This is about the centenary of Northern Ireland. But first, a slight detour.
In Lucy Caldwell’s, ‘Multitudes,’ one of her characters describes the heartache of watching her teenage school friend move from Northern Ireland to England.
“They’ve had enough is what Susan’s mum says. She just can’t take it anymore.
‘This country,’ she says to my mum.
‘This country,’ my mum says back to her, and neither of them says anything else.”
The scene has always stuck with me because it describes one part of my complicated relationship with the place I call home. This country. This wee, awkward, mad country. So complex and different that, as I write this, I have to remind myself that people disagree that Northern Ireland is a country.
This country. This frustrating place with its conflict, history and politics that often seem stuck in the dark ages. Growing up, friends would talk of leaving and living elsewhere. Some of them did and never came back. Things are complicated here, you tell people. You’re stamped with a label the minute you’re born. You have to carry the weight of it all whether you want to or not. Other parts of the world, other parts of the United Kingdom, don’t have to deal with this crap.
But there’s a truth:
Every time I leave Northern Ireland, I long to return. When I go to Britain, the “mainland,” I don’t fit in. They think I’m a ‘paddy’ and they don’t seem to know Northern Ireland exists. I don’t see myself in the Republic, in its flag or its traditions. There’s no place for me there.
I might be the only person who feels like this but if you take Northern Ireland out of the equation, where do I belong? The answer is nowhere. I have raged it at, hated it at times but I belong here. I can point on a map to the six counties and call this place home. With all its weirdness and frustrations, I feel proud of it. That feeling doesn’t arise from listening to politicians but looking at the people who live here.
So, the centenary. Where do my ramblings fit in? Months ago, in a pre-covid world, I attended a panel discussion about the centenary alongside Sam McBride and Joe Austin. They were great and I was terrible. As I rambled I said that, unconsciously, I had always thought of 2021/2022 as the centenary of Northern Ireland, not the centenary of partition. It’s the same thing, yes, but there is a difference.
In 1921, Ireland was split in two. For some, it meant sanctuary. For others, tragedy.
Given my background, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve always thought of 1921/1922 as the date that marks the birth of my homeland. Of course I feel a sense of belonging here. It shouldn’t be a surprise that my friends from a catholic, nationalist background look at the same date and think differently. It represents the moment that they were cut off from their community and left inside a country that alienated them and treated them badly. For them, it’s the centenary of partition. For me, it’s the centenary of Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson has announced plans to appoint a panel to advise the government on how to commemorate Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday. We’ve been told to expect a celebration of our people, culture and traditions. Jim Allister is planning the merchandise.
There’s been some perplexity about people wanting to celebrate. Given the link between Northern Ireland and people’s identity, it should be expected. It’s an important date for many.
Some are doing a very job of pretending to be shocked that Michelle O’Neill doesn’t sound too keen on Boris’ big plan. Anyone who does this shouldn’t be taken seriously. I highly doubt nationalists and republicans are going to be buying Jim’s minted coins. People need to accept that.
I can’t say I’ll be busting out the champagne, but I’ll be commemorating and marking the occasion. I have no problem with others celebrating but it needs to be respectful. Celebration without reflection is pointless. I dread a tone-deaf series of events which presents one side and one point of view. I fear a commemoration which ignores the complexities of the history we’re commemorating. Northern Ireland is more diverse than orange and green. We need to hear from people who rarely get a voice. There needs to be a focus on the next 100 years.
We shouldn’t pretend that the past 100 years have been wonderful either. My friend was murdered in a street in Derry during “peace time.” Three thousand people died during the Troubles and we haven’t the decency to pay the victims a proper pension.
My only hope, no matter happens, is that we’ll listen to one another and understand each other’s point of view. Will it happen? I highly doubt it. One thing is certain: if we do this badly, it could be a disaster.
It’s impossible to cover the nuances and complexities of the commemoration in one article. Still, it’s always good to have a reality check. I suspect most people in Northern Ireland will flick the channel over when centenary discussions begin next year. They’ll shake their head as they tune into Come Dine With Me and consider making another cup of tea. This country, they’ll mutter, and say nothing else.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.