#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 2°C Saturday 28 November 2020
Advertisement

Major funding for NI centenary set to be announced, as local politicians push for greater role in planning

Department of Foreign Affairs officials have been involved in meetings planning the centenary events.

Northern Ireland will mark its centenary in 2021.
Northern Ireland will mark its centenary in 2021.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Archive/PA Images

THE FIRST MAJOR announcement on what Northern Ireland’s centenary commemorations will look like could happen in the next couple of weeks, with millions of pounds in funding set to be provided to local groups and councils to prepare for a calendar of events.

Details of the commemorations, which are being led by the Northern Ireland Office, could be revealed as soon as the end of November, although some question why it’s taken so long for key plans to be organised. 

TheJournal.ie understands that significant progress has been made on a ‘Shared History Fund’ – first mooted in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored power-sharing in January – which will see millions of pounds in funding provided to projects seeking to explore and commemorate the creation of Northern Ireland next year. 

It’s also understood that the first event may take place in December, to mark the date that the Government of Ireland Act – which formally created two parliaments on the island – gained royal assent. 

Discussion over the centenary of Northern Ireland has proved somewhat muted so far, overshadowed by Covid-19, Brexit and the constitutional uncertainty facing Northern Ireland into the future. However, some aspects have already proven contentious. 

Neither Sinn Féin or the SDLP are taking part in the Centenary Forum – a body convened by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that will lead discussions over plans for the centenary celebrations. 

And while early indications from the Centenary Forum – made up figures from politics, civil society and business – suggest that a special anniversary coin and an event at Belfast City Hall may be in the works, some members have expressed concern about the pace of planning as 2021 approaches. 

“We have lost so much time,” DUP MP and the party’s forum representative Gavin Robinson told TheJournal.ie. 

“Without question. I’m frustrated we had the commitment from early January and didn’t have the first meeting until September,” he said. 

Reflecting an anxiety among some members for faster progress as the centenary approaches, Robinson said that meetings have been moved from every two months to meeting every four weeks. 

Robinson wasn’t alone in hoping that a calendar or preview of events is published sooner rather than later.

Ulster Unionist Party MLA Doug Beattie sits on the forum and said he personally believed it would make sense for the plans for 2021 to be published as soon as possible – either late this year or in early January.

One of the concerns, echoed in conversations with members of the forum, is that their role is essentially consultative – meetings consist of listening to officials from the Northern Ireland Office and considering their plans. Robinson said that the forum needed to be “more participative”. 

“You get members who are keen to energise the process,” he said.

We have members who are keen to engage more regularly than the set piece meetings.”

Ian Marshall, a former unionist member of the Seanad, acknowledged similar concerns. “When you set up a forum, there is no point in setting up a talking shop,” he said. 

Not everyone shared these concerns. 

John McGrillen, the chief executive of Tourism NI, told TheJournal.ie that the Northern Ireland Office was doing its best to ensure that voices from across society were heard. 

“There will be a process where concepts and ideas of what could be done will be brought to the table and we’ll look at which ones have the greatest potential,” he said of the work of the forum.

Irish government

Concerns over the sensitivity of the anniversary are partly the reason two senior civil servants from the Department of Foreign Affairs have been given ‘observer status’ at the two meetings so far of the Centenary Forum. 

The officials have been given this role alongside Elizabeth Trudeau, the US Consul General in Belfast. 

Members of the forum said that the civil servants have proved useful in sharing insights and best practice on handling sensitive commemorations, although it’s understood that the officials – who are not part of the Shared Island Unit staff – largely answer questions and give guidance only where necessary. 

“Officials from the Department have attended meetings of the Forum on an ad-hoc basis at the invitation of its Chairperson, to ensure good communication and sharing of experience, and remain available to attend future meetings if invited to do so,” a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Members of the forum told TheJournal.ie that there could be a cross-border element to commemorations, although it remains unclear if the Shared Island Unit – formally launched by Taoiseach Micheál Martin in October – would play any role in this. 

Beattie said it was important that the plans for 2021 are handled carefully and in a way that avoids a “jingoistic, Rule Britannia approach”. 

He said it would be “lovely to have all nationalists involved”. 

“I guess the forum is not balanced, because it doesn’t have anyone from the SDLP or Sinn Féin. No one from that nationalist voice is there,” he said. He indicated that the Northern Ireland Office was still trying to persuade the two parties to get involved in the process. 

“We understand it’s contentious for some,” he said. “We all get and we all understand that.”

But he stressed that for many people it will be a moment to celebrate. The aim, he said, was to recognise the role played by Northern Ireland as part of the UK. 

He said events will be “aimed at spreading this beyond these shores, beyond Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom – so people understand it’s an integral part of the UK”.

Marshall echoed these comments.

“We have come through the 1916 commemoration, which for one section of society was difficult to deal with. This is another one of these events that we need to demonstrate that we’re a mature society.”

general-election-2019 The DUP's Gavin Robinson believes that the SDLP and Sinn Féin should take part in the body planning centenary events. Source: Liam McBurney

“We have one history, but two narratives,” he added.  

Robinson said it was a missed opportunity for the nationalist parties. 

“I think if they were to think about it properly, they should be engaged in the discussions.

