Ben Lowry: Centenary church service should have celebrated Northern Ireland yet the biggest news story to come out of it was criticism of partition

For anyone who feels that Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday should be celebrated, the service held in Armagh on Thursday was deeply disappointing.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 7:09 am
Updated Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 12:02 pm
BBC Northern Ireland’s report of the service was introduced by mentioning the criticism of partition from the Roman Catholic archbishop, Eamon Martin, right. Did the other church leaders not know he was going to speak in that way? If they did, why did not one of them gently contradict him with another view?
Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
BBC Northern Ireland’s report of the service was introduced by mentioning the criticism of partition from the Roman Catholic archbishop, Eamon Martin, right. Did the other church leaders not know he was going to speak in that way? If they did, why did not one of them gently contradict him with another view? Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

In no way did it celebrate Northern Ireland.

It was a cross-border church service about partition. Indeed the organisers were at pains to say it was not a celebration.

Fine. But if it is going to be entirely neutral about Northern Ireland, then a separate service of thanksgiving of our country should have been held this year.

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It would be essential to have a royal at such a service of thanksgiving for one of the four home nations of the United Kingdom.

On Thursday there was no royal presence, all the more regrettable given the snub of the service by President Michael D Higgins of Ireland, a man who has several times scolded Britain for its history.

The most striking comment at the service was by the Roman Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, who spoke pointedly of the pain and loss in his community at partition.

BBC Northern Ireland led Thursday’s TV evening news bulletins not on this much-discussed service but on a tragic story about a sex attack victim. It then introduced its report on the service by highlighting the criticism of Archbishop Martin.

While I think this showed troubling editorial judgement, the BBC could argue that the archbishop’s criticism was the most notable comment of the day. After all, Archbishop Martin was not countered, even obliquely, by the other churchmen who spoke.

Why not?

Did their communities not also suffer great pain, for example in the Troubles?

Given the scrutiny of this event, did they not know Archbishop Martin was going to say that? He wrote an article in the Irish Times this week that included stinging criticism of Northern Ireland’s history.

And if they did know, did not one of them think that a different and positive assessment of Northern Ireland should be aired in light of that very public criticism, which became BBC NI’s lead line?

This was by far the biggest Northern Ireland centenary event to date after a year in which there has been no major occasion to rejoice in the country that the great majority of the population here love and identify with (I am including people who proudly call themselves Northern Irish but are open minded on the constitutional question).

If it was not for the Covid restrictions of this year, the timid handling of the 100th birthday of Northern Ireland would be a scandal. But even given that context of limits on gatherings the approach to the centenary has been pitiful.

We now have big sporting events and rock concerts taking place. Yet the centenary of this wonderful country of almost two million people has been much less visible than the publicly funded annual West Belfast festival, which ended this year in another concert at which a crowd chanted IRA slogans.

Today we report on the barriers that Sinn Fein has put in the way of centenary events (see link below). But they are allowed to have a veto, so we need the UK government to step up to the mark.

Yet its showcase service seemed to have little direct association with Northern Ireland. It was as if it was about the northern half of Ireland or maybe just about Ireland. Perhaps it was about global peace.

It had lessons in Irish, prayers in Irish, other phrases in Gaelic too. Some fine Irish music. All good.

But I saw little that was recognisably British at the service. If it was important to have Irish culture represented, then why not British, given that the unionist population takes such comfort from the existence of Northern Ireland?

The Union flag — representing the nation which has sovereignty here by popular consent — was missing apart from Boris Johnson having it on his mask.

Nor did I hear much that you might describe as distinctively Northern Irish (Londonderry Air now has wider Irish associations).

The Methodist president Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu referred to the slavery of St Patrick and the later slavery from Africa, saying people’s colour was used to diminish their humanity. He condemned the partition of that continent (an implied denunciation of partition here?).

Rev Dr Ivan Patterson talked of the need to hear the voice of NI’s different ethnicities and traditions.

This is true. But the service did not mention our generosity to immigrants, and the new lives Northern Ireland has offered them.

There were references to climate change but none to the scientists, engineers and business folk who shaped our 100 years as a distinct jurisdiction on this island.

Or the leaders who, for the first 50 years of NI (helped by rest of UK) put it decades ahead of the 26 independent counties in matters from infrastructure to the welfare state to elementary rights such a divorce.

No references to the sports people, actors or other luminaries who have reflected our sense of ourselves as a distinct society.

You might say a church service is not a rollcall of achievements. But it should at a minimum have had a specific reflection for the many people who from 1921 gave their lives in service of Northern Ireland, a country that was expected not to survive but has lasted a century.

I felt almost surprise when the Anglican Archbishop John McDowell described his working class unionist roots as “an immensely rich culture”. He was quick to add that his mother had “a strong sense of Irish identity” too.

A rare moment of recognition of our country was when the Presbyterian moderator Dr David Bruce said “I love” Northern Ireland (immediately followed by a “but”). In fact it was one of the few times I heard the words Northern Ireland uttered.

If church was not the place to champion Northern Ireland, what other planned event will? The Feile crowd was estimated at 10,000. Where is the NI centenary event of such scale?

It was bad that no royal was present. The Queen is blameless for that. Aged 95, Her Majesty is 35 years older than the retirement age of 60 for working women of her generation, yet her ongoing commitment to public duty is beyond doubt. It transpired that she spent Wednesday night in hospital and we all wish her well.

But why was no senior royal’s diary cleared long ago for October 21, so they were on standby in case a monarch of such advanced years was unable to travel?

I consider all of the royals blameless for the absence. I have reported on most of them on visits here and do not doubt their commitment to this part of the UK. It is the government that should have made clear to the royal family the value they attached to an NI ceremony, particularly after the Higgins snub.

Instead, our biggest event was a service that seemed to follow a Northern Ireland Office view of NI as a place that is neither British nor Irish, and the history of which is best left unmentioned, unless it is criticised as sectarian.

See Billy Kennedy, page 20 of the Weekend Print edition

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and information on how to subscribe to the paper:

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