SOAPBOX: Shared history and an inclusive look at the Centenary

Paul Mullan is the Northern Ireland director at The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

100 years ago this year the partition of Ireland created two new states on this island, and with that the United Kingdom as we know it today was established. For some this represents an event that should be celebrated, while for others it represents something quite different, a sense of loss and discomfort. It is often said about Northern Ireland that we share a past but not a common memory of that past.

In January 2020 The New Decade New Approach document was signed by all the political parties and the British and Irish governments, re-establishing the Stormont Executive. NDNA also identified that the Northern Ireland Office would set up the Shared History Fund as part of activity to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland in an inclusive way. The Principles for Remembering devised by the Community Relations Council and The National Lottery Heritage Fund were to be central to the delivery of the fund.

Shared history is a useful term because it recognises that there is no single version of the past and that communities remember the past in different ways. We only have to walk the streets of Belfast or any of our cities, towns and villages to see many different versions of the past displayed on gable walls, or represented by memorials, sites and buildings. Our past is contested.

However, when we start to explore what shared history means we start to unravel something quite different. A view of the past emerges that is more than one community pitched against the other but stories of different experiences as women, as men, as young people, and as old. We see many other stories revealed, stories of immigration, new communities, and people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Slowly a very different view of the past emerges one where people got on with their lives and dreams, through sports, business and education.

Shared history is not just about the battle between us and them, though that sadly remains a part of our story and one that cannot be ignored. To do so would whitewash much that has gone on. Shared history represents all of those aspects of life we have had in common over the last 100 years, but also the many different experiences as well. Shared history should also uncover the gaps and silences that memory has forgotten. This was the context of the last 100 years that we wanted to explore through the Shared History Fund.

Working with the Principles for Remembering which have proved so useful throughout the Decade of Centenaries was critical. The principles are rooted in the historical facts of the past and recognise the implications and consequences of what happened and that there are also many different perceptions and interpretations. The principles are about trying to understand the past and remember better. Too often we remember the past only to create division and difference.

With all of this in mind The National Lottery Heritage Fund devised a grant programme for the Northern Ireland Office. Launched last November, the response to the fund was amazing with £6m worth of projects competing for the £1m on offer. Today (Friday 12 March) we are announcing what has been funded and it is a fascinating array of projects that reflect all aspects of life in Northern Ireland.

Some of the projects funded through the Shared History Fund include:

  • Council-led programmes, with events, resources and opportunities to engage with the Centenary in your area, including Belfast City Council, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
  • Projects which build a better understanding of the key events, institutions, people and communities who have been impacted since the establishment of Northern Ireland, with projects led by Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich Memorial Library & Archive and Magherafelt District Orange Lodge.
  • 100 years of football in Northern Ireland, from the impact of partition to the role it plays in communities today, with projects by Tollymore Football Club and Crusaders Football Club.
  • The role and contribution of minority communities with projects led by the Belfast Jewish Community, Chinese Welfare Association and Armagh Roma Traveller Support.
  • The creation of new digital resources, online exhibitions, podcasts and events, which preserve and bring the story of Northern Ireland to a new audience from the Nerve Centre, Libraries NI and Linen Hall Library.
  • The memories and key moments in history that shaped local towns and neighbourhoods, as well as rural communities, with projects led by Ballynafeigh Community Development Association and Rural Community Network.
  • Cross-community projects which educate young people, as well as gain their perspective on the Northern Ireland of the future, by Reach Across and Shared Future News.

What we at The National Lottery Heritage Fund and others have learnt over the period of the Decade of Centenaries is that the past is not a topic to hide from. The more we know about it, and in particular the more inclusive that understanding is, the more potential we have to use that understanding to shape a better future for all of us. None of this will be comfortable but it will be necessary.

You can find out more about the Shared History Fund and projects funded on our website.