“If they’re going to step back and say ‘it’s not for us but work away’, that’s great,” he added.

I hope we don’t see any needless political animation about these issues.”

There is still time for nationalist representatives to join the forum. The body, which will only have met on a handful of occasions by the end of 2020, will remain active throughout 2021 – in part, members say, to ensure that events remain adaptable to the vagaries of the pandemic. 

 Tourism

For the tourism sector in Northern Ireland, which has been ravaged by Covid-19 and restrictions on travel, the centenary is an opportunity to “rebuild”, says McGrillen. 

And if case numbers can be suppressed for a significant part of 2021, he hopes that the North can attract visitors from across the UK and Ireland. 

“We want to take the opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland in other parts of the UK,” he said. 

“We want to present what Northern Ireland is really like, as opposed to how people perceived Northern Ireland in the past.”

For this reason, McGrillen is stressing that the events should be forward-looking and not focused on the sectarian divides that dominated the last century in Northern Ireland. 

“We have to give a nod to the past, but it’s more about the future,” he said. 

One idea he’d like to see, Covid-19 permitting, would be a major concert of musicians from Northern Ireland – possibly in collaboration with Tourism Ireland. 

And with thousands of Irish people travelling across the border for a holiday for the first time this year, McGrillen has hopes that the tourism market – aided by the focus on the centenary – may receive a much-needed boost. 

Locally led

Most members of the Centenary Forum agreed that the Northern Ireland Office’s programme would act as an “umbrella” under which local groups and councils would be free to organise their own events. 

“I think it’s kind of like putting an umbrella over the events that are going to happen,” Marshall said. “It’s an information-gathering exercise.”

In October, the Orange Order announced plans to celebrate the centenary – with a raft of events including a parade from Stormont and a fireworks display. 

And while Northern Ireland Executive departments are expected to organise some events for 2021, the key role councils will play could lead to a patchwork of events and activity dependent on whether councils are unionist or nationalist-dominated.

This was clearly demonstrated only last week when Derry and Strabane City Council voted against marking the centenary of Northern Ireland. 

“It isn’t for the Northern Ireland Office to do it all. They don’t control and wouldn’t seek to control events that will take place nest year,” Robinson said. 

Other members agreed that the Northern Ireland Office was, by its very nature, somewhat aloof from the mood on the ground. 

“I don’t think anyone is fully happy with the proposals,” said Luke Patterson, a member of the UK Youth Parliament. 

“They are one-step removed,” he said. But he said he was hopeful that some planned events – like a tree-planting project – could help unite people from all backgrounds next year. 

He said it was particularly important that young people, many of whom were born after the Troubles ended, are “given a chance to have their voices heard”. 

“There are a number of events built into the programme about young entrepreneurs, young scientists, young politicians,” he said. 

boris-johnson-visits-belfast No one is under any illusion that the process of commemorating the creation of Northern Ireland could prove controversial. Source: PA

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

Academics

In the same way that an expert advisory group was configured by the Irish government ahead of the Decades of Centenaries events, the Northern Ireland Office has created a Centenary Historical Advisory Panel populated by UK-based academics to provide guidance on the plans for the year ahead. 

Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Robin Walker, described their role in early October as “bringing strong and independent academic rigour to our approach to marking this important anniversary”. 

There have been some hopes that there might be co-operation and discussion between the bodies on both sides of the border. 

The panel is chaired by Professor Paul Bew, an esteemed historian, member of the House of Lords, as well as a prominent unionist intellectual and commentator on Brexit. 

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said: “A number of historians and academics from across the Republic of Ireland and the UK were approached although not all were able to commit to joining.” 

The current panel represents a balance of perspectives and research interests. They are also exploring how they can collaborate more widely with historians and researchers across these islands.”

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Bew said that he already been in contact with Maurice Manning, who chairs the Irish expert advisory group. “We want as close an involvement with the Republic of Ireland as possible,” he said. 

“The objective here is quite simply to have as liberal and broad ranging a view so people know, who are interested, what actually happened,” Bew said. “It’s not to gloss over the hard side of partition.”

“It is meant to be objective history and scholarly and not brush things under the carpet.”

The group’s primary focus will be to organise academic events to run during 2021. And while some cross-border events are likely to happen, none have so far been organised. 

Bew also foresees a focus not just on the events around 1921, but a broader look at the history of Northern Ireland over the last century. 

But he stressed that “the first thing you have got to get right is the circumstances of 1921″. 

But not everyone believes the forum can be entirely inclusive. 

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said that his party had declined to take part in the forum when told by the UK government that the focus would be on celebrating the centenary of Northern Ireland. 

“Where we would have difficulty is in framing this around a celebration. We really can’t see anything to celebrate at all,” Finucane said. 

“We didn’t turn our backs and say no to this without getting clarity,” he said. “I don’t think being absent from the panel prevents us from recognising that people have a different narrative.”

While he understands and respects that unionists and others will want to mark the centenary in their own way, Finucane said that Sinn Féin would be recognising the creation of Northern Ireland with its own events. 

To treat it purely as a celebration, he said, “ignores the reality of how partition came about and ignores the lived experience of people who grew up and lived and tried to survive here”. 

About the author:

Read next:

COMMENTS (27)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel