100 years of Northern Ireland

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland. Although I was born in Dublin, I grew up in Enniskillen – a beautiful place tarnished by the smoke and mirrors world of discrimination and gerrymander so well captured by Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. And of course Enniskillen is probably best known for the Remembrance Day bombing of 1987.

We did our best to make a contribution in reconciliation until the time came to move on in 2005 Much of my heart remains in Northern Ireland. Our children grew up there. The people are wonderful – warm and kind. They have wonderful turns of phrase which stay with me. We lived through the ups and downs of the Troubles – both the hopes and the awfulness of it all.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a real moment of hope. It has largely ended the violence but Northern Ireland really isn’t a place at ease with itself. I remember that I misread the significance of the Agreement – telling my congregation that Easter Sunday that it would strengthen the centre and marginalise the extremes. In fact, it did the opposite.

Professor Duncan Morrow has been writing today on his Facebook page. What he writes is the best analysis I have read of the situation as we now find it. This is part of what he said:

The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement were by far the closest Northern Ireland came to a second chance. After years of carnage, Britain and Ireland concluded that hard borders in Ireland were incompatible with a sustainable peace. So we got the opposite: reconciliation, shared government, human rights, North-South and East-West bodies, consent and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. And open borders and self defined citizenship which allowed the water of nationality to find its own level.It has been complicated enough. The institutions and principles designed in 1998 have tottered between promise and collapse. A new generation escaped the trauma of everyday violence, although real trust has been hard to detect. But there was at least a project until Brexit. In practice, Brexit was the moment when the British interest in peace in Ireland was subordinated to a determination to leave the European Union. It was not so much that they were against the peace- on balance they were for it- but the Brexiteers saw NI- even Unionism- as a second order commitment, not in the end essential compared to escape for England from the vice of Brussels. And so the paradox. A century after partition, a British PM was willing to try anything to sort his ‘Irish problem’. Instrumentalism was back in. For Boris, get Brexit done meant removing the ‘obstacle’ of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the costs later, maybe.But the Irish problem was and is that the Good Friday Agreement – or at least the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance which was its purpose – is destroyed by the hard borders which are the purpose of Brexit. So getting Brexit done meant sidelining all of that. Unable and unwilling to enforce a border in Ireland, the UK government agreed that the problem should be resolved by controls within its own territory. And so this time we got the border in the Irish Sea.As we hit 100 years, it is hard, these days, to detect much ‘celebration’ of the Irish border. Nationalists, not surprisingly, see it as Ireland’s greatest historical injustice, something to be mourned and reversed and given no encouragement. But as the consequences of the Brexit deal sinks in, Unionism finds itself in a tail-spin, with no obvious project except the continuous negative refusal of Irish unity.

The story from here is hard to read. The DUP, having supported Brexit now finds itself in a political situation which is simply impossible The centre ground is growing and that at least is promising. One article today said that, for every vote which the DUP loses to groups to the right of it, it loses three to the Alliance Party. I heard Dennis Murray, former BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent in an interview today about the centenary. He suggested that Northern Ireland has some years left in it because that suits the main players in Britain and Ireland. Maybe … but the pace of change everywhere in Britain and Ireland is quickening by the day.