Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Tragically, we nearly made it through the decade of centenaries

Newton Emerson: Higgins turned highbrow rhetoric into critique and controversy

We got so close to the end of the decade of centenaries without an accident. It makes the avoidable controversy over today’s church service in Armagh all the more tragic.

The decade of centenaries programme had a revealing provenance, north and south, ironically now in danger of being misremembered.

In 2011, the Irish government appointed an expert panel to advise on marking events from the Home Rule crisis in 1912 through to Ireland’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923.

Separately in 2011, Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council (CRC) started discussing how to mark events from the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 through to what it delicately termed "the establishment of two parliaments in Ireland in 1921/22".


The true purpose of 'sharing our differences' has been hoping they will quietly cancel out

Because Stormont was established in 1921, that makes this year the finale of the northern programme. There are only a handful of receptions and seminars left before the whole thing would have been safely put to bed.

The CRC is a pre-Belfast Agreement quango with a lingering Troubles-era culture of desperate civic worthiness. Poignantly, its deliberations were also touched with the optimism of 2011, when devolution appeared complete and secure. The CRC believed the decade of centenaries would attract tourists and promote Northern Ireland internationally as an example of conflict resolution. In a move beyond parody, it included the sinking of the Titanic in its centenary events.

The CRC is not a Stormont body, although it is funded through the department of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

In 2013, that department – held by the DUP and Sinn Féin – adopted most of CRC’s recommendations in a landmark “good relations and reconciliation” agreement that has been policy ever since.

The policy described the decade of centenaries as “an opportunity to celebrate our shared differences”, which shows what a fool’s errant it is to try discerning much ideological consistency in the project.

‘Sharing our differences’

The true purpose of 'sharing our differences' has been hoping they will quietly cancel out. In his own centenary programme, President Michael D Higgins has questioned whether commemoration can serve reconciliation. He has sparked a wider academic debate on this topic by declining his Armagh invitation.

However, the Armagh service – not part of the official centenary programme – is unusual in aiming to be a cross-community reconciliation event.

The official programme is more of a classic tribal trade-off, letting everyone take turns to mark particular events they see as their own.

No dramatic acts of reconciliation have been attempted, north or south. The Irish government decided inviting Queen Elizabeth to the Easter Rising centenary would be "a distraction", despite the success of her visit in 2011.

What should be discerned in the decade of centenaries is an attempt to swamp everyone's anniversaries in a tide of history

The President declined a 2016 invitation to Belfast when he learned unionists were not attending the city council’s Rising commemoration.

Cross-Border co-ordination of programmes has been discussed at the highest level – Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson held a summit on it in August last year. But their statements were strictly couched in the waffle of good relations. Tellingly, Johnson promised both "sensitivity" and "the maximum possible academic focus".

This focus is in reality meant to obscure contention by being low-key and highbrow, ideally with a chin-stroking panel in a half-empty hall.

Nobody imagined someone of the President’s stature would turn highbrow rhetoric into a critique and a controversy.

Political underpinning

Yet the anodyne mush of the centenary programme has a serious political underpinning. At the back of official minds has been the long-standing suspicion the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising contributed to the start of the Troubles.

There is evidence it stirred republican atavism and unionist paranoia.

Ominously, this happened at a time of widespread optimism and despite efforts to show mutual respect. Taoiseach Seán Lemass had visited Stormont in 1965 and wanted the Rising anniversary to be about a modern, forward-looking Ireland.

The northern unionist government placed no restrictions on Rising commemorations and organised a 50th anniversary for the Battle of the Somme, as a semi-official trade-off.

Of course, it was not enough. What should be discerned in the decade of centenaries is an attempt to swamp everyone’s anniversaries in a tide of history. While that might offend intellectual sensibilities, it is clever politics – and it almost worked.

Even the DUP knows to take care marking the centenary of Northern Ireland.

In last year's New Decade, New Approach deal it had a chance to add a few more items to the centenary programme. The most eye-catching was the 'Great Ulster Forest', to plant two million native trees – the symbolism of planting and natives seemed entirely unconscious. People imagined this meant a vast Border-spanning new woodland, but in a written answer to a party colleague in July, DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots revealed his department's normal planting counts towards the total. So more than half the 'forest' is already in place, taking root unnoticed here and there.

Perhaps the President should have been asked to plant a tree. He certainly knows how to dig a hole.