Alex Kane and Andree Murphy assess 100 years of partition in Ireland
Partition is a fact of history. It is also a fact of history that neither unionists nor nationalists wanted it. And, a century on, it remains the chief bone of contention between both sides: the subject around which every and any election revolves.
A line on a map. A line in a mindset. A line that predominates and eclipses every other socio/economic/political issue. A line which still represents the permafrost barrier between possible reconciliation and dreary steeples retrenchment.
A line at the dead centre of our past, present and future. A line which needs to be discussed rationally and honestly by the primary political traditions (whose beliefs and strategies have been shaped by it), as well as by a younger generation which doesn't quite get the stranglehold it continues to exert over politics here.
I support the Union and will continue to do so. I welcome the opportunity to make the case for Northern Ireland. But I also accept that many, including some from a perceived unionist background, have difficulties with marking its centenary.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his children: "If you just learn a single trick you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
And maybe that is the trick we need to learn as we reflect on the events of the last century and the fact of history which led us to where we are now.
I can understand why nationalists are wary of anything that looks like celebrating, rather than marking, the centenary of partition.
I understand why they think there will be elements of unionism which will adopt a triumphalist approach to the centenary - although it strikes me that the plans by political unionism to mark the event have, generally speaking, been fairly measured.
But the history of the last 100 years isn't just about "Ulster" unionism. The closing of Stormont in March 1972 - 49 years ago - removed unionism's power-base and put decision-making in the hands of Westminster (which often worked hand-in-glove with Irish governments).
A whole raft of legislation and reform changed Northern Ireland beyond recognition: opening doors for new political parties and new ways of cross-community engagement.
Nothing about the change was overnight, but the changes, collectively and cumulatively, finally made it possible to build a peace/political process which, for all its faults, is still in place.
That is why I was disappointed when Sinn Fein and the SDLP (along with a number of key figures from within civic nationalism and academia) turned down the opportunity to participate in the Centenary Forum marking the formation of Northern Ireland.
As I say, I understand their concerns about finding themselves attending some sort of celebratory event, yet their absence means there will be no significant, or substantive, nationalist input into an important debate.
The story of Northern Ireland cannot simply be told by one community. As one very shrewd observer of nationalism noted: "There is a real opportunity to reflect on how different sections of the community view the last 100 years and how they feel the partition of the island has impacted on generations of people who live here."
That is the opportunity which, I think, is now being missed. Fine, a very broad-based, inclusive, respectful debate about partition isn't going to put-to-rights all the divisions and dismantle all the barriers: yet it might open doors to the Atticus Finch position of being able to see your situation from the perspective of your opponents.
A fact of history a century ago still dictates and shapes our socio/political engagement: so maybe we should take a few months in 2021 to ask difficult questions of ourselves and of those we perceive as irreconcilable enemies.
I have long argued that unionists should not be afraid of engaging with nationalism on the subject of possible Irish unity. Many nationalists have praised me for that stance.
Yet, some of the people who have praised my willingness to engage with nationalism on various panels and at some Sinn Fein-organised conferences are now telling me that nationalism should remain "pretty aloof" when it comes to engaging with unionism during Northern Ireland's centenary. You can't have it both ways.
One of the main pitches made by nationalists to unionists during the various unity projects of the last decade is that unionists, along with their culture, traditions, heritage and identity, would be accommodated, recognised and respected in a "new Ireland".
An essential dimension to that unionist culture, tradition, heritage and identity can be summed up in the very words "Northern Ireland": a place unionists regard as their home. Yet, or so it seems, the vast majority of political/civic nationalism and republicanism doesn't want to engage in a centenary debate about Northern Ireland.
It always seems trite to say it is important we talk. Yet it's a simple, unavoidable truth: we do need to talk. About our shared present. About our shared past. About our shared future. About the facts of history which continue to shape and steer our engagement with each other after a century.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator
This month, Arlene Foster marks 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 at a time when there is an 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, the Covid pandemic, 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 Northern Ireland Office, 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 Northern Ireland Office 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 Northern Ireland Office 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.
This year's most exciting conversation is more likely to concentrate on this generational opportunity, rather than the stale promotion of official lies, or conveniences, regarding the past.
Andree Murphy is deputy director of Relatives for Justice