5 February 2021 No Comments by The Northern Standard


2021 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Northern ireland state. Centenaries are customarily occasions for commemoration and celebration, but how this particular one will be marked is problematic. We are currently in what has been proclaimed the Decade of Centenaries, when momentous recent historical happenings that shaped the political and social course of modern Ireland are re-evaluated by historians and commentators and recognised with due ceremony. As we have passed from 1916 through the War of Independence years up to the Treaty and Civil War periods, this exercise has become an increasingly delicate affair but one being pursued with commendable objectivity, inclusiveness and reconciliation on both the national stage and at a community level.

But where does the centenary of Northern Ireland fit into all of this? Chronologically, the answer is a reasonably obvious (if not entirely undisputed) one – but intellectually and emotionally it is baffling and conflicting. And finding an answer from a political perspective is tortuous and forbidding. We will probably not be thanked for asking the question at all, particularly at the current time when tensions are running high about the practical outworking of Brexit and a debate is ongoing about whether or not measures should be put in place to control vehicular and human traffic on the transport arteries connecting the North and the Republic in order to stem the tide of Covid-19 infection.

And when the ever-brooding threat to peace loomed briefly but menacingly from the shadows at Wattlebridge. Having in the past few decades placed the accent of our discourse on what harmonises and unites the people who live on this island, we have been reminded with painful sharpness these days that there is still much that divides us, that our traditions still possess vying aspirations which are difficult to reconcile without there being winners and losers and people left behind. So, for many of us, it’s probably best to ignore the centenary of Northern Ireland as an entity – after all, it has and will be paid some en passant attention in all those other anniversaries and commemorations and remembering that we have lived through in recent years and will experience in those to come.

The only problem with this view is that many of us aren’t all of us. While it is accurate to say that the majority of the population of the Republic of Ireland would either hold the view that any celebration of effectively the partition of the country would be highly inappropriate, or would be indifferent to the issue, this would not be the universal view. The concept of Northern Ireland as a state or nation or political entity is important to the identity and culture of a significant number of people who live here, predominantly across the Border it is true, but also within our own southern Border community.

It was announced last month that the British Government is to spend £3 million on events marking the centenary. A twenty-member forum has been established in Northern Ireland to consider the form these events should take, chaired by the Northern Ireland Office Director of Communications Andy Pike. The membership of the forum is made up entirely of those from the Unionist tradition, Sinn Féin and the SDLP refusing invitations to participate because they hold the conviction that the creation of Northern Ireland is not an occasion for celebration.

The Irish Government have observer representation at the forum in the form of civil servants, and an observer role has also been accepted by the United States Consul General in Belfast, Elizabeth Trudeau. Commenting on the task of the forum in the latest edition of the History Ireland magazine, Tony Canavan wrote that “expecting Northern nationalists to take part in the celebration is probably akin to asking non-white South Africans to celebrate the anniversary of Apartheid.”

While the comment will be provocative to some, it quite neatly encapsulates the dilemma of making such a celebration an occasion of “mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation”, the aspirations which the Northern Ireland office have set for the programme of events. And so the centenary will probably pass off as a subdued occasion, ignored by those to whom its very concept is anathema but embraced by those to whom its marking has identify-reinforcing significance. Those whose minds and hearts find resonance there will look on, those whose minds and hearts find repulsion will look away. But, when we look at what is going on on the island just now, would that not be the waste of an opportunity? If we choose not to mark the centenary in a conventionally commemorative or celebratory way in our own particular communities, surely that decision invites some examination of why the notion of it makes us feel offended or uncomfortable or angry or outraged.

Engaging in this individual or collective process of examination is challenging, but it is the route to broadening understanding, to confronting and exorcising pain, to healing divisions, to fostering forgiveness. If such a process had not been engaged in by people of strong opinion and fearsome conviction on our island in the recent past, we would not have a peace process. So, if we don’t put the bunting out for the centenary of Northern Ireland, we should not let its occasion pass without some thought and some open and forthright discussion on what it means to different people on the island and why it makes those people feel the way that they do.

We are anything but a united Ireland just now. If we are to achieve the level of co-operation needed in the control of the common enemy of the coronavirus, if we are to ease the mutual hostilities beginning to manifest over Brexit, if we are to keep the spectre of violence in the shadows, we need a new and vigorous diplomatic initiative in the relationship between the Republic and the North.

And it is only when we foster such an initiative and address those pressing current issues of division and distrust, that the debate on what used to be referred to as “the national question” can be conducted in a productive manner. In many ways, discussing the centenary of Northern Ireland, and why it makes different peoples on this island feel the way they do about it, might be a very piquant and appropriate place to start the urgently needed reinvigoration of diplomatic relations between the two parts of our small shared piece of the earth.

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