Whether Robert E Lee Or Edward Carson, Some Statues Should Fall

If Donald Trump and the aberrant politics he espouses has brought out the worse angels of our nature, it’s not just in the United States of America. Here at home in Ireland, the mavericks of the ideological right have found their anti-hero in the Manhattan populist, echoing his disdain for “political correctness” and those seeking justice or amelioration for current or past wrongs. Eilis O’Hanlon takes to the pages of the unionist-supporting Belfast Telegraph to defend the indefensible:

As memorials to generals who fought for the pro-slavery Confederates during the American Civil War continue to topple like dominoes across the southern United States, it’s only a matter of time before some politically correct smart alec in Northern Ireland calls for the statue of Sir Edward Carson up at Stormont to be pulled down, too.

It’s easy to denounce people in the past who had less progressive and enlightened attitudes. Without wanting to sound like President Trump, there is blame on “many sides”.

That’s the problem with history. It refuses to be – no pun intended – black and white.

Take Winston Churchill. He was in favour of using poison gas against “uncivilised tribes” in Africa and believed in the triumph of the “Aryan race”.

But, in its darkest hour, Churchill also help save Europe from the Nazis.

It’s complicated, to say the least.

Except, it’s not in the least bit complicated.

In the United States the presence of grandiose monuments in public places commemorating slave-holders who fought a war primarily to keep control of their slaves is the main focus of the protesters and other concerned citizens. No sane or moderate person is calling for Confederate cemeteries to be flattened or crosses and gravestones to be pulverised. The debate is about shared civic spaces and the appropriateness of certain symbols in them. Symbols long regarded as problematic. Which is why, on the opposite side of the argument, a ragbag collection of racists, from Neo-Confederates to Neo-Nazis, have elevated the statues of Robert E. Lee and others into ideological totem poles. Rallying points for their hateful beliefs.

The real problem is O’Hanlon’s failure – or refusal – to recognise that context is everything. Does it really require a great deal of thought to understand that such edifices in the US might be offensive to the descendants of those who fought against the slave-masters and to the descendants of the slaves? A statue of Winston Churchill might be acceptable in London but a monument to the former Secretary of State for the Colonies, a man who resisted and rejected Irish independence throughout his life, would clearly be unacceptable in Dublin. Likewise, yes, even the stone and metal tribute to Sir Edward Carson, a politician who’s actions contributed to decades of violence and suffering on this island nation, should be a matter of public discussion and agreement. And if that discussion is successful, then his monument should find a more suitable, and contextualised home. One not shared by northern nationalist and unionist representatives alike.

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12 comments

  1. Sounds like special pleading to me. Anyone you don’t like has to go. Tell me, if there ever is a United Ireland, should all the Irish Republican monuments and statues be taken down or ‘put into context’ lest they offend Unionists?

    1. Nope, but I wouldn’t name shared community playgrounds after republican patriots either in the context of the Six Counties. A bit of consideration and empathy goes a long way.

      Irish republican monuments, in most cases, are entirely appropriate in Ireland. I wouldn’t expect the British to honour the graves of the Manchester Martyrs or the numerous revolutionaries who died in their jails. Though the gesture would be welcome.

      Carson at Stormont is wrong. Carson elsewhere might be justified. Personally, I do not believe the assembly should have been housed in the old parliament buildings. But that is another story.

      1. “it’s only a matter of time before some politically correct smart alec in Northern Ireland calls for the statue of Sir Edward Carson up at Stormont to be pulled down, too”.

        Somebody should tell Eilis that the call has already gone out!!!
        Given the stature of carson in Unionist mythology, the Statue should have been removed and a new one symbolizing peace and trust, going forward together etc erected before the re-opening of Stormont after the GFA/Belfast Agreement. Failure to do so confirmed the Unionist/Loyalist impression that Stormont was theirs and told the Republicans/Nationalists they were unwanted, unpleasant visitors. Thus making things difficult for everybody

        https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/edward-carson-1854-1935/

