Opinion: the row over Government plans to commemorate the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police shows the continuing complexity of historical conflicts

The government's announcement of a ceremony at Dublin Castle on January 17th to commemorate those who served in the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police prior to independence has been met with much debate around the appropriateness of commemorating opposing sides in conflict.

Veterans and others affected by conflict often believe that any attempt to humanise a former enemy is inappropriate, and may have the effect of trying to excuse their maltreatment of others. On the other hand, it is also important to understand the motivations, culture and behaviour of enemies and to be able to view the situation from their point of view. The unprecedented popularity of true crime documentaries and podcasts illustrates the demand for understanding the mentality of those that commit unlawful acts upon unknowing victims.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, the Government's plans to commemorate those who served in the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police prior to independence sparked a lively debate

However, there is a thin line between understanding the enemy and being sympathetic towards them. Defining the enemy is a complicated task: one person’s enemy is another person’s ally. Loosely speaking, the enemy is an agent who threatens both the identity and the very existence of the main character of a story, whether that story is a national historical narrative, ancient folklore or a fictional fairytale. Marvel and James Bond movies would have limited plotlines if enemies were disregarded. In fact, recent trends have seen movie villains become the main character in an attempt to explore their pathos and pain, the dark origin story of Joker in 2019 being one example.

But engaging with the enemy on a fictional level is an undemanding task compared to the real life scenarios where  including the enemy can cause real threats to social order and sensitivities. The 9/11 memorial museum in New York caused controversy during its formation with its intention to include photographs of the hijackers who turned four passenger jets into missiles, killing almost 3,000 people. There were concerns that such an "appalling" display would "honour" the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. 

From RTÉ 1's Nine News, the government are standing over plans to commemorate RIC and DMP members despite protests and boycotts

In the case of the 9/11 attacks, the enemy does not play the main role in current on-going narratives, which focus on the innocence of people who went to work that day and never came home, as well as the 343 fire fighters who died trying to save them. However, the story could not be told if there had not been the enemy attack so the presence of the enemy is an obligatory part of the story.

The relationship between the hero of the story and the enemy seems particularly important because the opposition between "we" and "other" is a fundamental element of imagined social order. War is a time when this dichotomy reaches its extreme, and each side uses the power of media to present these extremes in a persuasive way. So how can the enemy be commemorated in public spheres?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, current Mayor of Clare Cathal Crowe and the Historical & Reconciliatory Police Society's Jim Herlihy on Government plans to commemorate the RIC

A way of demystifying the enemy in museums, for example, is to refer to individual enemy soldiers by name, and by using artefacts, objects and images that communicate our shared humanity. In 2010, the German Historical Museum in Berlin broke many taboos by staging an exhibition about how Adolf Hitler managed so successfully to seduce a nation. However, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the subject matter, there were almost no objects Hitler might himself have touched. 

Including enemy narratives is important in order to ensure that commemorations are inclusive and meaningful to a broad spectrum of society. Commemorating the enemy does not necessarily evoke empathy for the perpetrators of mass crimes, but rather encourages more general reflection on the banality of immoral behaviour.

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Official public commemoration aims to make those who were enemies in life comrades in death by uniting those whose lives were blighted by a conflict. Irrespective of what side people fought on, enemy or ally, consensus can be reached by recognis ing that the real enemy is conflict itself.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