On May 3rd, 2021, Northern Ireland commemorated its 100th anniversary as a separate legal entity within the United Kingdom. This raised the question: how do we commemorate a state with a history of violence and discrimination? This article doesn’t attempt to answer this question but explores Northern Ireland as a case study to demonstrate the complex nature of contested anniversaries.
Footage of 50th Anniversary celebrations in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens indicated that the then Government had no reservations about marking the day with parades, music, and fanfare. That this would be mere months prior to the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday massacres makes for difficult viewing. However, it is no surprise that an all-Unionist Executive would organise such a brash celebration. Despite the fact that Ulster Unionist history far outlives that of Northern Ireland, the two appear intimately tied in the minds of Unionists. Is it not the Orange Order who are most loudly celebrating the centenary?
Altogether the affairs of 1971 were far from inclusive. Comparatively, today’s Executive opted for a more toned-down affair. Certainly celebrations were tempered by the pandemic, but there is a sense that even without logistical concerns, the commemoration would have been a discreet one. Indeed, outside of staunch loyalist areas there has been little celebration. In a post-Troubles society, after the deaths of 3000 people and remaining mental and physical trauma, it is understandable why there would be an indifferent mood toward marking its centenary.
Where centenary events have been organised, they have not been without controversy and compromise – one of the most notable being Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ choice to decline an invitation to a centenary church service, driving home the question of the place for an Irish identity in Northern Ireland.
The Troubles is fundamental to understanding memory, as well as why there has been a lacklustre response to centenary celebrations. But for nationalists the issue runs deeper: even before the troubles, Northern Ireland’s history has been one of supremacy, discrimination, and sectarianism. Gerrymandering; police violence in Catholic areas; discrimination in housing and the workplace were built-in to the foundations of Northern Irish Society from 1921.
Historical memory is distinct for the two communities. For unionists, a celebration of Northern Ireland is a celebration of them. For nationalists there is instead a total disengagement with the state they live in. Without a shared historical narrative it is difficult to see how anything but conflict might arise from major centenary events.
What the Northern Irish Centenary has shown is that, in any state where violence and sectarianism have reigned for so long and the history is so divisive, ensuring commemoration does not celebrate such a reality should be a priority.