Why we should not give ourselves easy excuses not to examine the first 100 years of Northern Ireland…

The Irish News on the 13th October published the names of the members of the NI Centenary Forum and reported that Sinn Fein and SDLP politicians, unlike their counterparts from the DUP, UUP and Alliance parties, declined an invitation to join.

In addition, the report speculates that academics invited to serve on the Centenary Historical Advisory Committee, headed by Lord Paul Bew, declined the invitation due to ‘concerns that plans would not reflect the full story of partition.’

Apart from showing a lack of confidence in the impartiality of Lord Bew, it seems unusual that academic minds would be so inclined as to pre-judge ideas yet to be interrogated and leap to conclusions without discourse.  Evidence-based scholarship comes to mind.

In the case of Sinn Fein, the response is predictable in that the party is wedded to the narrative of Northern Ireland as a product of partition-failure and Deputy an Uachtaráin, Michelle O’Neill MLA made clear her view that ‘there is nothing to celebrate’ when Prime Minister Boris Johnston MP visited Hillsborough in August.

Lauded by some as having led the way to a peace process, it is now more likely to posture as a party that could carve a rut in an ocean as absenteeism and rigidity come to the fore.

The SDLP, whilst recognising the marking of the centenary as a ‘profoundly challenging and sensitive task ‘will ‘engage in debates to build a more shared and united future’ .

This is not dissimilar to the view of Irish News journalist and media commentator Allison Morris who in addition to  referring to the violence prior to the settlement resulting in ‘partition leading to conflict over identity and sovereignty ‘notes that ‘bravery of purpose is needed to analyse old conflicts with fresh eyes’ where communities can ‘come together free from the restrictions and constraints of government.’

These are ideas the NI Centenary Forum should not dismiss readily. Nor should political unionists on the Forum. Indulgence in nostalgic unionism and a fixation on symbols only serves to diminish the Union. The centenary is not just about how unionism sees itself.

 Thus far, as evidenced on social media, activities and comments, in so far as Covid is not pre-occupying the minds of most of the population, centre either on polemics around partition or parades, mugs, coins and information about mostly protestant or unionist high-achievers.

If this is where we end up, we will find ourselves drawn into a stale argument around competing and entrenched interpretations which will discourage participation and turn the occasion into a binary event that is simplistic and reinforces negative stereotyping.

This cannot be about either one-sided sterile triumphalism or a partisan blame- fest of those who have not exercised majority rule for nearly 50 years. Either approach will act as a choke-chain on honest reflection. The Forum needs to provide leadership that will de-clutter this thinking.

The at times turbulent history of Northern Ireland’s 100 years points to many missed political opportunities, mainly but not solely the responsibility of Unionist leadership, but should not cloud the fact that people in NI from all backgrounds have prospered materially and educationally, defied conflict to live together respectfully in peace, shared good and bad experiences and been able to celebrate their identity and culture.

Strategically framed around inclusive co-ordinating points of celebration, reconciliation and reflection, centenary events will bring challenge but also opportunity to re-imagine a better future; to break the moulds that feed on sectarian insecurities and lack of awareness dulled by conflict and political dysfunction.

At the risk of becoming a hostage to fortune for there are sure to be omissions, who would not want to celebrate the dramatists, novelists, poets, artists, contemporary and traditional music champions, performers, composers, dancers as well as fashion, media and cinema innovators from within our culturally hybrid communities?

Is there not cause to celebrate the Welfare State and an NHS, exhibiting pressures but also advances in medicine and healthcare, the contribution of women, our oral history, museums and Folk Parks?

Across sport, football, cricket, hockey, bowls, GAA, athletics, rugby, boxing and golf has produced many memorable moments that served to unite across perceived divisions. It would surprise some, without reason, to know that when Down, Tyrone or Derry won the Sam Maguire, many pro-union locals shared the pride of their friends in seeing the trophy come north to their home county.

When players like Pat Jennings, Gary Fleming, Paul Ramsey, John O’Neill, Liam O’Kane, John Crossan, Felix Healy, Mal Donaghy, Gerry Armstrong, Martin O’Neill, and many more wore the same jersey as others seen as coming from a different community, few cared what schools they attended, where they were baptised or how they voted.

The same applies to the players who take the field today. For every Neil Lennon, whose experience of sectarian abuse was morally unjustifiable and reprehensible, there are many more positive as opposed to negative experiences as efforts to rid the sport of sectarianism prove successful.

To these areas of life, we can add science and technology, education in some of the finest schools across all sectors, food, drink, celebrity chefs and the national and global impact of those who left Northern Ireland to live in many different parts of the world.

Deliberation on partition and the issues which led to the creation of two jurisdictions in Ireland provides an opportunity to understand the history of both, how they developed, the experiences of communities within the jurisdictions, border areas, the policies and actions pursued and their impact on each other.

If such an approach acts to avoid heroic narratives and starry-eyed tales of uninterrupted success, is there not learning to point to a positive future?  This applies equally to the history which led to the Civil Rights Movement and the politics, restless in bitterness on all sides, which opted for conflict rather than conciliation and reform.

Only those who would prefer to live with problems rather than answers will fail to see what can be gained; to build politics of the common good and avoid the failings of the past.

Planning for the NI Centenary will not be complete however if reflection on the loss of lives, injuries and suffering that resulted from our shared experiences across the years does not act as an imperative to determine, as a community, how we can complete the unfinished business of building a sustainable and stable home; to build on the social, cultural and attitudinal transformation which is taking place.