This is the personal perspective of a pro-union activist, sometimes blunt, always opinionated, but with the capacity to admitting I may not always be correct in my thinking.
So, the centenary year of the formation of our country Northern Ireland is almost over and up to this point, has it received the recognition that the significant milestone deserved? Not to me, in fact, it has if we are honest about it, been a most disappointing experience to date.
We could take an easy option and blame the pandemic, and this has definitely had an effect, but the decision by nationalism simply to ignore, mock, ridicule and boycott allelements of the centenary has nullified any form of a meaningful examination of the good and the bad of the last one hundred years.
The detractors of the centenary have not used the opportunity to explain to anyone how they felt the last one hundred years has been a failure, and those who were trying to mark the occasion have in all honesty been woefully short on forward planning, imagination, reconciliation and spectacle.
One hundred years to prepare and get events ready and it seems that the biggest talking point of the year will be the non-appearance of Irish President Michael D. Higgins at a church service. His refusal is in line with the overall position of nationalism, so it should be no great surprise, and anyway he would only have been a very small part of the event, I wonder how many more refused?
The Queen was unwell and couldn’t make it to the service in the end, stroke of luck maybe for everyone, except her majesty of course, who in hindsight was genuinely unwell.
The Primate of Ireland Eamonn Martin used the service to pump out the republican values of a disgraced church and berated partition in his velvet tongue and the non-Roman Catholic clergy, doubtless eager not to offend anyone and admit they were Protestants, ended up almost tongue-tied and offered nothing of any significance. No surprise! But at least the event made the national news, letting people in the rest of the UK know that the centenary had arrived.
Unionist political parties, culture groups, institutions and others have all been guilty of negligence, in varying degrees,over this milestone centenary event. Those events that have happened have not created any real sense of occasion, or registered anywhere in the mainstream media. Because of the absence of nationalist involvement, what is happening, looksand is, distinctly one sided and at times celebratory or triumphalist, again no surprise, but without a critical input,what else can you expect.
Perhaps this was the intention of those who ignored the overall concept of the commemoration, but maybe I give them too much credit! Perhaps they just wanted another chance to whinge about the Protestant approach and to justify the position that they outwardly portray to the world, as a hard done by section of society. They could be right of course and some of the events would not have welcomed or invited them, but we will never know that.
A quote from Derry Councillor Gary Donnelly, fully endorsed on three occasions by Derry City and Strabane District Council stated that “Given the injustice of partition, that this Council will not participate in any event that commemorates or celebrates this injustice.” would seem to encapsulate the approach taken by nationalism as a whole. A lot of the eventswe in Londonderry wanted to hold had the potential to make republicanism face up to the idea that, even though they say they want to be part of a United Ireland, the benefits and power they now have in a Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom should not be looked at too closely at this time. Partition may not be as bad as they seem to want to believe, but there is little appetite for exploring it. Their mythical view of uniting Ireland, based on little more than emotion and the hope that someone else will pay for it, makes their new Ireland look like a scene from John Fords “The Quiet Man” when in actual fact it could end up more like “Mad Max”.
Some groups, like ourselves, with limited resources and turned down for large scale funding, felt they had to do something, but the task was too great and our overall outputhas fallen well short. Groups have to be commended for their efforts, but the only visual aspects that appeared, mostly revolved around the old favourites of marching round the streets, something we have done for each of the one hundred years, or selling merchandise and memorabilia. Any other small-scale events did not engender any real sense of occasion unfortunately. Some will disagree with this but it’s hard to think otherwise?
There should have been many more large-scale offerings perhaps from the three million pounds of funding announced by Brandon Lewis on 14th December 2020. However,seventeen days before the centenary began! A sign of the way some people wanted things to go.
Some groups from Northern Ireland did receive funding from the Brandon Lewis announcement; for instance, the Belfast Jewish Community, Chinese Welfare Association, Armagh Roma Traveller Support, National Museums Ireland. Who are these groups I hear you ask? Exactly what did they create, and how did it contribute to the centenary, was it highlighted and what impact did it have.
Again, the softly, softly approach, let on it’s not happening, it’ll go away!
The other big winners in the funding were some of the councils, who then portrayed themselves as supporting centenary events, did they contribute any council funding or just use the proceeds from the government pot?
The Grand Orange Lodge like many other groups failed to secure major funding and cancelled their early thoughts for a Centenary Parade. This idea has been rekindled recently, but is a major parade in Belfast alone a representative way to commemorate the Northern Ireland centenary.
The localised events on the last two Twelfths have proved very successful so why not use this form for the centenary or even six major county events, involve the whole country not just Belfast, we are all part of it.
They point to the 2012 Covenant Parade which they say was a great event. It might have been if you were at the front of it but for those of us travelling from outside Belfast, and nearer the back, the hanging about for hours and the transport difficulties spoiled a big part of it, a single parade may not be the answer.
The politicians who should have ensured meaningful support for the centenary have definitely taken their “eye off the ball”? Their opposite numbers in Stormont out-thought them, embarrassed them, and generally put them in a box.
Again, they showed no strategy, no planning and no agenda.
Covid certainly took up a lot of politicians time, but they spent most of this time pointing out breaches of covid guidelines in each other’s ranks. None of us should forget that before Covid, they had three years off, being paid and doing very little, something that irritates each of us who have to go to work in order to get paid. Surely the thought of the centenary could have gained momentum then? It’s not as if it was a secret, we had known it was coming for a while, from 1921 actually.
How sad was it, watching our elected representatives dashing about at the last-minute, months into the centenary year, trying to get commemoration stones erected at Stormont, buildings lit up, etc. etc. it was sad to see and sobering to behold? What makes it worse, they failed at every turn, nothing in Stormont, no city hall lit up and they looked absolutely powerless.
However, Brexit, the NI Protocol and the unionist parties leadership merry-go round has deflected a lot of our thinkingaround who exactly to blame, for now anyway. The fact is that we have politicians who claim to represent us, but only represent themselves, their parties, their abject failure over the centenary and their illusion of power that was lost years ago.
When history comes to look at Northern Ireland in the 2021 centenary year it will find nothing of any great significance to report, future generations won’t even find a commemorative postage stamp, because we messed that up too.
If a report has to be written it will surely say, like my old school report, “Could have done better!”