Anniversaries can be one of the curses of a history-obsessed society. Amid uncomfortable political rumblings, evidenced already by controversy involving merely a portrait of a poet, the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis welcomed plans for a Centenary Forum and Historical Advisory Panel as part of the Government's plans to mark 100 years of Northern Ireland.
Some might wonder why the UK Government wants to celebrate at all, because the creation of Northern Ireland also represented a colossal fracture of the United Kingdom with most of Ireland leaving the UK - a huge loss of territory. Only the oddest of nations could celebrate shrinkage of its borders.
Furthermore, in an unfortunate coincidence for those wishing to celebrate the centenary, 2021 will mark yet another colossal fracture, the completion of Brexit, which has made necessary a transactional border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Small wonder the Government rejected having a celebratory postage stamp. Some wag might have suggested it have perforations down the middle.
Half-a-century ago, on BBC Northern Ireland, I presented a largely upbeat television programme about a big exhibition marking Northern Ireland's half-centenary.
Back in 1971, in my heart I knew that the 30-minute documentary was, at best, a bandage over a wound that really needed needed political A&E. The exhibition, called Ulster 71, consisted of colourful tents and domes with bars, amusements and a funfair, set on the Lagan embankment in Belfast where Botanic Gardens reach the river.
The TV programme was about the opening of the four-month summertime exhibition. I did wonder at the time why the event was called Ulster 71, since the nine-county province of Ulster was ancient, emphatically not created in 1921. However, the exclusively unionist authorities were fond of regarding the terms "Northern Ireland" and "Ulster" as interchangeable.
One of the programme participants was that splendid comedian Jimmy Young. His material was based on Belfast characters and his long-running shows in The Group Theatre in Belfast appealed across the board. He often jocularly, if softly, reflected life here in its rawness, as evident in his poetic recitation within the programme. It began:
They said we shouldn't have a festival
The time just isn't ripe
The atmosphere's too rowdy
The future's far too cloudy.
Rowdy and cloudy was a mighty soft reference to what was going on in the background, which was killing and rioting on streets north of the border, UVF bombs on iconic targets in Dublin, all presaging a situation was only going to get worse.
But a mixture of misplaced optimism and inadequate political antennae within the old Stormont administration allowed a festival like Ulster 71 to be undertaken.
That said, the exhibition was a public success, with something over a third of the population going through its gates. For many of those attending, it was a relief from reality. It was escapism from ongoing collapse of civil order on the streets of their principal towns and cities unequalled elsewhere on these islands.
In that August, during the exhibition, there were refugees - 7,000 Catholics fled south of the border and several hundred Protestants to Liverpool.
Of course, Ulster 71 provided diversion. It was a well-resourced, professional exhibition designed by top experts from London, modelled on the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition in London in the bleak aftermath of world war. So, how did Ulster 71 treat the mounting rioting and deaths beyond its gates?
Unsurprisingly, with timidity. For instance, there was a "Tunnel of Hate", referencing, well, the hate outside. It had carefully scrawled graffiti and slogans with soundtrack of riots. But the slogans were "Remember the Pensioners" and the like. I'm now a pensioner, so my off-camera eye-rolling at the time now gives way to retrospective approval.
More seriously, there were uncomfortable glaring gaps in that BBC programme. To illustrate, there was a sporting section entitled "The Genius of Ulster", which ignored the Gaelic games.
Ulster 71, of course, declared lofty cross-community aims, but the dogs in the street knew it was intended as a celebration of unionist success.
However, an inability to see beyond its own bubble was hobbling unionism, before, during and then well after Ulster 71. Unionism could not admit that this juxtaposition of frivolity and tragedy was having the opposite effect to that intended. It focused attention upon the inherent instability of the place.
No royalty attended, security worries providing a welcome excuse. It was opened by the Lord Mayor of London. Within the year, came Bloody Sunday, the sacking of the British embassy in Dublin and then the collapse of the Stormont unionist rule government which had commissioned Ulster 71.
Ulster 71 was a last fanfare of majority unionist rule and faded from many memories. All that survives is the shell of the centrepiece, now part of the QUB Physical Education Centre building.
Those comprising the Centenary Forum and Historical Advisory Panel scratching their heads about how to mark the centenary should remember Ulster 71 and draw lessons.
It simply cannot be ignored that the very existence of Northern Ireland was divisive in 1971 and remains so now. Throw in Brexit, lingering Covid-19 and the rise and rise of Scottish nationalism and it might be better to think long and hard about the birth of an entity which has been challenged and defended persistently and often ferociously, as cemeteries on all sides bear sad witness.
Following the English Civil war, when England split as badly as Ireland in its civil war, there was a brief Cromwellian republic, but the monarchy was eventually restored.
William Fiennes, a noted parliamentarian of the time, then had an inscription carved at his manor house in Oxfordshire. It read "Quod olim fuit, meminisse minime iuvat", meaning "There is no pleasure in the memory of the past."
Don Anderson is the author of 14 May Days, a history of the UWC strike in 1974, and a former BBC Television News reporter. The programme can be viewed at www.bbc.co.uk