There Is No Us In The Story of Northern Ireland
Andrée Murphy, Deputy Director of Relatives for Justice
By Andrée Murphy
The Belfast Telegraph
This month Arlene Foster marked her fifth anniversary as leader of the DUP. In her acceptance speech of a position, by her own admission, she was never destined to achieve, she spoke of the centenary of partition. She set the frame for how she wanted to mark 2021 in this first missive. Like so much else, events have got in the way of her ambition.
In words that might have been, but were not, influenced by the Gettysburg address she wondered what it was like for “our founding fathers… building a new state from scratch”, how Northern Ireland was “our birthright” and most telling of all that after 100 years “we” are “safe in the knowledge that Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is secure”.
Instead of this secure picture postcard of secure reflection, the marking of the centenary will occur just as there is unprecedented focus on the constitutional future of the North. Brexit, the sorry failure of the northern Executive to deliver on the promise of basic human rights, Covid, a booming southern economy and demographics have all combined over the past three years to convince many that our future lies in a different constitutional one to that which has gone before and failed.
While for Foster, and those who are like minded, the northern state was founded as a “birthright”, for the other citizens living here the past 100 years has been the denial of the legitimacy of that other birthright - Irish identity. An artificial line was drawn across Ireland in 1921 to secure a Protestant majority and deliberately create the conditions for what Fine Gael’s Peter Barry called the “nationalist nightmare”. Decades of systemic discrimination against Irish citizens upheld by a militarised police force and a system of laws which was the envy of South Africa’s apartheid regime, was how the state was purposefully created “from scratch”.
Of course, the tale of the north is a play of two halves with the first half being the sectarian utopia to which some Unionists look on with rose tinted glasses, and nationalists look on with trauma, sadness and anger, and a second half of the reaction to attempts to dismantle that infrastructure, the ensuing devastating conflict and the peace process.
The NIO, and some in unionism, want to make this a year of pretence. They want to talk about what unites “us”, to celebrate the best of “us”, and to think about “the future”. I am quite sure they do, but that is a deliberate sham, and not how we have done any other part of this decade of centenaries. Every other reflection has been about interrogating the facts of what happened, uncovering the stories of those who received little attention at the time (mainly women, children and the working classes), and reflecting on modern-day implications of those events. And those reflections have been about who were beneficiaries of those historic events, and who were its victims.
The truth is there is no “us” when it comes to this anniversary. For some it is the anniversary of the “state” which was founded for “us” - the beneficiaries of the “state”. For others it is the anniversary of partition and the purposeful delegitimisation of “them” - Irish citizens left as strangers in their own land. The longer unionism and the NIO seek to sanitise or avoid an honest and embracing truth, the more they look entirely happy with the endorsing of an official history which justifies discrimination, pogrom and murder.
It is worth noting that the formal structures by which both governments and all parties agreed to interrogate the second half of “Northern Ireland”, the legacy structures of the Stormont House Agreement, haven’t been implemented and have become politically contested. Why? Primarily because the British state wishes to sidestep and sanitise its own record and history in this place. Objective and independent scrutiny would shine a light on the lie that Britain was neutral during the conflict and on the lie that there were “two warring factions”, when in fact the British state was at the heart of the conflict. In this context the idea that the NIO would swoop in and lead reflection on the “centenary” while denying truth to bereaved and injured victims of the latter half of the same “centenary” would be a sick joke, except there is nothing funny in this shamefaced approach.
Happily, irrespective of the prospect of an officially endorsed revision-fest, there is momentum towards positive conversation. And that conversation is framed by planning for a constitutional future very different to the past. A future which has respect for identity, and universality of rights at its heart. 2021’s exciting conversation is more likely to concentrate on this generational opportunity, rather than the stale promotion of official lies or conveniences regarding the past.
Andrée Murphy is the Deputy Director of Relatives for Justice and a columnist for Andersontown News