North's politicians must strike right tone during emotionally charged anniversaries


UNIONIST AND nationalist politicians, tourism chiefs and community relations personnel are among a diverse group charged with trying to navigate Northern Ireland relatively safely around the icebergs that are the coming decade of sensitive centenaries.

It is a daunting challenge. While there might be a reasonable amount of broad agreement on marking the Titanic’s April 1912 fatal sideswiping of the big Atlantic iceberg, the views on the Ulster Covenant, 1916 and partition will certainly be conflicting, and in some cases fierce and passionate.

Belfast and Northern Ireland plan to exploit the memory of the Titanicwith a range of local and tourist-friendly events, but even here bitter thoughts about the Harland and Wolff shipyard where it was built, being a bastion of anti-Catholic bigotry.

This coming year will be busy. Apart from the Titanic commemorations – which really should engage the imagination and support of most of the community – the big focus will be on how almost half a million unionist men and women declared their opposition to the third Home Rule Bill through signing the Ulster Covenant in September 1912.

Events will run through most of the year. A rally is planned for the Balmoral grounds in south Belfast in April, marking how 200,000 unionists heard Lord Edward Carson thunder his opposition to the Bill as it was about to be introduced at Westminster.

There will be another big gathering at Ormeau Park in May, while throughout Northern Ireland there will be public events in places such as Portadown and Enniskillen remembering the Carson trail of opposition to Home Rule, concluding with a big covenant rally, possibly at Stormont, in September.

This is the type of historical remembrance that can ruffle feathers – in this case nationalist feathers – and perhaps even awaken more dangerous emotions best kept under check. There is a lot of talk of a shared society in Northern Ireland at the moment but this and other commemorations can cause division rather than harmony.

The Republic’s 50-year commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966 was cited by a number of unionists and historians as contributing to the creation of some of the conditions that ignited the Troubles. The lesson must be that the current decade of anniversaries doesn’t trigger atavistic feelings that are barely dormant given that the Troubles are only relatively recently over.

A free slogan was offered here recently on how Northern Ireland could negotiate these emotionally charged rolling series of centenaries – Let’s cash in on history; after all what did history ever do for this place? – but so far nobody has taken it up.

But adopting a, perhaps, more subtle variation of that declaration would seem the best way forward.

Put unionists and nationalists into a room and ask them to discuss the Battle of the Somme vis-a-vis the Easter Rising, or Carson compared to de Valera, Northern Ireland and the Free State, and you can be sure you won’t have agreement.

Indeed, with the right polemical mix of disputants, you will have fireworks and perhaps a hardening of sectarian positions. And there’s no shortage of disputatious people in Northern Ireland.

But if the view is that the best way forward is to agree to disagree – and in the meantime to civilly manage the historical anniversaries by encouraging sensible debate and also attracting interested people to Northern Ireland – then what is ahead could be properly exploited.

Think of all those spring, summer, autumn and winter schools discussing honest Ulstermen signing the covenant in their own blood, or 1916, or the creation of Northern Ireland and the Free State – and think of all the consequent visiting tourists, historians and scholars helping to boost the economy.

There always will be the political hardliners who will seek to sow division over the centenaries but the challenge for the politicians is to thwart them.

Tim Attwood, an SDLP Belfast city councillor, is on a special council subcommittee charged with finding agreement on how to deal with the anniversaries.

“We need to have procedures and protocols that allow them to be celebrated in a very inclusive way while recognising sensitivities and trying to reach accommodation as far as possible,” he says. “We need to manage them without causing wider contention and division within the council and within the broader community.”

The full council hasn’t reached agreement yet but is working towards what could be a sensible model for the rest of Northern Ireland.

The special working group has adopted a fairly inclusive programme of key events divided into three strands: the period from 1912 to 1914; from 1914 to 1918; and from 1918 to 1922.

The first period to be addressed would be titled, “Shared History, Differing Allegiances”, and would include events such as the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, the labour movement, the Gaelic revival, the signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912, the 1913 lockout, and the 1914 Larne and Howth gun-running respectively by the old Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers.

The second period, 1914-1918, would cover the first World War, including the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising. The third period, 1918-1922, would cover the 1918 general election, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the creation of Northern Ireland and the Free State.

The councillors working on the project envisage a series of major exhibitions, civic receptions, lectures and drama productions to run in tandem with the events. It all seems eminently sensible, and with a generous and community political will could work well and catch the interest of all.

The politicians must lead on the coming decade of anniversaries. If they seek to play to the baser emotions they will cause trouble. If they seek to pursue the middle-ground path of accommodation and live-and-let-live, then Northern Ireland could be a more prosperous and historically better-informed place come 2022. Let the catchcry be: cash in on history.


1912, AprilThird Home Rule Bill giving Ireland legislative independence is published

1912, AprilUlster Volunteers established to resist Home Rule

1912, April Titanicsinks on maiden voyage

1912, SeptemberUlster Covenant signed

1913, AugustBitter Dublin lockout begins over trade union recognition

1913, NovemberIrish Volunteers founded as a nationalist response to Ulster Volunteers

1914, AugustOutbreak of the first World War

1916, AprilEaster Rising takes place in Dublin and other parts of Ireland

1916, JulyBattle of the Somme begins

1919, JanuaryMeeting of the First Dáil as newly elected Sinn Féin MPs boycott parliament in Westminster

1920, NovemberGovernment of Ireland Act partitions the country and establishes devolved administration in Northern Ireland

1921, DecemberAnglo Irish Treaty establishes Free State

1922, JuneFirst general election in independent State endorses the parties supporting the Treaty

1922, JuneCivil War begins with shelling of the Four Courts