Northern Ireland at a crossroads as partition centenary underlines division

Debates about commemorating the past are also about the future

Edwin Poots, tipped to succeed Arlene Foster as DUP leader, speaks to the media in the grounds of Stormont Castle, Belfast, in 2017. Photograph: Paul McErlane/EPA

Edwin Poots, tipped to succeed Arlene Foster as DUP leader, speaks to the media in the grounds of Stormont Castle, Belfast, in 2017. Photograph: Paul McErlane/EPA

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Anniversaries tell us far more about the present than the past.

So it has already proven in the North, where the controversy over how to mark 100 years since the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland – or the question of whether it should be marked at all – has demonstrated more starkly than any expert analysis or reflection how the divisions formalised a century ago persist.

Though muted because of Covid-19, there are celebrations today to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the state of Northern Ireland, and a slew of events planned, seeking to examine the legacy of partition and the achievements since.

Yet all of this is taking place at a time when those celebrating Northern Ireland’s milestone feel its continued existence and their own identity is under threat, caught as they are between British indifference, a perfidious prime minister and the increasingly loud cries of those advocating for a united Ireland.

“My fear is that the status quo will not remain that way, and that the agitation towards a united Ireland and the push for it won’t stop,” says Valerie Quinn, the chair of the Ulster Bands Forum. “In terms of Northern Ireland I’m very positive, but in terms of there not being a Northern Ireland, that scares me.”

Playwright Jonathan Burgess says: “Of course we feel our identity is under threat because we’re always questioned about it, always asked about a united Ireland. It’s constant, constant, constant.”

All the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community want is “for things to stay the same”, says Quinn. For her, there is much to celebrate today, not least the contribution people from Northern Ireland have made to the world in terms of science, sport and the arts.

“I think it’s sad we can’t come together and celebrate that.”

For nationalists or republicans, as Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill put it bluntly, there “isn’t anything to celebrate”.

The pressing alternatives are no longer between self-government or direct rule, but nor do the signposts point simply towards Dublin or London

This is the difficulty with commemorations, especially official, state-sponsored ones. Gestures such as a centenary postmark or the lighting of beacons are by their nature simplistic, implying a shared world view and requiring, at the very least, a buy-in by its subjects to the same values, ideals and aspirations. When the very existence of that state is in itself contested, this would be at best a challenge; at worst, it is well-nigh impossible.

The acrimony earlier this year over the centenary stone – which unionists wanted to erect at Stormont and which was backed by the SDLP and Alliance “in a spirit of generosity” but was vetoed by Sinn Féin – exposed those fractures in the political arena.

For the unionist parties it was symptomatic of just how much more “oppressive” their treatment would be if they were “ever so foolish as to consent to the ‘New Ireland’ that these same deniers of respect seek to promote”.

For Sinn Féin’s part, the MLA Pat Sheehan described the stone as “symbolic of the past failures of political unionism”, which were “certainly not a template for the future”.

If anniversaries are about the past and the present, it is clear the debate about the North’s centenary is also about that future.

What that will be, or how it might be arrived at, remains to be seen. To borrow a phrase from 1968 – another year of significance in the North’s history – Ulster stands at the crossroads.

The speech did not save the then prime minister of Northern Ireland, Capt Terence O’Neill, nor prevent Northern Ireland from sliding into the abyss of the Troubles. Though times are much changed, his reference to “those who see in change a threat to our position in the United Kingdom” and his argument that security is to be found in moderation is as relevant as ever.

Five years on from the referendum, the impact of Brexit continues to ricochet through life and politics in the North

At the current crossroads, the pressing alternatives are no longer between self-government or direct rule, but nor do the signposts point simply towards Dublin or London and ask the traveller to choose one or the other.

The questions involved are complex, and have rightly given rise to much debate – around the constitutional arrangements on this island and what these might look like in the future, around the nature of both states, their identity and that of the people within them, and around the relationships between these islands and farther afield.

The catalysts have been well documented. Five years on from the referendum, the impact of Brexit continues to ricochet through life and politics in the North; predictions about a violent loyalist response were borne out over Easter, when anger over the Northern Ireland protocol and long-simmering tensions within loyalist communities boiled over into on-street unrest.

