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Northern Ireland’s centenary: Cheers, boos, and ambivalence
On Monday 3rd May 2021 Northern Ireland reaches its 100th birthday.
It was on this date one hundred years ago that Ireland was divided under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and Northern Ireland formally came into existence. The initial British government thinking that Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland would coexist within the United Kingdom, was torpedoed by the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The Treaty established the Irish Free State win de facto independence from the United Kingdom, partitioning the island and establishing two separate administrative units –one of them within the United Kingdom, the other given its own separate self-government within the British Empire.
So it’s one hundred not out, –but just about. While Northern Ireland has reached its landmark birthday it is rather crawling over the line with uncertainty about how to mark the occasion and doubt also about how many more birthdays it will have in its current constitutional form.
Like a lot of things in Northern Ireland marking Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday is a sensitive issue –because behind the various ideas such as a centenary rose, a new postmark, and a series of lectures and concerts, the project itself is still being contested.
As plans to ‘celebrate’ the centenary were publicly unveiled by Boris Johnson in August 2020 Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill left little room for doubt that Sinn Fein would not be coming to the party. For her, there was nothing to celebrate about the partition of Ireland that created a political regime based on ‘sectarianism, gerrymandering and an inbuilt unionist majority’.
While there was initially strong enthusiasm within unionism to celebrate the centenary, their interest has been dimmed somewhat by a series of knocks and political crises that have left them reeling.
The latest of these is of course Arlene Foster’s resignation as DUP leader and First Minister and chaos within the party over key policy goals. Having adopted a kamikaze strategy towards Brexit for the last four years, the DUP has now plunged itself into a leadership crisis following A letter of no confidence in Foster’s leadership and a public repudiation that left her no option but to resign.
But this latest crises puts centenary celebrations on the back burner –as Foster’s successor might very well be even less capable of finding common cause with Irish nationalists –and Sinn Fein in particular than Foster was. If the next DUP leader refuses to take up office as First Minister until the Northern Ireland Protocol is removed, then Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will have to trigger an early Assembly election. Such prospects hardly increase the unionist desire to reach for the Vuvuzelas and party food.
Many unionists are afraid that the Union is in more jeopardy in 2021 than at any other time in that hundred year run. They are facing a slow but inexorable demographic slide from unionism to nationalism or the non-aligned. This is not a calamity in itself, as unionists are in a position to win over many to the pro-Union argument, those whom the taciturn former Ulster Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux used to refer to as ‘the greater number’. However Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol do little to strengthen the case for the Union and on current evidence unionists show little sign of being able to put forward a convincing prospectus for the maintenance of the political status quo.
Arlene Foster’s political career died on the altar of Brexit –and her successor as leader might well signal a lurch to the right and see the party disappearing down a right wing fundamentalist rabbit hole. This might keep traditional DUP voters happy but would be a huge strategic mistake for the party and unionism generally given the challenge facing them.
The key constituency the DUP needs to convince in the forthcoming fight to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom (and it is a fight) are within the progressive centre ground –who have just watched DUP leader Arlene Foster being ousted as leader of her party and First Minister in part because she abstained over a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ban ‘gay conversion therapy’ –which was supported by the majority of her more fundamentalist colleagues.
So with the parlous state of political leadership coming from the DUP, a seemingly incapable Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the ultra hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), where are unionists to turn to if they are to continue Northern Ireland’s run further into a second century? Who is chosen to replace Foster as DUP leader will go a long way to telling us the answer to that question.
If unionists are not feeling much like partying just at the moment, nationalists in Northern Ireland are even less enthusiastic about the centenary –as it asks them to celebrate the anniversary of partition and their annexation within what they have traditionally seen as an illegitimate political entity. This has been mitigated to some extent since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement since when there has been a de facto acceptance of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland based on the democratic consent of the people who live there. Even so, getting Irish nationalists or republicans to show some enthusiasm for the centenary has required a deftness of touch that has at times eluded those who are focused on marking the occasion.
In Great Britain the discussions about Northern Ireland’s centenary are so sotto voce –they are inaudible to most human ears, emphasising once again that it is called Team GB for a reason –and for Northern Ireland it is once again a case of out of sight –out of mind. In truth there has been very little attention paid to what should be quite a landmark date for the United Kingdom. But media attention over centenary celebrations has rarely made it across the Irish Sea, even though the BBC went to the trouble of making an excellent television programme placing Northern Ireland into the context of the last 100 years. Spotlight’s ‘A Contested Century’, fronted by Mark Devenport, former political editor of BBC Northern Ireland, was an excellent retrospective on the centenary, with some fascinating insights as well as new polling data on attitudes towards the centenary and other issues such as Brexit and the likelihood of political reunification.
The programme was not broadcast in Great Britain and you would have had to miraculously scroll down to channel 953 on your TV to find it. In truth, if you were not already aware of the broadcast and prepared to seek it out, you would have had better odds of butt-dialling it by sitting on the remote, than locating it deliberately. Now many of us in the PSA, and certainly in the Irish Politics Specialist Group, will be very familiar with channel 953 and I personally have it as a default setting, despite my partner asking me why I’m watching the weather forecast for Belfast when I live in Britain! But this excellent programme was not deemed worthy of broadcast in Great Britain –which partly helps to explain why few people living there care about the centenary, never mind all the sensitivities over how it is marked.
So it will be celebration for some on Monday, commiseration for others –and indifference from the remainder. Unionists want to celebrate but don’t feel in a party mood since the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol in January and Arlene Foster’s brutal removal as leader of the DUP. Nationalists wonder why they are being asked to celebrate, or even acknowledge with any enthusiasm, the very event that partitioned their country and led to generations of political violence and instability. In Great Britain nobody seems to really care one way or the other –which perhaps tells us something about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK after 100 years
–and the very slim chance indeed, of it doing the double in 2121.
Feargal Cochrane is a Professor Emeritus and former Vice-Chair of the PSA. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. His latest book Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace is now available to purchase. Image credit: DUP Photos/Flickr.