolster the special ties that exist throughout these islands as we look forward to our next century of co-operation, partnership and friendship.