What would a Festival of Britain and Northern Ireland say? “Politics and ceremonial are not separate subjects, the one serious, the other superficial. Ritual.. is itself a type of power”

Ulster 71 Exhibition BBC Image  The headline quote is from David Cannadine in “Rituals of Royalty etc..”  in “Traditional Societies”, ed. Cannadine and Simon Price, CAP 1987 p3, quoted by Gillian McIntosh (below) 

Anniversaries like death and taxes are always with us. Perhaps they’re even sent to challenge  us.  Politicians are tempted to lay on  bread and circuses to show up the better face of things. Could it really work for Brexit?  The Irish Times believes not. The paper has been prodding the UK to abandon Theresa May’s  idea for a year long festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022.The basic idea would be to proclaim the virtues of the UK going it alone after a successful Brexit.

Not only was it obviously cheesy in UK terms even when she announced it, but needless to say, she will have failed to notice the Irish complexities, like separate plans for marking the centenary of the Northern Ireland state. These were announced in the far off days when the DUP seemed to be under the illusion that they could behave much like unionists in the single party state of the first 50 years.

Apart from the jangling discord of tone over mounting a national celebration in this and any foreseeable climate, there is the problem of the wider political and historical context which makes it so difficult to decide what exactly what there is to commemorate or celebrate – and yet, see an anniversary on the  horizon and  politicians head straight for it, like Calypso’s island.

The festival would coincide with the significant and controversial centenaries of the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and the Free State in 1922, where history has been kinder to the south than the north and given them something to celebrate.

The continuing decade of the commemoration in the Republic has been successful so far because reconciliation with Britain has been mutually embraced.  They haven’t been afraid  to face the  contradictions between celebrating the physical force tradition from 1916 to 1922 ( if not yet up to the civil war)  while condemning it in our time. In Northern Ireland none of this has been resolved, so what is there to celebrate as a supposedly reformed state? We’ve surely had enough of  commemorating 1997. But 1921? The DUP minister Simon Hamilton was not deterred in 2017.

I want to see us reflect on not only our past glories but the potential of the Northern Ireland economy and industry. One thing that I will be instructing officials to take forward as part of our celebrations of 2021 borrows from a theme that was there in 1971 for our 50th anniversary which was an expo in Belfast.”

Mr Hamilton displayed all the rashness of comparative youth towards events he is too young to remember. His rhetoric took me right back to 1971.

“Ulster 71”, the Belfast frolics to cheer us all up”! It was the last legacy of the O’Neill era long after it had vanished like snow in the desert. I remember it well. It was constructed on the Ormeau Embankment stretching up to Botanic Gardens. Pavilions with a central dome and a funfair were sited beside the Exhibition Hall which became Queen’s gym.   It was to be modelled on great exhibitions like the Festival of Britain in 1951 and Expo 67 in Montreal. The exhibits were to commemorate general achievements but the motive was political, to celebrate 50 years of the Northern Ireland state.

An article by Gillian McIntosh in the New Hibernia Review mined the archives for a stark account of how the planning drastically changed as the Troubles took hold. The Governor Lord Grey kept wheedling the Palace to try to secure a visit by the Queen to perform a state opening of Parliament at Stormont for the 50th anniversary of the first Opening by her grandfather King George V  in the City Hall. As the clouds darken, the palace’s replies are masterpieces of equivocation, Maybe wait for a year to see how events develop?

The driving force was Eric Montgomery who was a kind of genius. As founding director of the Information Service he managed to steer clear of all the nastiness of the Troubles and concentrate on the bright of life, like Ulster 71 and the Ulster -American Folk Park outside Omagh, opened five years later and emphasising 10 US Presidents of Ulster heritage. Eric was also a moving force behind the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

The young town clerk of Downpatrick Maurice Hayes tactfully put his finger on the problem. “Northern Ireland is not at one with itself”“and pointed out that in the Sporting section of “The Genius of Ulster,” exhibit, there was no mention of the GAA.  A bipartisan St Patrick’s Day festival would be a better event.

The first solider to die was shot dead in February. 136 explosions had occurred before the exhibition opened on 14 May. The Belfast Telegraph privately called  Ulster 71  “a mistaken effort  but we will not oppose it”  Just as well because they were co-sponsors. The prime minister Jimmy Chichester-Clark resigned in March and was replaced by Brian Faulkner.  An opera season was cancelled and the Festival Ballet scratched.

Abandonment was considered and rejected. After a fashion, Eric Montgomery and co pulled it off with great help from the Arts Council.  But political commemoration was off limits. The Ulster Orchestra played and Ulster 71 opened with massed choirs and a medieval joust. They struck Ulster postage stamps, featuring local artists Colin Middleton, Tom Carr and Terry Flanagan. Michael Longley of the Arts Council produced a book on achievements in the arts.

The BBC reported that an impressive half a million visitors during the year, although there were times like August 9 when the site was virtually deserted. Internment had been imposed at 4 a.m. 180 people were killed in 1971. The figure rose to nearly 490 in 1972.

It’s easy to mock.  The Ulster 71 Festival may have been fundamentally misconceived. But it made a statement in favour of upholding a version of normal life, even civic life that was not extinguished for any more than a few terrible days at a time, as during the immediate aftermath of internment in 1971, Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday in 1972 and the UWC strike in 1974.  The Stormont Parliament was in effect abolished less than a year later.  The Northern Ireland state survives  in a reformed condition albeit with less than wholehearted consent. Any form of  commemoration would require concentrated minds across the community. 1997 was an opportunity missed.  If they do anything at all, they should look for a peg  that dwells on contemporary life more than history.

Ulster 71 may have been planned amid the ill founded complacency of the mid sixties but it became by default a small if short lived tribute to resilience.

Finding a keynote for today is in a way even more difficult. How could NI be accommodated in a UK wide festival? Like Derry, UK City of Culture? How will NI be included in further episodes of the decade of commemorations?  (Arlene Foster declined an invitation). The latest call to redefine the idea of a UK festival comes from Sunder Katwala of the British Futures think tank.

From the Irish Times report

The specific coincidence with the politics of Irish history and the politics of Brexit means you are not going to have a festival which works across the nations of the UK and across communities in Northern Ireland,” he said.

In any case, he believes 2022 is too early to host such a festival. “It would take them at least three years to get it right. You could hold it successfully in 2025,”

Prof Sir Hew Strachan, one of Britain’s best known historians, said proposals to extend public commemorations of the first World War to include events afterwards such as the Irish War of Independence never got far.

Sir Hew was a member of the UK advisory committee on the first World War which he described as another casualty of Brexit.

A debrief that was scheduled to discuss how the first World War centenary had gone and what should follow was never held.

Sir Hew said some members of the committee were keen to extend the centenary commemorations to embrace Britain’s imperial obligations after the war, which included Ireland, India, Mesopotamia, Iraq and Egypt – all which proved to be troublesome regions.

“The fighting didn’t just stop in November 1918 as Ireland knows only too well. The view of the Government as expressed by ministers and Andrew Murrison (British prime minister’s adviser on commemorations) for the First World War was that getting to the finishing line of November the 11th was about as much as they had stamina for,”

Sir Hew said the British public was “extraordinarily ignorant” about their country’s imperial past. “They don’t even have a nostalgic view of Empire. They have forgotten they even had one.”