Armagh controversy and the presidency


Sir, – In his article “Armagh controversy vindicates independent presidency” (Opinion & Analysis, September 24th), Prof Diarmaid Ferriter writes, “Partaking in a ‘service of Christian worship’ to ‘mark the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland’ might legitimately be seen as an endorsement of the blessing of partition, a move bound to be divisive and offensive to many in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.” However, the letter of invitation also contains the sentence, “The service will provide the opportunity for honest reflection on the past one hundred years with the acknowledgment of failures and hurts.” How this can be read as an invitation to endorse the blessing of partition escapes me.

Prof Ferriter introduces the straw man of “shared history” which historian, Brian Hanley is quoted as criticising for ignoring questions of imperialism, power and inequality. There is nothing about a “shared history” in the invitation, only a shared commitment to building a future marked by “peace, reconciliation and a commitment to the common good”.

With polls showing overwhelming support in the South for the President’s decision, while in the North the DUP’s smarter strategists are happy that this will make it easier to fight the forthcoming election on the border poll issue, we can be sure that there will be plenty of “the honest confrontations with difficult historical legacies” that Prof Ferriter prefers to “soft-centred aspirations to please everybody”. Living in Belfast, I have more sympathy for the latter aspiration. – Yours, etc,


Ulster University,


Sir, – It was always likely that the centenary of partition would create disagreement. But the publications of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations have nevertheless taken it for granted that partition would be commemorated along with the other transformative events of the Irish revolution. In their published guidance for the second phase of centenaries (2017-23), the group recommended that a significant academic conference be held “to mark the centenary of the partitioning of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland”. This is precisely the language used by organisers of the Armagh church service to be held on October 21st. It is puzzling to find members of the advisory group now condemning their own formula as an endorsement of partition and the injustices which flowed from it.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland recently held a centenary event to mark the Northern Ireland parliament moving into their college building in South Belfast, while Stormont was being built. I don’t recall any aspect of the programme that could be interpreted as a legitimisation of partition. One of the panellists, the Sinn Féin minister Declan Kearney, focused on the discrimination and repression that followed 1921. In a historical lecture, I began by saying: “Partition was imposed on one community in Northern Ireland to satisfy the demands of the other. So the centenary unavoidably serves as a reminder to northern nationalists of the decades of disempowerment that followed.” The intentions of the Moderator and the Presbyterian Church were to provide the “honest confrontation with difficult historical legacies”, rightly desired by Diarmuid Ferriter (Opinion, September 24th).

It is not surprising that Irish historians should adopt a more combative approach to the legacy of British rule in Ireland. It must have become stifling in the Expert Advisory Group, reaffirming the virtues of inclusivity and mutual respect year after year. Recent interest in decolonising Irish history, coinciding with the dominance of English nationalism at Westminster, have stimulated a more critical interrogation of unionism in both its British and Ulster varieties. Dispassionate scholarship has been moving in the same direction: Charles Townshend’s excellent book, The Partition (2021), culminates in a quietly damning account of British responsibility for the failure of the boundary commission in 1925. But the Armagh controversy has also obscured one significant aspect of partition. As we remember how northern nationalists became trapped in a political entity that treated them as enemies to the state, we should not forget how the introspection and indifference of many southern nationalists contributed to that catastrophic result. – Yours, etc,


Foster Professor

of Irish History,

University of Oxford.