Ben Lowry: Today’s parade is a reminder that Northern Ireland was denied a 100th birthday

Today’s parade to mark the 100th birthday of Northern Ireland is by far the biggest centenary event.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 28th May 2022, 2:33 am
Updated Saturday, 28th May 2022, 3:22 am
Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, Most Rev John McDowell, Most Rev Eamon Martin, Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson and Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, at the centenary service in Armagh last October. Did the Protestant churchmen not know Archbishop Martin would criticise partition? Were they too embarrassed to produce an  alternative story to his criticism of the very fact that NI exists?
Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, Most Rev John McDowell, Most Rev Eamon Martin, Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson and Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, at the centenary service in Armagh last October. Did the Protestant churchmen not know Archbishop Martin would criticise partition? Were they too embarrassed to produce an alternative story to his criticism of the very fact that NI exists? Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Indeed it is almost the only significant event there has been.

The News Letter will be at the long procession by the loyal orders, taking video footage for our website and we will produce a supplement for Monday’s paper to record it.

I hope the huge gathering is every bit the carnival spectacle it promises to be, after it departs the beautiful Stormont estate.

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It is a relief that some institutions are prepared to celebrate this country. But in enjoying today we cannot escape the abject failure to mark the centenary of NI, and the craven capitulation to a determined minority of the population who call this a failed statelet, people who will never see or recognise upsides.

For much of the last year, as our centenary year slipped away, I have been thinking and writing about the failure to mark it. But no matter how much I take into consideration factors such the Covid restrictions of last year, that made celebrations hard, I still think that the failure to mark 100 years of Northern Ireland is a front-rank scandal.

It is easy, I know, easy to keep falling back on the word ‘scandal’.

So many things have been happening on so many fronts to appease those who do not want Northern Ireland to exist, some of whom exhausted every political and psychological and violent route to bring about their goal, that the failure to mark NI’s centenary can seem minor in comparison.

Consider the scandal in which the legacy of the Troubles has turned into a pursuit of the security forces who patiently saw off sustained sectarian terrorism, so preventing civil war and ushering in our peaceful, stable society in which a younger generation intuitively accepts the fact of Northern Ireland, realises it is a great place to live, and considers itself Northern Irish. And yet that generation has been successfully steered away from any hint of celebration that the country they love is 100.

The UK government did try to step up its recognition of the centenary late last year, but it was all hopelessly late and inadequate.

As I keep writing, the West Belfast Festival, which always ends in a huge concert at which a crowd chants IRA slogans, is a generously funded and far more visible event than NI’s 100th birthday has been.

The centenary church service at Armagh in October was a disgrace. I write that with regret because people of goodwill tried to make it an ecumenical event, welcoming to all. But what emerged from their efforts was a church service that had little to do with Northern Ireland (See below the article I wrote about it at the time ‘Centenary church service should have celebrated NI’).

BBC NI news bulletins that evening led on the Catholic primate’s criticism of partition!

Again I wonder. Did the Protestant churchmen not know Archbishop Eamon Martin would say that?

If they did, were they too embarrassed to produce an explicit (as opposed to implicit) alternative story to his explicit criticism of the very fact that Northern Ireland exists?

Did they not worry that without such a countering the BBC would present to the public that a denunciation of the creation of NI was the big story of that service?

And again I ask: why, given that the Queen is so elderly, was there no major royal on standby for such a rare event?

No wonder the republican commentator Andrée Murphy was almost glowing on radio about aspects of the service that day.

Protestant churchmen are not the only people who should explain themselves. Boris Johnson’s government and in particular the Northern Ireland Office should too.

As should chief executives of major organisations and businesses that have Northern Ireland in their name. By their very title they head organisations that not only accept the reality of NI but which reflect it. Yet I am not aware of any one of those organisations (many of them public bodies) that so much as said Happy Birthday Northern Ireland! as we did daily on our front page.

If they had said such on their websites or in bunting, they could have helped create a sense that the Province was in a centenary year.

Northern Ireland was, in effect, denied a centenary. It is an irreplaceable loss that the 100th has gone largely unmarked. As republicans know, barely a person alive today will be around for the next big milestone, the 200th.

Another thing to say about the apologetic approach to the centenary is that it has shown how such timid tactics fail. Nationalists who went to the service were facilitated with an event that failed to celebrate NI. Those who didn’t, like the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, sail on as before. He is so sure he’s an arbiter of moral right and wrong that he was lecturing us this year about integrated education, while presiding over a state in which most schools have Catholic patronage.

Are soft supporters of the Union unconcerned by the increasingly open nationalist assessment of NI, and how history might be taught in an all island state?

What happened over the 100th is also inextricably linked to much else that happens here. I have been mocked for pointing out that BBC NI have decided to localise Last Night of the Proms in Belfast in a way that has almost no association with the traditional Last Night in the Royal Albert Hall, so removing the rendition of Rule Britannia.

The non centenary has been telling about the UK establishment’s fear of Irish nationalist grievances, which increasingly includes interpreting ‘equality’ to mean dilution of the sovereignty that flows from being in the UK by consent. But it is also telling as to how the wider unionist population is browbeaten.

The Orange Order is not to everyone’s tastes and means little to many Protestants as well as Catholics. But it is a much loved, and much maligned part of Ulster culture. It is wonderful the Order is marking NI at 100. That they are doing so alone, because leaders across Northern Ireland did not, has greatly bolstered the Sinn Fein claim that celebrating the centenary is a minority affair.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor

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