Timing is everything – Ronan McGreevy on the Ulster ’71 festival

An Irishman’s Diary

It was the Russian minister Grigory Potemkin who gave his name to the putative village of the same name. The story, no doubt embellished, is that while Catherine the Great was proceeding in a state barge down the river Dnieper on the way to Crimea, Potemkin erected large wooden facades of handsome houses along the river bank to hide the poverty and backwardness of the area.

Northern Ireland had its own Potemkin village which opened its doors on May 14th. 1971. Ulster '71 was set up to celebrate the North's 50th anniversary.

In reality it proved to be a wake for the Stormont regime.

A festival to celebrate all things Ulster was first posited with tragic timing by Prime Minister Terence O’Neill in 1968 before the Troubles changed everything.


Announcing the festival in December 1968, O’Neill acknowledged, with studied understatement, that there had been “occasional disappointments” in the history of Northern Ireland, but also “splendid achievement, of growing prosperity and expanding opportunity”.

Ulster ’71 would see a “rededication to seek solutions for any problems we still face”.

He went on: “Can we not all be equally proud of what is good in Northern Ireland, equally determined to set right anything that may be wrong, equally confident that this Province and its people have much to achieve in the years ahead?”

O’Neill hoped his reform programme would make Catholics feel more at ease with the Northern state. By the time the exhibition opened up in May 1971, the Troubles had been going on for two years. In February 1971 Gunner Robert Curtis became the first British soldier to be shot dead in the Troubles.

A month later three off-duty members of the Royal Highland Fusiliers were lured from a bar in Belfast and shot dead by the Provisional IRA. This profoundly shocking event prompted the Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark to fly to London and demand that the British government send more troops to the North.

When the numbers offered were deemed inadequate, Chichester-Clark was replaced by hardliner Brian Faulkner, who would in August 1971 introduce internment in Northern Ireland.

All this turmoil did not deter the organisers of Ulster ’71 pressing ahead with a festival to mark a place that a substantial minority of the population wanted abolished.

However, the organisers could not ignore what was going on around them and all references to it being a 50th anniversary celebration were expunged from the official literature.

They hoped an "eminent personage" of the royal family, most likely Queen Elizabeth II, would perform the opening, One official wrote that he hoped a royal visit would have been an occasion of "proper pride", but he despaired. "Instead, we have had civil disorders, shootings, nearly one hundred explosions and other tragedies. Unless there is a dramatic change for the better in behaviour generally in the Province, the hope is likely to be disappointed."

Even Chichester-Clark despaired of the celebration he hoped would mark a renewal of civic engagement in the North. “Is it merely foolish optimism to look ahead in this way?” he asked. “On the contrary, I believe it is essential . . . The past has little enough to offer us. We must break free of it, and concentrate on goals which all our people can see and understand.”

Many civic and business groups, even those of a unionist persuasion were not convinced the event should go ahead. “Could you abandon this project without further ado and save us all making fools of ourselves in Great Britain and further afield?” one despairing businessman asked the organisers.

Despite all the misgiving, Ulster ’71 opened as planned at the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. It featured in an exhibition on “The Genius of Ulster” and “Ulster Today”.

Visitors were urged to celebrate Ulster’s past achievements and imagine a brighter future of prosperous satellite towns and a place at peace with itself.

Ulster ’71 lasted from May to September. All things considered, it was a success. The public embraced the Pollyanna nature of the whole thing despite what was going on around them.

A record number of 84,157 visitors attended on May 22nd. Attendances only dropped significantly in August after the introduction of internment. By the end of it, 700,000 people, approximately half the population of Northern Ireland had attended.

In the circumstances this was a considerable achievement. Apart from a hoax bomb call on the first day, the exhibition was never targeted while it was opening.

Northern Ireland marks its centenary now in the most muted fashion imaginable partially because of the pandemic and partially because the "integrity of this ancient quarrel", to quote Winston Churchill, remains as keen today as it did anytime during the Troubles.

Still, as Churchill said, “jaw, jaw is better than war, war”, which is where we are now thankfully.