An awful question that will not go away ...

17 Jun 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 17 Jun 2016

Gerry McAlinden former Head of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe argues that we should remain in Europe for the sake of future generations 

We are less than three weeks away from the hundredth anniversary of the battle of the Somme. We will each of us in our own ways – together, in small groups or alone in our thoughts – remember once again the tens of thousands of young men – British, Irish, French, Belgian and German, Europeans all – who lost their lives in that hopeless carnage. Grandfathers to many of us! As a young man, while hitch-hiking in the North of France in the 1960s, I found myself, on different occasions, taking time out to walk among the neat lines of the vast military cemetery – imagining the faces and the stories named in each stone. In 1996, when working in Brussels, I travelled there to commemorate the 80th anniversary.

On another occasion, my French wife and I spent a day at Verdun where both of her grandparents had served and had been gassed in 1916-17. Far from the sense of serenity and peacefulness that tempers the sorrow and respect in the poppy fields of Picardy, the abiding feeling when driving away from the charnel house of Verdun is one of inner desolation and emptiness. The very earth around the site seems still to be shattered by the constant barrage of high-powered shells that blasted nature and men to bits every day for several years. It is said that German conscripts sent to the front stayed there for the duration. Imagine for a moment the impact of the daily slaughter on these teens and young adults, on both sides!

In another place, another time, in Estonia, I met a grandmother who, at the age of seven, walked with German army recovery units to retrieve the corpses of their dead comrades on the frozen fields on the borderlands of that country. Imagine her lost childhood!

Imagine how, as a grandfather, I felt to hear the chilling contempt of Nigel Farage when, two weeks ago, he bade a last goodbye and cheerio to his fellow European parliamentarians in Strasburg. Every instinct handed down shudders at his bleak throwaway vision of a dismantled European Union. It is cheap, facile and arrogant to dismiss the work of several generations, starting with our grandfathers, so that we might never have to experience the horrors of war and conflict over use of scarce resources, like, at that time, coal and steel, or today, water and energy. If today, their ambition has not been realised – and is sadly compromised by a current European leadership lacking vision and direction – can it really be a solution to turn the clock back yet again to the unequal contest for the survival of the fittest among the large and small states that make up the European Union? Can a Europe of so many disparate identities and conflicting objectives without a shared sense of responsibility, mutual solidarity and the common denominator in intelligent self-interest maintain the peace?

A vote to Remain will help the United Kingdom to strengthen its place and influence within the European Union. It will encourage the forces for reform within the Union to redouble their efforts to build a better Europe, more responsive to the concerns of people across all twenty-eight member states.

It is hard to predict what changes a Brexit will have on my life and that of my generation. But I try to imagine what longer term costs for my grandchildren and their children in the future. Thinking about them, one awful question just won’t go away - are they, as a consequence of a decision taken in their grandparents’ time, ever more likely to find themselves living the inhuman cruelty of war? Imagine what they will think of this generation!



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