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Centennial dilemmas: Marking one hundred years of Northern Ireland

Published: 25 August 2020

Jonathan Evershed, University College Cork, discusses the UK government's plans for the centenary of Northern Ireland arguing that Boris Johnson has raised the stakes of what was already likely to be a politically difficult commemoration. 

Before it was spectacularly upstaged by Brexit, the big story in British-Irish relations in 2016 was supposed to be the hundredth anniversary of the Irish Republic’s sacrificial founding during Easter Week, 1916. Driven by the (largely spurious) belief that the violence of the Troubles had been catalysed by
the Easter Rising’s golden jubilee in 1966, subsequent Irish governments had been at great pains, over several years to ensure that – as part of a wider ‘Decade of Centenaries’ – its centenary struck a tone befitting the more ‘reconciled’ relationship between Britain and Ireland,cultivated during, and since the Northern Irish peace process. Perceived success in this endeavour was widely hailed by almost all observers and commentators.  

Irish government efforts were, however, almost wholly unreciprocated across the Irish Sea, where interest in the island of Ireland’s centennial decade pertained only insofar as this dove-tailed with Westminster’s own plans for the centenary of the First World War. The UK government’s approach to commemoration in Ireland, North and South, has been markedly indifferent and at times highly patronising, with no real effort made to meaningfully interrogate the complexity of the British state’s historic (and violent) role in shaping Ireland’s contemporary political-cultural landscape. As the Irish border quickly became the central issue in Brexit negotiations, this blind spot became an issue of renewed and immediate political consequence.

Having so far largely absented itself from deep engagement with the politics of Irish commemoration, it came as something of a surprise, therefore, to see the UK government signalling its intention to play a more active role in commemorating the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson used the occasion of his visit to Belfast on 13 August (during which he also met with Taoiseach, Micheál Martin for the first time) to announce plans for a Centenary Forum and a Centenary Historical Advisory Panel to lead on a commemorative programme organised from London. A high degree of central government involvement in delivering the centenary had been called for earlier in the month by the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party. The TUV’s insistence that proceedings should take an explicitly celebratory tone was mirrored to some degree in Brandon Lewis’ heralding Northern Ireland’s hundredth anniversary as a “fantastic opportunity for people right across the UK to celebrate Northern Ireland and its integral place within our Union”.

Commemoration is always a reflection not of the past, but of contemporary political concerns. That the government is seeking such an active role in not merely commemorating, but actively celebrating one hundred years of Northern Ireland is indicative of the rhetorically muscular Unionism which Jack Sheldon and Mike Kenny have argued has defined recent Conservative Party thinking. As Newton Emerson has suggested, it is also shaped in no small part by a perceived need to compensate Ulster Unionists for a) an Irish language act (as promised in the New Decade, New Approach deal) and b) the creation of a new customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

Suffice it to say that the government’s proposals for the centenary of Northern Ireland have been the subject of much critical commentary, some of it excellently nuanced, thoughtful and reflexive. Particularly given their overtly celebratory tone, these plans have been roundly repudiated by Republicans, with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill noting that “there isn't anything to celebrate for republicans or nationalists when it comes to partition”. And given the furore resulting from the previous Irish government’s ill-conceived plans (which it was eventually forced to abandon) to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary in early 2020, it is difficult to see what role, if any, Dublin will be able to play in an overtly festive approach to Northern Ireland’s centenary. Johnson’s plan has thus raised the stakes of what was already likely to be a politically difficult commemoration.

It is also a remarkably late stage intervention, given that the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act is a mere four months away. This smacks of a certain casualness of approach which may not survive first contact with the complex and volatile politics of memory in Northern Ireland. Involvement in either the Centenary Forum or the Historical Advisory Panel is likely to be quite bruising for anyone brave (or foolish) enough to take the plunge. There are serious potential hurdles and pitfalls ahead, not least of which is deciding on what will actually be commemorated and when (Northern Ireland has at least five potential birthdays). Having raised expectations of an unapologetic celebration of Northern Ireland and its place in the Union, anything less may be regarded as a snub to Unionists still smarting from Johnson’s perceived betrayal on Brexit. Conversely, such a celebration is liable to be perceived as triumphalist, further alienate already restive Nationalists, and do little to endear Northern Ireland to the ‘others’ on whom its constitutional fate depends. And that is all without taking into consideration the likely impact of the current pandemic on any commemorative plans.

The centenary of Northern Ireland raises profound and existential questions about its future which the approach outlined by the Prime Minister seems highly unlikely to answer.

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash