An end to denominational education may be a fitting way to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland next year, First Minister Arlene Foster has suggested.
In a speech to a Belfast conference, the Democratic Unionist Party leader said it may be time to revisit efforts made in 1923 to create a common education system, which were fiercely opposed then by the main churches.
“Is 2021 the time to restart that debate?” Ms Foster told a conference organised to mark the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. The Act, which partitioned Ireland, became law on December 23rd, 1920.
The unionist and nationalist identities do not mean as much to the younger generation now as they did to those who grew up during the Troubles, she told the conference at Queen’s University Belfast.
Those who grew up then had an “urgency and attachment” about their identity that was shaped by “terrorist violence”, while younger people today wanted political institutions rather than concentrating on constitutional questions.
Ms Foster acknowledged that Northern Ireland's successes were weakened by a lack of common purpose, but "beyond 2021 the common purpose of the vast majority is to make Northern Ireland a success".
Successive elections between 1881 and 1920 had shown that Ireland was “one island, but two nations”, and the creation of two parliaments by the 1921 Act was an acceptance of that reality, she argued.
However, the legislation denied two realities, because it hoped that Irish republicans would be content with home rule for the South, or that two political traditions would come together in the future.
Unionists had compromised by accepting the creation of Northern Ireland in the first place, because unionism had not wanted home rule at all for Ireland, but later prioritised Ulster.
Every prediction about Northern Ireland’s demise had been confounded and the response to every “seed of doubt” about Northern Ireland’s future should be “self-belief”, she said.
Irish nationalism had been gradually replaced by a republicanism that “ inextricably linked” Irishness to Gaelicism and Roman Catholicism”, while it had “never truly accepted” these compromises, she said.
Next year will be a reflection, a commemoration and a celebration, she added: “We must look forward to the new century ahead. We must reflect on the decisions that shaped Northern Ireland, but all of this is to build our vision for the next generation.”
However, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, said partition had no upside and had failed everyone, leaving nationalists in the North facing past discrimination and State repression.
However, she hoped the 2021 centenary would not be a year of “rancour and division” but one in which republicans would present their political perspectives on partition.
“Brexit has exposed the undemocratic nature and the failure of partition in Ireland. It has created the biggest constitutional crisis for unionism in a century,” she said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told the conference that had politicians in 1920 adopted the spirit of the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the history of Ireland might have been different.
“It was unfortunately an Act which reflected British rather than Irish political realities in 1920. Perhaps we can all reflect on whether another path could have been found. The Good Friday Agreement was one of history’s genuine new beginnings.”
He said next year should put the focus on three sets of people most affected by partition: Ulster unionists, the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and the southern unionist tradition.
Northern Ireland’s history for many is one of “resilience and achievement” but, for others, it is a story of “disappointment, loss and tragedy”, he added. Meanwhile, the Republic should reflect on the large fall in its Protestant population between 1911 and 1926.