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Something to celebrate?

Today is a special birthday: the centenary of the birth of a new state - Northern Ireland.

It was borne of political pragmatism and expediency and those present at its conception could not have imagined that the impact of that line drawn on yet another colonial map would still be reverberating across the British Isles and Europe a century on. It’s important to note, I think, that this was not the last British attempt to resolve religio-ethnic conflicts they had exploited by creating new borders - for reference, see India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine/Jordan. Despite the abject failure of so-called ‘two-state’ solutions, still the myth of peace created by a marker pen on a map remains - just look at the negotiations on the future of the island of Cyprus.

It surprises me that, of all that was said about the affairs of Ireland a hundred years ago, it is the words of King George V at the opening of the Parliament of Northern Ireland that offers such insight:

“I inaugurate [this Parliament] with deep-felt hope, and I feel assured that you will do your utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent.

This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the Six Counties, but not for the Six Counties alone, for everything which interests them touches Ireland, and everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.

Few things are more earnestly desired throughout the English speaking world than a satisfactory solution of the age-long Irish problems, which for generations embarrassed our forefathers, as they now weigh heavily upon us.”

History will surely judge whether, in the fifty years of government from the Stormont Parliament, it lived up to the monarch’s aspirations of ‘an instrument of happiness’.

I was born in the year that Northern Ireland turned fifty. Within weeks of my birth, the world had witnessed Bloody Sunday and the Parliament inaugurated by George V had fallen. Within a year, 500 people had lost their lives in the worst year of the Troubles.

Growing up in a ‘contested place’ is strange to say the least. It shapes every aspect of existence in subtle ways, from the language we use to the geography of where we live and study and work and relax. There was never much need for signs or checkpoints to demarcate our ‘no go areas’ - we learnt early on how to stick to our own. Our ears become attuned to the shibboleths in the speech of strangers. We developed a lexicon of inoffensive terms to be deployed in mixed company: paramilitary activity; this part of the world, stroke city, the Troubles. Hence the indescribable horror became almost inane and those beyond the ‘bubble’ didn’t catch the deep nuance in what was really being said.

As I reflect on this anniversary, from the perspective of thirty years in exile, I continue to be struck by the final words of George V in this 1921 speech:

“May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”

A century since they were spoken and they are yet to be fulfilled.

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