With the Christmas holiday behind her and not yet officially First Minister, Arlene Foster made her position on the Easter Rising very clear: “I certainly would not be going to commemorate a violent attack on the United Kingdom,” she told this paper.
A week is a long time in politics but it seems some were expecting the season of goodwill to last all year. Even world-weary and cynical liberal unionists raised an eyebrow. They may have been hoping that Arlene Foster would demonstrate a new, more inclusive attitude at the helm of the DUP, and this came as a slap in the face with a rather dogmatic fish. 
A tangled mess of woolly thinking has been spinning out of various sources about the Rising and the potential for unionist, even Royal, participation in it. Foster scythed through it all with typical sharpness: “The rebellion which took place 100 years ago this Easter was directly to attack the state to which I owe my allegiance … [it] led to a loss of hundreds of lives, Irish people being killed, I would say needlessly.” 
Commemorating events is a modern phenomenon that we engage in a lot and understand very little. What is it that we are actually meant to be doing?
“Remembering” is a common gerund, which makes no literal sense when the event happened before we were born. “Marking” is a neutral, timid little word, which indicates acknowledgment of an event without explaining why it is that we should want to acknowledge it. In “marking” an event we can take the opportunity to explain its historical context, but the word itself does not reveal our moral reckoning of its actors.
“Commemorating” on the other hand, is more revealing, steering as it does towards honour, gratitude or mourning. But who for? In the case of war, or political fighting, it is almost impossible to commemorate without taking sides. Even World War I, for example, the necessity and ‘glory’ of which most people now question, is nonetheless still commemorated in partisan fashion. We remember only the British (including Irish as was then) soldiers. However this benign type of side-taking can be explained by the fact that individual soldiers are remembered in the towns and villages from whence they came, with their names etched on the very cenotaphs that provide the ceremonial focal point. Of course it is natural to think of one’s own.
But of whom are unionists meant to be thinking when we reach Easter 2016? They cannot with any sincerity honour or mourn the seven leaders who violently opposed everything unionism stands for. Nor can they show gratitude to the wider but still small group of men and women who decided to spring a violent insurrection upon the unsuspecting people of Dublin purely in order to, as the Bishop of Meath put it, ‘evoke a hearing’, when a democratic process was available and already in train.
Yes, Foster has a cheek speaking so reverentially of that democratic process when she has no trouble honouring the Ulster Covenant that had earlier avowed opposition to the Home Rule Bill by ‘any means necessary’. But acknowledging that hypocrisy would not make commemorating the Easter rebels any worthier.
Attend at Easter Week and the prospect of causing even more offence is high. Irish opinion on the merits of the Rising is rich and varied but very few will say they are unhappy with the independence to which it added emotional fuel. A child born of a violent relationship is loved no less for the enmity between its parents, nor its birthday any less celebrated. And there it is – the other c-word – “celebrated”. The tabloid papers are awash with talk of celebrations and of Ireland’s “heroes”. Official Ireland is prone to exalting the rebels and ignoring the ordinary Dubliners they killed: there is a narrative and the victims just don’t fit the script. This is perhaps the greatest problem for unionists and some south of the border too, because no one likes a party pooper. The average Irishman is not going to separate in his mind, still less in his heart, the birth of his independent nation from the manner of its secession. He will not reserve celebration for one and disgust for the other.    
So Foster could ignore the event and leave the people of Ireland to do as they wish; or she could ‘mark’ it, which would be meaninglessly anaemic for a politician in a way that it wasn’t for the Queen; or she could attend in order to lament the waste of innocent life and engage in what, given the prevailing mood in Dublin, could only be seen as some sort of protest. Never mind that its noble purpose would be to remind everyone of the dissident republican threat, the ideology and methodology behind which mirrors exactly that being celebrated in 1916. Such contribution would be seen, regardless, as the unwelcome former in-laws turning down the music.
It is argued that as First Minister Arlene Foster has a duty to represent everyone in Northern Ireland, including those who cherish the events of Easter 1916. It is a charge that will rightly be levelled at many partisan events over the course of Foster’s term in office, on which she should properly be judged. But not this one. The role of premier of any country surely does not extend to commemorating the violent roots of a movement that later sought – and seeks - to destroy it.