Holocaust Memorial Day - remember, reflect and react | Belfast and Beyond | 25 Jan 2008 | Amnesty International UK

Holocaust Memorial Day - remember, reflect and react

Not long back from Northern Ireland's Holocaust Memorial Day event, which was held this evening in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

This was the seventh such annual event of commemoration and dedication to prevent a recurrence of such an atrocity and to counter the various -isms (racism, homophobia, xenophobia) which lead to such acts.

I was involved in an advisory capacity with the organisation of the Memorial Day for its first three years here and tonight was somewhat lower key than those earlier events, partly due perhaps to the more limited space available at Stormont.

There also seemed to be a surprisingly low turn-out of local politicians for this year's event, especially given that it was held at Stormont under the auspices of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).

I spotted Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers, UUP leader Sir Reg Empey and SDLP leader Mark Durkan among the attendees (there may have been others – apologies for not noticing) and Junior Minister Gerry Kelly ably represented the hosts OFMDFM in his address. Among other reflections, Gerry Kelly recollected the unforgettable smells and sights of Auschwitz, which had obviously made an impression when he had previously visited the camp.

Many of the attendees were from Northern Ireland's small Jewish community, for whom the event is a very important annual occurrence and young and old representatives of the community participated in leading the commemoration. There were also representatives of the Christian community – including the Corrymeela community's John Morrow – and the Muslim and Hindu faith communities.

Dean Houston McKelvey, of Belfast's St Anne's Cathedral, delivered a powerful closing address, when he reminded those gathered that the slaughter of the innocents has continued regardless over the decades since the Holocaust, including right up to the present day in Darfur (Dean McKelvey kindly hosted Amnesty's vigil for Darfur in front of St Anne's on Human Rights Day 2006 and I know this issue is close to his heart.

He also reflected pointedly that, while Northern Ireland may currently be enjoying a period of relative peace (long may it last), that we had "teetered on the brink of our own ethnic cleansing" within recent years. His message can have been lost on no-one present.

I will think about tonight's event as I start in on the book which I coincidentally borrowed this evening from my mother-in-law. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, by "the brilliant young Israeli historian" Avi Shlaim, explores (as the back cover explains) the Middle East conflict by looking at "the doctrine of the Iron Wall: negotiations with the Arabs must always be from a position of miltary strength"; a doctrine developed by Zionists in the 1920s, but subsequently informed by the terrible events of the Holocaust.

So, events of over half a centrury ago resonate right down the years to present day relations between Israel and the Palestinians, which bring such extreme misery to so many.

Despite events like that of tonight, humanity seems unable to truly learn all the lessons that history offers.

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