Though as it stands the lid has been put back on the pot, last week’s move against Arlene Foster, which resulted in her resignation as DUP leader and First Minister, began in the grassroots. What has become clearer since is the extent of the disconnect felt between it and unionism’s largest party.

The debate over who will lead the DUP is also a debate about its future leadership and direction, and one which could have even broader consequences. If, as appears likely, Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots – on the religious, Paisleyite wing of the party – becomes leader, this will mollify the grassroots, which felt Foster was too weak on the protocol.

Yet in seeking to bolster that line, it may in fact be sowing the seeds of its own downfall and, potentially, that of the union. A crucial statistic which emerged following the coup against Foster came from David McCann, the deputy editor of the Slugger O’Toole political website, who looked back over past elections and tallied that for every one vote the DUP has lost to the Traditional Unionist Voice, it lost about three to four to the Alliance Party.

Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson. In March, the order ended its involvement with the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Island’ unit, criticising the Government’s ‘lack of regard’ for unionism. Photograph: Liam McBurney
Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson. In March, the order ended its involvement with the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Island’ unit, criticising the Government’s ‘lack of regard’ for unionism. Photograph: Liam McBurney

In the event of a Border poll, the decision on unity or otherwise will come down not to the roughly 40/40 split between those who vote for nationalist and unionist parties, but to the 20 per cent in the middle who vote Alliance or Green.

It follows, therefore, that if the pre-eminent desire of unionism is to secure the union, the way to do so is to persuade the middle ground – whether Catholic or Protestant in affiliation – that Northern Ireland works for them; whether it can do so remains to be seen.

Moreover, whatever one’s opinion on the likelihood or indeed the desirability of a unified Ireland, it is clear the debate around it is not going away.

In a recent BBC Spotlight poll, a majority on both sides of the Border thought Northern Ireland would still be part of the UK in a decade’s time, but in 25 years, 51 per cent in the North and 54 per cent in the Republic felt it would have left the UK.

Advocates of a united Ireland, such as the civic nationalist group Ireland’s Future, point also to demographics as evidence the argument is moving only one way; it appears likely that the results of this year’s census will show that, for the first time, Catholics form the largest population bloc in the North.

None of this is of any reassurance to unionism, which rejects the assumption that this is inevitable; for many, the notion of inclusive, cross-Border conversations about what a “new Ireland” might look like are in reality a stalking horse for unity.

“It’s a conversation I’m not interested in if the sole agenda is a united Ireland,” the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, the Rev Mervyn Gibson, told The Irish Times last year. In March, the order ended its involvement with the Taoiseach’s ‘Shared Island’ unit, criticising the Government’s “lack of regard” for unionism.

One wonders from whither the next century’s Parnell, Connolly or Hume, or even the later Paisley or McGuinness will come

It is not alone in this viewpoint, yet it is difficult to envisage another way of managing this process which, whatever its outcome, must be tackled with sensitivity. If the example of the North’s recent history has taught us anything, it is that when success has been achieved, it has been through dialogue.

To look again to history, intervention from outside – from the Irish and British governments, from the United States – has often yielded results. Certainly there will be a need for patience, diplomacy, even statesmanship in the years to come.

One wonders from whither the next century’s Parnell, Connolly or Hume, or even the later Paisley or McGuinness will come.

There are other challenges will be addressed – persistent socioeconomic deprivation and a lack of jobs, of housing, of opportunities. There is also the feeling in certain communities that, more than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, there has been precious little of a peace dividend.

For all the public discourse around the North’s centenary, it was telling that, in conversation last week with a cross-community group of women from west and north Belfast, only a few were even aware of the anniversary and none felt – aside from an excuse for a street party – it bore any relevance to their lives.

Fifty years ago, Northern Ireland’s half century was celebrated with Ulster ’71, an anachronistic expo which extolled everyone to “come and join in the fun” even as parts of Belfast resembled a war zone.

If anniversaries tell us more about the present than the past, then at least this year’s centenary has acknowledged some of the complexities of that past. Much more will be required in the future.

How that future will unfold is impossible to predict. At least, unlike in Ulster in ’71, in Northern Ireland ’21 – for all its current difficulties and the uncertainty ahead – there is the Belfast Agreement to provide a cross-community structure and a reconciliatory philosophy that – with strong and careful leadership from Dublin, London and Belfast – could ensure that whatever does unfold does so peacefully.

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