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The near silence of Northern Ireland’s centenary celebrations

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LAST WEEK, Northern Ireland’s official centenary passed with a relative lack of fanfare and there were several reasons why the celebrations were muted.

Firstly, large crowds were not allowed to gather, because of coronavirus restrictions. Secondly, while the Government of Ireland Act came into force fully on the 3rd of May, creating a legal entity called Northern Ireland, the first election to its home rule parliament was held on the 21st of May and George V opened that institution on the 22nd of June. Historians regard these dates as at least as significant as the official birthday.

The third reason and, arguably, the most important, is that both unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland have complicated feelings about the partition of Ireland. We know that Irish nationalists believe the new polity thwarted their national aspirations unfairly and many of them still regard it with hostility. Perhaps it’s appreciated less that unionists feel a sense of loss when they remember that time too.

From their perspective, it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that was partitioned.

Twenty six of the island’s counties, including three in Ulster, seceded from the UK, leaving many people who felt British cut off from their home country. At the time, unionists did not want a ‘home rule’ parliament in Belfast, and would have far preferred to remain under the full auspices of Westminster.

The creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, which eventually became the Republic, was not a victory for unionism, but a painful compromise. It was a symptom rather than the cause of political division in Ireland. The defunct unionist think-tank, the Cadogan Group, put it like this,

“The partition of Ireland in 1921 was the inevitable outcome of the irreconcilable aspirations of the two major groups of the island – more than three million … who demanded independence and almost one million… in the north east who… resolutely refused to leave the United Kingdom.”

Nationalist leaders continued to fashion a Catholic, Gaelic identity for the new southern state, to distinguish it from Britain, which they claimed was a ‘colonial power’ that had imposed its culture on Ireland. Admittedly, unionists in Northern Ireland did not always counter this project by emphasising the United Kingdom’s pluralist make-up, particularly in the turbulent decades after the region’s creation.

In an essay for The Idea of Union, the historian Arthur Aughey describes,

“…a dialectic of stubborn self-righteousness between unionist and nationalist… sponsored on one hand by a British government equivocal about the integrity of its own state… and an Irish government hypocritically and irresponsibly playing the irredentist card.”

The result was often a self-perpetuating cycle of unionist insecurity and Catholic alienation from the state that destabilised Northern Ireland.

At the same time, it was only in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the rest of the island, that both the British and Irish identities survived, flourished and intermingled. Initially, the province was simply the part of Ireland that did not wish to secede from the UK, but it became a home where people from all backgrounds did well. Over the course of 100 years, it developed a distinctive identity, while maintaining the Irish strand of Britishness that makes up such an important part of our Kingdom. Today, a growing number of residents say they feel primarily Northern Irish.

Northern Ireland’s ability to accommodate different and complex identities was reflected in the Good Friday Agreement which acknowledged the birthright of its people, “…to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both.”

It did not, as nationalists and some liberals have implied, create a form of ‘hybrid’ state, whose constitutional position is qualified. The agreement’s central tenet was the ‘principle of consent’, which affirmed, “The present wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union.”

The writer, Carlo Gebler, recently claimed that Brexit upended the province’s status as a “Hiberno-British hybrid that everyone knew was really Irish…. but which has Royal Mail post boxes lying around.” The sneering, facile dismissal of the British identity in Northern Ireland is probably best ignored. The real irony is that it is the Northern Ireland Protocol that has come closest to discarding the ‘principle of consent’ and creating a genuine ‘hybrid’.

In fact, the GFA made no provision for anything in-between British or Irish sovereignty. It left the people of Northern Ireland to decide their constitutional future themselves and pledged to respect their decision.

There is a type of superior liberal who has always ignored this reality, because he or she believes the province’s voters must be kept in a kind of limbo between the UK and Ireland, for their own good. They cannot be trusted with the symbols of their state, or play a full role in its political life, in case that offends those who have a different national aspiration.

This infantilising way of thinking played a significant role in creating the protocol. When the hard edges of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland emerged after Brexit, liberals argued that new checks and paperwork on the island of Ireland were unacceptable, so the province must have a ‘special status’ between London, Brussels and Dublin. This idea, which was supported by nationalists and the Irish government, morphed into the backstop and finally the protocol.

And so, finally, we reach the fourth reason that the centenary celebrations were restrained.

Ulster unionists, who support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and hope it lasts for another 100 years, feel their place in the Union has recently been diluted. The British government could do much more to reassure them that their fears are unfounded.

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Photo of Belfast City Hall by Henryk Sadura from Adobe Stock 

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