NIO has failed miserably when it comes to marking Northern Ireland’s centenary

A letter from Rev Mervyn Gibson:

By Letters
Thursday, 3rd February 2022, 8:00 am
An image from a video put together by the NIO about NI's centenary
An image from a video put together by the NIO about NI's centenary

The UK Government is one which claims to be a Unionist party, and claimed it was going to mark a notable milestone in the life of the United Kingdom and the history of Northern Ireland – but in reality, failed miserably to do so.

I was part of the 19-strong committee, entitled the Centenary Forum, set up by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to discuss the programme with business, political and community representatives.

The forum had no functional role other than be informed what NIO were doing, and advice offered by those from the Unionist tradition was rarely taken.

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Some things were fine but never well publicised – a NI Centenary Rose and subsequent commemorative brooch, for example.

The podcast stories of some inspirational people were fine, but they told nothing of the rich cultural tapestry of the past 100 years, the innovators, the sporting stars, those from Northern Ireland who impacted the world in may spheres of influence.

The NIO would not badge anything as a ‘celebration’ – everything was to be ‘marked’.

It scrupulously avoided anything that could be loosely described as populist. The emphasis was always on Nationalist sensitivities and not once were Unionist sensitivities ever addressed or mentioned.

A planned exhibition was cancelled. A concert in the Waterfront Hall was re-branded as a ‘thank-you to health workers during Covid-19’ – a worthy cause certainly, but not a centenary event. Three of the performers were from the Irish traditional music genre; others represented the newer communities in Northern Ireland. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of representation from the Ulster Scots musical tradition or anything vaguely Ulster British.

Those who took part were excellent and it was a good concert, but it lacked any balance of content.

From the outset, the Forum requested the marching bands tradition be included in some events. The request was ignored; not once were they asked to partake.

It was agreed with NIO that a young person from the Unionist tradition could sit on a group looking at activities for young people. Details of a suitable person were forwarded to the NIO. They were never invited to any meeting.

Many other ideas were rejected, while offers of items from unionist culture were turned down.

The Treasury refused to mint a Centenary coin. The forum was told Royal Mail would not issue a stamp (ut did issue a postmark for one month). A specially-commissioned Lambeg drum was made available to appear at NIO events, but was never asked for.

The ‘100 portraits of Northern Ireland’ exhibition featured just three paintings depicting Orange Institution parades, all of which showed security forces, implying conflict.

There were many other examples of ill-conceived and sanitised things happening, where the views of those wishing to celebrate the centenary were ignored.

Did [the NIO] get some things right during the centenary year? Yes, of course, but these were few and far between.

In truth, even those that were delivered could easily be described as elitist in nature, delivered under another flag of convenience or advertised so late they could not be enacted.

Rev Mervyn Gibson, Minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Church, Belfast, and Orange Grand Secretary (this piece appears in the latest edition of the Orange

Standard)

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