      2. By “Republican Patriot” I assume you mean Mr McCreesh, who was arrested in possession of one of the weapons used in the Kingsmills massacre. Surely that should not be the sort of activity associated with “patriotism,” but then I agree with the well-known quote about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel.
        Carson, of course, was a Dubliner with no real Belfast connections and he was an Irish Unionist for whom the establishment of a Belfast parliament was a last resort and a symbol of the failure to keep the whole of Ireland in the U.K.. So, perhaps, a seated statue of him with his head in his hands might be more appropriate.
        I would agree that while it might be appropriate to have Confederate memorials/statues in cemeteries/battlefields, it is inappropriate to have them elsewhere. The descendants of Lee and Jackson have come out in favour of their ancestors’ statues being removed and, having read a very detailed biography of Lee, he would not have supported the erection of any statues of himself and would certainly be happy to see them removed. They were mostly put up many years after the Civil War, not really to commemorate the people concerned, but as symbols used by the creators and supporters of the “Jim Crow” system to show that they were in charge and intended to remain so. Ditto the decision by the majority in Newry Council to name a childrens’ play park after the aforementioned McCreesh, basically saying “f**k you, we’re in charge now, we don’t care what he did, we’re going to rub your noses in it.”

        1. I was using that term in the context of the Comment above. The controversy over the naming of the park was the one I was referring to. It was a crass and insensitive action in Newry for the reasons you indicate (though the jury is still out on the identity of the men who participated in the murders at Kingsmill, if not their allegiances).

          Yes, it was a crude and unwarranted show of who’s in charge to local unionists.

  2. Living here in the South, but being from the North for more than half my life, I stumble into arguments from both sides. This is probably off the wall, but perhaps controversial figures would do best in a museum-type structure with different rooms highlighting different types of historical figures but with no editorializing about their political views, just a neutral explanation of who they were. Toppling statues seems to be akin to book burning. I do wish all copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (sp?) were gone and forgotten, yet something tells me it is wrong to erase history, no matter what. Excellent post, O!

    1. Thanks for that. Historical statues and monuments in museums, battlefield sites, cemeteries and graveyards, all seem okay to me. Or at least excusable. Public spaces in town and city-centres or outside/inside public buildings? If it is truly controversial, and antagonises people, then no.

      Like I said, if the proposal was to erase Confederate monuments in cemeteries and such-like, then I would oppose it. We have monuments here to the British Army which are appropriate. And ones which are not.

      A statue of Edward Carson, a truly divisive figure in Irish history, is probably not best placed outside a supposedly cross-community, peace-born assembly.

      1. As “northern nationalist and unionist representatives alike” meet separately from representatives of the rest of Ireland because of Carson’s policies, surely it’s entirely appropriate that his statue should stand outside their “supposedly cross-community, peace-born assembly.”.

  3. The real question is when we are going to take down all mention of Confederate propagandist and virulent racist John Mitchel as well

  4. It’s akin to the Chinese cultural revolution, the church’s eradication of Irish pre-Christian history and monuments, along with Nazi book burning. You cannot erase history. The monuments of that part of American history and Irish history must remain, but perhaps should be relegated to the corners of museums displaying the darker times of history. History forgotten is history repeated. History repressed is creating myth and martyrdom waiting to raise the spectre of ways best relegated to the past. History explained in context is a way forward. Purposely falsifying history, however, is wrong. The American civil war was about sedition, not slavery. Slavery was just fine as long as the consolidated country profited from it. When the profit was to benefit a a separate Confederation, a war resulted. Suffrage of the oppressed was raised as a cause, but mainly to destabilize the enemy. Racism and disadvantage was prevalent in the “free” North, see the segregated, diminished, and abused black troops. As anywhere in the United States at the time, and perhaps even today, it was the privately owned gun that prevented the worst of the abuse north or south of the Mason-Dixon line. Too bad history continues to repeat itself despite such harrowing examples of utter despair and atrocity, with a large number of people in states such as California seeking independence to maintain the virtual slavery of its illegal immigrants to assure the welfare of their newly-established IT royalty and continued feudal-like reign of their agricultural land barons. All to to undermine all of the great progress made in favour of the working class there, to include a decent minimum wage. Nothing has changed much since 1865. Truly a sad sight for a true socialist.

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