Sinn Féin’s late refusal to attend last week’s solemn service to mark the island’s partition has hindered chances of the very thing they want: reunification
Accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney defined the central problem of his homeland as two-fold: the ongoing partition of the island and “an equally persistent partition of the affections in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish heritages”.
Three years before the Good Friday Agreement, the poet had hoped for a future where partition would be “a bit more like the net on a tennis court: a demarcation allowing for agile give-and-take, for encounter and contending”.
For many years that dream seemed to have been progressively realised. The Troubles ended, cross-Border relations improved and previously unthinkable gestures were made. Ian Paisley presented Bertie Ahern with a musket at the site of the Battle of the Boyne. In Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, Queen Elizabeth paid her respects to those who fought for Irish freedom. Martin McGuinness shook the Queen’s hand. The easy give-and-take prefigured by Heaney had become the norm.
But this year, the centenary of partition has exposed not only how reconciliation is now in reverse but how popular that stance is.
On Thursday morning, 14-year-old schoolboy Seán McCourt-Kelly addressed the ecumenical centenary church service in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh and appealed for “courageous leaders” in Northern Ireland.
Within minutes of the service’s conclusion, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill tweeted three words: “Make partition history.” As her considered response to the service, that simplistic sloganeering was a striking contrast with what had gone on in Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital.
Sinn Féin’s refusal to attend the service came relatively late and only after President Michael D Higgins had rejected his invitation. For months, there had been contact between Catholic and Protestant church leaders — who were organising the service — and officials in Dublin and London.
A symbolic act of reconciliation involving the Queen and the President had been worked on. Even a decision around the timing of their entrances had been discussed — the Queen and the President were to walk in together, rather than the Queen taking precedence.
Several months ago, someone with knowledge of the plan told me that the Taoiseach, prime minister and leaders of every Stormont Executive party would attend.
It was to have been the high point of a muted centenary year. Those plans fell apart last month when the president said he could not attend because the title of the event (“A service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”) was “politicised”. On Wednesday, the Queen pulled out for health reasons.
Sinn Féin described the service as a “celebration” of partition. As well as misrepresenting what the churches had said about the event (that it was deliberately not a celebration), that pointed to a shallow understanding of how unionism views 1921. Yes, many unionists love Northern Ireland and want to celebrate both the aspects of it that they cherish and the fact that it has endured for 100 years.
But that celebration is tinged with regret — not just for the gross errors made by unionist governments in the years after 1921, but in the bloody destruction that has marked much of the last century. Too many people lie in premature graves for this year to have been a jingoistic carnival.
There is a deeper nuance.
Far from being a triumph, partition was a messy compromise in response to the fact that unionists wanted to keep the entire island British but failed to do so.
Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, James Craig, described acceptance of the border as a “supreme sacrifice in the interests of peace”. Unionists in the other 26 counties were abandoned; some of their descendants still speak of betrayal by their own tribe.
In the event, and in line with what I had been told months ago, the service was as neutral as anything here can be. From the first bars of the Irish Cantilena on the cathedral organ, the mood was contemplative. Rather than celebration, there was solemnity.
Together sat black and white, Protestant and Catholic, British and Irish, exemplifying how the Northern Ireland of 2021 is not that of 1921.
Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke of his “deep sense of loss and sadness” at partition.
Protestant clerics expressed regret and sadness before a collective confession that “we have wounded each other and our communities in the past”.
There was a welcome in the Irish language, Irish-language prayers, Irish music and an Irish blessing.
A black African-born cleric, Methodist church president Dr Sahr Yambasu, preached the sermon, highlighting how St Patrick came to Ireland as a slave but, rather than hating the country of his captivity, he responded with love. He said the service was “an opportunity to lament; to say sorry”.
If that is a celebration, then a funeral is a wedding. Sinn Féin knows it was not a celebration, but if it admits that, how would it explain what was so offensive?
Was it school children singing about their hopes for the future or Troubles victims leading prayers? Was it the point that churches once so divided had come together?
Snubbing the service was a calculated decision that is part of a wider Sinn Féin strategy. On the day of the service, they vetoed Belfast City Hall being illuminated for the centenary. In May, a Sinn Féin minister rejected a request for a centenary rose bed in the Stormont Estate. The party also vetoed a simple centenary stone at Stormont, paid for by unionist parties.
Sinn Féin faces a conundrum. Such pettiness is undermining the trust necessary to persuade those who currently support the existence of Northern Ireland. But electoral considerations contradict that — these actions are popular with its base, just as the president’s refusal to attend was popular. Sinn Féin turned on its rivals who did attend — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the SDLP.
If this event had happened a decade ago, Martin McGuinness would almost certainly have been there, as would then-President Mary McAleese. But, facing a choice between winning the next election and doing the work to win a border poll, Sinn Féin is prioritising the former.
Last month, the perceptive Northern nationalist Denis Bradley wrote in The Irish Times: “The president correctly remarked that the current reconciliation traffic was mostly one way, from South to North. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that nationalism is wooing unionism and the wooer always must do the bulk of the running.”
There is also an intellectual contradiction in Sinn Féin’s approach. Although the party rejects the Border, in 1998 it accepted partition’s legitimacy.
The Good Friday Agreement states that a majority in Northern Ireland support partition, their view is “legitimate” and it would be “wrong” to remove the Border while that is the case.
Partition happened, and those who want to undo it need to make compelling arguments if that division of the island is to be reversed. Counterintuitively, republicans marking partition would make it — very slightly — more likely to be ended.