NICK GARBUTT: Remembering the past with dignity and respect

THE sinking of the Titanic is the first of a series of 100th anniversaries that we are about to commemorate in Northern Ireland – and whilst the Titanic is proving a runaway success, some of the others may prove rather more challenging.

The demise of the Titanic was one of the greatest disasters in peacetime. Many had misgivings about celebrating the anniversary of its launch and sinking, and you can understand that point of view – maybe it might have been more fitting to celebrate its completion in 2011.

And yet the opening of the Titanic building, and all the activities that have surrounded it, has proved to be a triumph, generating huge interest in Belfast and bringing many visitors to Northern Ireland. This year is earmarked as a breakthrough one for tourism here and it has got off to a great start.

An important factor in making the Titanic such a success is how collectively people have come to terms with the disaster and that we have been able to recognise the building of the Titanic for what it was – an extraordinary piece of engineering and to celebrate the vessel for being one of the most magnificent ever to set sail rather than as an embarrassing part of our past.

We can expect many visitors here wanting to learn a bit more about the ship, how she was built and about the people who built it, and those who sailed in her.

If only we could quite so easily come to terms with the other anniversaries that we are soon to face.

The key ones are: the Signing of the Ulster Covenant 1912; the forming of the UVF in January 1913 and the Larne gun-running incident that followed in April of that year; the formation of the Irish Citizen’s Army in November 1913; the Curragh Mutiny in March 1914 and then the two seminal events in 1916 – the Easter Rising and the tragedy at the Somme in July of that year.

These are seminal events in Irish history, all of which had a bearing on the formation of Northern Ireland, and all of which are still contentious and emotive to this day. They are also part of our shared history and how we deal with them will be a true reflection of just how far we have progressed as a society.

In September of this year a march will take place from Belfast city centre to the Stormont estate to commemorate the signing of the covenant – the first time anyone can remember Stormont hosting an Orange event.

This, and all the commemorations that follow, mark an important test for our communities and for our political leaders as, in remembering the past, we should not do anything that inhibits future progress.

Anniversaries have the potential to stir the blood and politics in Northern Ireland, indeed in Ireland as a whole, has a strange relationship with time. Whilst in other societies a week is a long time in politics, in Ireland a century is but a blink of an eye.

Ancient triumphs, grievances and massacres can so easily be revived simply by remembering them: to many the Boyne, the Easter Rising, even the Plantation might just as well have happened yesterday. A challenge for us this year and going forward is to remember, as we do with the Titanic, that the past is important, but it is the past.

We need to ensure that after 2012 we will have many, many more tourists coming here, boosting the economy. We need them to return and bring their friends. Ensuring that other anniversaries pass off with dignity, mutual respect and restraint is an important part of that.