Battle of the Somme centenary - European unity for the end of wars

AT precisely 7.25am today a salvo of artillery fire from three First World War guns resounded in London’s Parliament Square.

Battle of the Somme centenary - European unity for the end of wars

Five minutes later, Lance Corporal Richie Spence, from Newtownards in County Down, played a lament on the bagpipes by the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

On this side of the water — in both Dublin and Belfast — equally solemn events were held to commemmorate the thousands of British soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago.

On the first day of one of the bloodiest battles in human history, 20,000 men from Britain and Ireland perished in just 24 hours.

Unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, from all over the island of Ireland fought and died in this cataclysmic encounter.

There are some people alive today in Ireland who lived through that world war and the one that followed it as well as the Civil War.

That is a horrifying thought but one that younger generations, in particular, should note when contemplating whether membership of the European Union has been a good thing not just for Ireland but also for Britain and, indeed, all member states.

People in their sixties in the south and those under 20 in Northern Ireland have — thank goodness — never known war and have never experienced the fear and terror that comes with it not just for the combatants but also for their families and loved ones.

That should be borne in mind when contemplating the effects of Brexit and the convulsions surrounding the UK’s vote to leave the EU.

Whatever about its shortcomings — and there are many — the union of European states has kept the peace among its members. The alliance has fulfilled its first directive which was to end the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours.

Six years prior to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 the European Coal and Steel community was formed to ensure that the heavy industries — coal and steel — came under a common management. Like all good ideas, it was brilliant and simple. By combining coal and steel production, none of the member states could on its own make the weapons of war to turn against the other, as in the past.

The EU did not, of course, prevent the Bosnian war of the mid-’90s and the genocide committed by Serb forces in 1995 but it has played a key role in stabilising the Balkan region.

Croatia is a member. Montenegro and Serbia have started membership talks while the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania are candidate countries.

The Troubles in the North might never have ended but for the EU’s continuing support of the peace process.

That puts the shouting and roaring in the European Parliament over Brexit into context.

Better a war of words than the real thing.

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