Belfast Telegraph

Paul Mullan: Why we need to tell the whole truth about partition

As the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland approaches, Paul Mullan argues events to mark the occasion must reflect the shared history of both communities

The all-party conference on partition
The all-party conference on partition

By Paul Mullan

The Secretary of State was quoted last week by Ken Reid of UTV as saying that the Government is exploring ways of celebrating the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021. There has been predictable chatter on social media as to what this might mean. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson commented on the work that was done during "the WWI centenary to reflect our shared history and the varied experiences and consequences of that period". He reflected that "it's difficult to build a shared future if we don't understand our shared history". And that there was "no reason why this can't be reflected in the NI centenary".

Sir Jeffrey is correct to point out that rather than ignore the past we can learn much from it. The experience of the Decade of Centenaries has shown that events such as the Ulster Covenant, the First World War and the Easter Rising can be navigated and even positively engaged with. The key to that success was recognising that no one community owns the past, and that we all bring our different experiences and understanding to it. So for 2021 the question is: how do we present the events of 1921 in public space and at a community level?

Throughout the Decade, Belfast City Council has shown civic leadership through its exhibitions and activities. Firstly, in 2012 with the Ulster Covenant. Then, in 2016, recognising the sacrifices of unionists and nationalists at the Somme, as well as the Easter Rising and its impact on Belfast. Most recently, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement was marked. Inclusivity and plurality has always been at the heart of this activity.

During this period the City Hall has been transformed into an inclusive space for all through the creation of an exhibition space, which for the first time interprets and conserves many artefacts, such as the table on which the Ulster Covenant was signed, and the introduction of stained glass windows commemorating the Famine and the mythical Cuchulainn. Elsewhere, Lisburn Museum has sought to present the many voices and experiences of its citizens, particularly emphasising the role of women during the First World War. Ballymena Braid Museum's exhibition explored the impact and legacy of the outbreak of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising.

The Ulster Museum, similarly, has run a series of exhibitions and events while also revamping its history and Troubles gallery. Here the complexity of the past is fully explored in ways that challenge the monolithic narratives of a divided society. Its 1968 exhibition on the Civil Rights Movement brought together multiple perspectives on those events in a way which asks us to reflect on society today and how far we have progressed.

Throughout this period The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Community Relations Council have worked together, with these organisations and others, to ensure that the story told in civic space is inclusive and challenging. All this work has been underpinned through the development of a set of principles for commemoration:

1) Start from the historical facts.

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2) Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened.

3) Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist.

4) Show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period.

All of them to be seen in the context of an "inclusive and accepting society".

Back in 2012 the Northern Ireland Executive adapted these principles for its own use with the view to them shaping future Executive commemorative activity.

The challenge for 2021 will be to recognise that the two key moments of 1921 - partition, and the setting up of the Northern Ireland state - impacted on people in very different ways. As ever, language will be important; while communities may wish to celebrate, commemorate or mark this period, the responsibility in civic space will be for activities and events to be inclusive and speak to everyone. It is vital that 2021 does not repeat the mistakes of 1971 and the attempt to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

The opposite of remembering is forgetting. And what should not be forgotten is the events of 1920 and the terrible sectarian violence that erupted in Belfast and Lisburn. Too often, commemoration seeks to present edited versions of the past which serve the narratives of one part of the community to the exclusion of the other. If we are to learn anything from the past, it is that this contortion of the evidence obscures us from really understanding what went on and why? There are versions of the past which should be challenged because they are partial. The real opportunity presented by the Decade of Centenaries is to try and see the whole picture.

We should also not forget that 1921 was not an isolated event and happened in the context of a changing Europe where national self-determination and the reshaping of national boundaries drove massive changes throughout the continent.

Today, 100 years on, we are seeing similar changes brought about by Brexit. How we react and deal with those issues will shape our next 100 years.

The forthcoming commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland is an opportunity to reflect honestly about our past.

To do that, we need to be open to uncomfortable facts about that time and recognise that it impacted on people in many different ways.

We hope that all initiatives will embrace that opportunity.

Paul Mullan is Director Northern Ireland of the National Lottery Heritage Fund

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