What is to be the message of Northern Ireland 100?

Ulster 71 (archive)

Does anybody out there know how plans to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary are progressing?  To try to find answers, I’ve been combing the websites and having a few chats, without much luck. Last month, following a few bumbled sentences from Boris Johnson it seemed that the UK government with due regard to the “sensitivities”, were taking the initiative, thus avoiding the potential for another Stormont deadlock. The SoS Brandon Lewis looked forward to..

Following formal acceptance of invitations to join the Centenary Forum and Historical Advisory Panel, it is expected that these groups will have their first meetings later this month. Further details on the centenary programme plans will be available in the autumn.

I claim no special access and I haven’t heard a peep since. Maybe this post will help winkle out a few responses. With only a few months to go it all seems so hesitant and last minute, like Covid U turns, wrapping up furlough, Brexit negotiations, you name it.

An “Expo 100” forecast by the then DUP Tourism minister Simon Hamilton in 2017 is surely out.  But it brings to mind memories of Ulster 71, the official celebrations of the 50th anniversary, described without irony by a BBC reporter this month as “ a colourful affair”. It was in fact a hangover of the O’Neill era, well out the time in the year of internment and 170 Troubles deaths. But despite the cringe making cheesy tone in the official voice, it gave a fair account of Northern Ireland’s achievements sited in and around what is now the Queen’s gym.

It brings to mind the late Eric Montgomery, perhaps the key moving spirit who saw Ulster 71 through to fruition. Eric started up the NI Government Information Service in the 1950s with a determinedly good news angle where at all possible.  He was a kind of genius.  When the Troubles overshadowed normal life Eric steered clear of anything nasty, despite being the head of the Service.   At the heights of the Troubles he left the terrible job of explaining government actions to subordinates  such as Tommy Roberts, Jack McNally and the great David Gilliland who for the record did an impossible job as well anybody could have, from internment to the hunger strike and beyond ; economical with the truth sometimes indeed, but not brazenly lying and from time to time  giving invaluable steers off the record when the media were chasing red herrings.

Instead, Eric busied himself with projects that have survived the Troubles, such as the Folk and Transport Museum, the Ulster-American Folk Park which exploited  to the full the rival if minor counter attraction to Irish America, the Scots –Irish tradition of the 10 US Presidents with Ulster ancestry and  local  ancestral homes to visit.  Jammy though  Eric’s career was, who’s to say he made the wrong choice? Maybe he was on to something, the soft power we could agree on and even foster?

Although convulsive violence is over, we live is an age of incomparably more sophisticated and agitated messaging.  What is to be the message of Northern Ireland 100?  If as announced it is specifically pro Union albeit “ sensitive,” it produces a Sinn Fein boycott and puts the SDLP on the rack of a dilemma. “Inclusivity” could mean blandness and invite attack all round particularly from frustrated unionists .

My own  suggestion is to feature  beyond the Troubles legacy what we have in common. This would entail elements of Britishness and Irishness & NI-ness in different measures that combine to create our collective personality. And run a competition to identify the elements and bring them to life. The political formula is ready made and need not create undue angst. It lies in the relationships of the GFA.  And the role for historians? They are perfectly capable of producing a narrative that does justice to all sides, based on the values common to all civilised states.   What they can’t do is reach a single conclusion or verdict. For 2021 the task is to offer future choices that no democrat can reasonably refuse. This I’m assured is not incompatible with  the idea of the only person making the running, the inevitable, estimable Alex Kane

How are messages to be delivered during ongoing pandemic restrictions? It puts a major onus on the BBC and other broadcasters who still provide the main shared experience. At least the short time scale strongly suggests a modest exercise.

Another approach is to devise  – very late in the day –  the long promised new ll vision of the UK Union and invite responses to it. The wider context of a Union under threat makes us that bit less exceptional, less  prone to trot out the same boring old positions.  It might even make nationalist  participation easier than the  predetermined traditional  pro- Union stance. This idea including a new Charter of the Union has been developed by one of the most imaginative thinkers on the whole Union, Arthur Aughey. Mick has noted Arthur’s recent contribution on the writing of history.  For the think tank Policy Exchange, he wrote in 2018:

Making the case for the Union has never been easy. It is easier to mobilise people around a dream of the future (soaring dove) rather than the defence of a somewhat clumsy and contingent status quo. The Union is a “historical fact” but for that reason it is hard to create great enthusiasm around it.

The glue that holds the Union together is a composite of rational or “instrumental” considerations and a deeper electoral or democratic “affinity”, underscored by the principle of consent.

The Union depends, above all, on the “principle of consent”. That consent can be measured by something that might be called “elective affinity”: people elect to associate together through various democratic means (from referenda on the Belfast Agreement or Scottish independence to votes for Union-orientated political parties). The principle of consent also accepts a degree of contingency: that people may choose to separate if, for example, the instrumental case for the Union is diminished; or the affinities to underscore these begin to fray beyond repair.

Since he wrote, the “fraying” has continued.

Among Aughey’s  “keynotes”

It is likely that reform of what has become known as territorial “inter-governmental relations” will be necessary when Brexit eventually happens because many of the powers repatriated from Brussels will fall within the competence of the devolved administrations.

  • It is worth revisiting reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) and its terms of reference in order to provide a stable framework for relations of trust between Westminster and the devolved administrations.
  • Consideration should be given to a Charter of the Union in order to lay down the principles of the territorial constitution’ and which might reverse the notion that devolution is eroding rather than strengthening the Union.

More thorough-going constitutional reform may be necessary to accommodate the consequences of Brexit as well as accommodating the demands for greater recognition of England’s place in the Union.

  • A solution on the Irish border which creates a special status for Northern Ireland or customs border between it and the rest of the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea should be resisted.

This last has of course been superseded by the Ireland/ NI Protocol although there is provision for the Assembly  –  in theory  – to leave it. The other keynotes are entirety dormant.

But even if a new vision of the Union was available, it would be one for the seminar room or website and therefore of strictly limited appeal. You could even host it on Slugger. Not at all what Jim Allister has in mind.

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