One hundred years ago today, when the Government of Ireland Act was passed in the House of Commons, Northern Ireland was established. Any response to that centenary is inevitably loaded, especially among northern nationalists and their peers south of the border.
It is deeply ironic that any celebrations of that centenary run parallel to, after the peace, the most concerted cross-border co-operation in that century — the efforts to contain the pandemic. Belated and hotchpotch as they are they point to an undeniable logic (it’s called geography) even if the North’s main parties are so divided that the pandemic highlighted difference rather than a capacity to work together.
Just last Friday, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill denounced the DUP and insisted she had not broken guidelines at IRA enforcer Bobby Storey’s show funeral in June. First Minister Arlene Foster, and O’Neill’s partner in an administrative two-hander, responded: “I urge people today, don’t set your standard by what Michelle O’Neill does.” And good tidings to you all merry gentlemen indeed.
One of the great contrasts between how Northern Ireland and this State have evolved over the century is that in the south, moderation and centrism generally prevailed, minorities were more or less ignored. In the North, the journey to one more extreme position after the other is relentless.
That journey is behind ever-louder calls for a border poll, even though the NI secretary of state is the only person who can initiate one. Brexit shows London’s ultimate indifference to NI, and may provoke fundamental questions, but whether they are answered in a concrete way can only be an open question.
Changing demographics are significant too. Next year’s NI census is expected to, for the first time, reveal a nationalist majority. That, in one view, decrees a certain outcome, but maybe not. It is hard to imagine, if we have learned anything from our past, that a majority on this island would vote for unity unless that prospect was welcomed by a significant majority of loyalists.
A majority in both traditions may be indifferent to the older winner-takes-all idea as long as all citizens are treated equally and fairly. If we have, on both sides of the border, reached that live-and-let-live equilibrium then the lessons of the last 100 years have not been wasted.
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