Almost a year ago, I wrote here about a grave historical oversight: the fact that Sir Henry Wilson, a decorated war hero and Unionist Member of Parliament murdered by the IRA in 1922, had been overlooked for a commemorative shield in the House of Commons. Last month, this injustice was put right.
The chamber is ringed by tributes to MPs who have fallen whilst serving, from the First World War to the murder of Jo Cox in 2016. Preparations are currently underway for Sir David Amess’ shield.
Four have commemorated Members who were slain by Irish terrorists: Airey Neave, Ian Gow and Robert Bradford by direct assassination, and Sir Anthony Berry as a victim of the Brighton bombing. Yet Wilson, despite being a former Chief of the Imperial General Staff whose murder shocked the nation, was overlooked.
This is not the place to list Sir Henry’s accomplishments, which were detailed in this magazine’s review of a recent book on his murder. Suffice to say, he was as deserving of recognition as any of his parliamentary colleagues whose arms grace the walls of the Commons.
Sir Henry represents an entire class of awkward loyalists
Following the intercession of Sir Lindsay Hoyle, he has finally joined them. This June, I was privileged to join the Speaker, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ian Paisley Jr and other MPs and assorted guests for the unveiling.
“You have corrected history,” Sir Lindsay said, and in a way I suppose that might be true. But standing in the Chamber as a prayer of thanks for Wilson’s service was offered, it felt more like a correction from history than to it. His life and accomplishments were what they were; it was us who forgot them.
For Sir Henry is just one example of an unfortunate cast of historical characters: one who doesn’t fit tidily into the narrative that eventually settles over the events in which they partook. He was an Irish unionist, not an Ulster one, and he did not see any contradiction between that Irish identity and his loyalty to the Union and to the Crown.
Of course, as Christopher Montgomery points out, he was a Protestant and lived in one of the big houses long since burned and razed by the republicans. These points do allow him to be sorted into the conventional narrative. He was not, as was apparently a branch of my own family, anything so esoteric as a Catholic unionist, southern or otherwise.
But in both his distinguished service to this country, and his being largely forgotten by it, Sir Henry stands as a representative of an entire class of awkward loyalists who refused to slot themselves into a straightforward story of national liberation. He has become the patron saint of those around the world who to this day rail against second-class British status, or cling to second-class British passports, despite successive governments’ wilful refusal to give them honourable treatment.
This being so, we might therefore hope that last month’s ceremony may one day come to be seen as symbolic, representing the long-overdue recognition by the United Kingdom of the debt it owes to such people. Perhaps it will be sealed in our collective memory when the pathway to citizenship rightfully offered to Hong Kongers is extended to the so-called Queen’s Chinese in Malaysia, and Commonwealth citizens who serve in our Armed Forces.
Many of these people, like Sir Henry, give everything they have in this country’s service, and often seek nothing in exchange except a chance to take or hold on to their rightful place as part of the British nation. A few square inches of paint behind the Speaker’s Chair is not much to ask as recognition. It’s a shame it took a hundred years to get it, but it was a proud day when it was done.
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