On a rainy Friday afternoon in Belfast and a century into Northern Ireland’s existence, political and religious leaders once again found themselves forced to explain why they weren’t getting along.
The event at Union Theological College was organised by the Presbyterian Church and welcomed tough questions on the circumstances leading up to partition and the creation of Northern Ireland.
Before the diverse programme of historical analysis, music, drama and debate could even begin, the only question for leaders on the steps outside was whether the Irish President Michael D Higgins had snubbed the Queen and Northern Ireland itself.
In a well-publicised row, Mr Higgins has declined to attend an event organised by church leaders in Armagh next month, claiming it has now become a political statement.
Once these latest soundbites were dispatched, a more detailed examination of Northern Ireland’s shared and contested history followed.
The historic setting of Union Theological College is probably forgotten by most who walk past it every day.
A century ago it hosted the first Northern Ireland Parliament before it took up its permanent home in Stormont 11 years later.
King George V officially opened the parliament at Belfast City Hall on June 22, 1921, and on Friday he returned to Belfast — with the help of actor Jim Allen.
Recreating the King’s Speech to the Northern Ireland Parliament in the optimistic tone it was delivered at the time, the stark contrast with how events actually unfolded for many was hard to ignore.
In one section, the King said: “I inaugurate it with deep-felt hope, and I feel assured that you will do your utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent.
“This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the six counties, but not for the six counties alone, for everything which interests them touches Ireland, and everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.”
Another line from the speech, “The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves”, provided the musical inspiration for Belfast singer-songwriter Ferna.
She was specially commissioned to write and perform a new song for the centenary event entitled ‘Lapsed’.
The song imagines Northern Ireland as a person and what they might say to us today.
Speaking ahead of her performance, she said: “I was surprised and very apprehensive about it because I felt the song could go wrong in so many ways! I mean, how do you reflect upon something as complex and troubled as 100 years of Northern Ireland in a helpful, thoughtful way?”
She said the “slow, pulsing ballad” portrays someone stuck in a cycle of fresh starts and setbacks while looking for a different way forward.
“At the same time I was very focused on painting an honest picture of this person — I wanted to show their flaws, but also their inner strength, their pain but also their stoicism. I also wanted to avoid being trite or sentimental.”