Billy Kennedy: Queen’s absence left a huge void at Northern Ireland centenary service in Armagh

Her Majesty the Queen proudly reigns over Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 11:50 am
Updated Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 5:52 pm
From left Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu, Most Rev John McDowell, Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, Rt Most Rev Eamon Martin (centre) and Rev Dr David Bruce, and at the service of 'Reflection and Hope' to mark the Centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland at St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

It was therefore a major disappointment for all of her loyal subjects here that this most gracious lady was unable to attend Thursday’s religious service in Armagh marking the centenary of this integral part of the British nation.

Ill-health was officially cited from Buckingham Palace as the reason why Her Majesty, a sincere, devout and practising Christian, could not take her rightful place in sovereign oversight of the faith proceedings in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh’s primatial city.

The absence in the cathedral of this highly courteous 95-year-old woman was highly significant and it greatly overshadowed and dramatically down-sized a formal and ecumenical act of worship by our designated “great and the good” on the merits, and, regrettably, alleged demerits of public life in Northern Ireland since 1921.

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In the original planning, what was originally perceived by many to be a religious service of celebration for the 100 years of existence of Northern Ireland fell far short of what was required and expected to appropriately mark the centenary of such a momentous occasion back in 1921.

A narrow political agenda, driven primarily by Irish state agents and highlighted by the refusal of the Republic’s President Michael D. Higgins to attend and fuelled by republican agitation in Northern Ireland, meant that any positivity and stability resulting from Northern Ireland’s 100 years appeared to be deliberately downplayed in the service arrangements and objectives.

Even though the event was relabelled ‘A Service of Reflection and Hope’, the negativity of sterile division and turmoil was given more prominence in the narrative of a service, which could have done with the regal presence and sovereign graciousness of our Queen.

Instead, occupying a main pew was our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with his Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. First Minister Paul Givan, unionist leaders Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie, justice minister Naomi Long, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, and representatives of the Republic’s government were also given prominent places in the pews, but they had no participation in the service.

Leaders of the main Irish churches - Church of Ireland primate Archbishop John McDowell; Presbyterian moderator Rev Dr David Bruce; Roman Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, and Methodist president Sierra Leone-born Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu all made a contribution.

Archbishop Martin, clearly a moderate man who it is known was acutely embarrassed by the political controversy surrounding the service, appeared genuine when he said he looked back on what happened in 1921 with a “deep sense of loss and also sadness”, claiming 100 years of partition polarised people on the island of Ireland.

Archbishop McDowell, with a distinct Belfast city accent, spoke of growing up in the late-1950s/early 1960s in Protestant working class east Belfast.”We obsessed about some things: especially borders. One way or another, we’re obsessing about them again, and being distracted from really thinking about what a good society would look like,” he said.

Presbyterian moderator the Rev Dr David Bruce said: “If we are to build a better future then we must recognise our own woundedness and our responsibility to care for the wounds of one another.”

With this highly publicised act of worship, the main churches on this island have recognised the status quo of the Northern Ireland state, albeit from their differing political standpoints.

Perhaps, a larger public event could now be organised over the coming months into 2022 to demonstrate and record how the greater number of people in this part of the United Kingdom value and promote their British birthright and way of life.

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