Let’s be blunt. If the foundation of Northern Ireland was worth celebrating, its legacy would be something to be proud of. I’d like to be charitable, but I can’t think of anything much to praise it for – other than the Giant’s Causeway, soda farls and Bushmills whiskey, all of which predate it.
Northern Ireland is a monument to political failure. A year spent hiding itself in shame would be more appropriate than some sort of blow-out.
The injustices of 1921: the cynical partition not just of Ireland, but of Ulster, continue to fester. As Professor Colin Harvey reminded us last week, it is not a ‘state’. It is not even an excuse for a state.
Established as an elective dictatorship, its ruling class sustained itself through naked discrimination, vote-rigging, and an approach to maintaining law and order which saw a seamless join between the official forces of the crown and paramilitary thugs. At the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament, King George V urged MPs to govern in the interests of everyone. His words went unheeded.
So brazen was the discrimination that its founders had no difficulty promoting sectarianism. Time and time again, unionist Prime Minister Sir James Craig reminded the Stormont Parliament that he was delivering “… a Protestant Government for a Protestant people.” And by god he did.
Even the so-called enlightened figure of Terence O’Neill suggested that if you treated Catholics well, they would behave like good Protestants. His time in government was the beginning of the end for unionist hegemony.
The violence that followed was not inevitable – there were strong voices for peaceful change. But, like a primed petri dish, unionist supremacy created the conditions for the bacteria of sectarian violence to grow.
Those, on both sides, who pulled triggers, detonated explosives, and brutalised their own and other communities, must take responsibility for their actions – but so too must unionism.
It’s time to come out of denial.
The true legacy of Northern Ireland is bitterness and division. Bitterness and division that persists today – a generation after the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement, and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
An enforced coalition, and dysfunctional Executive, is evidence that partition was not a solution. Northern Ireland was and is a failed political entity.
If I were Arlene Foster, I’d be trying to draw a veil over 2021 rather than draw attention to it, but self-awareness is not one of her strong suits.
Self-awareness elsewhere is also in short supply. You might expect one of the ‘custodians’ of the peace process to be alert to the sensitivities. But no. Blundering Boris Johnson dropped into Hillsborough last week to add his tuppenceworth. “Something to celebrate,” he said. Indeed, and this from the man whose Brexit has introduced a second border – this time down the Irish Sea.
The least said about Secretary of State Brandon Lewis’s contribution, the better. The year would promote Northern Ireland on the world stage, he claimed. The world stage has seen enough of Northern Ireland’s brand of sectarianism. For all the appearances of political coexistence, Northern Ireland is not yet a paragon of peace, harmony and reconciliation.
If the centenary is to have any use, it should be used as an opportunity for quiet and critical self-reflection.
Unionism must come to terms with the original sin of partition and acknowledge the deep hurt and damage done to the body politic and to the cause of reconciliation by its misguided leaders of past generations.
On the nationalist side of the fence – and there is a fence still sadly – it must be recognised that what was done then cannot easily be undone.
If unionists of this part of Ireland are to embrace a new Ireland – and there are strong economic and cultural reasons why they should – they will have to be persuaded, not forced, to a realisation that partition was a wrong turning, and that we are better united than divided.
If 2021 achieves that, it will have been of some good.
A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 18 2020