Today in Armagh a church service is marking the centenary since the partition of Ireland. Though the event is hosted by the five main Christian churches on the island of Ireland, it has been shrouded in controversy since it emerged in September that the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, had declined an invitation to attend.
The president objected that the title and structure of the “Service of Reflection and Hope” to “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the foundation of Northern Ireland” were political in nature; though he insisted it wasn’t a boycott. Tánaiste Simon Coveney is now representing the Irish government, with Boris Johnson also attending – the Queen’s attendance was cancelled yesterday on health grounds. Members of the DUP, and former taoiseach John Bruton, were quick to criticise Higgins’ decision, but it was an entirely logical move. Partition was imposed on Ireland a century ago, against the wishes of the majority of its people. The border was opposed not only by republicans, but also by the so-called “constitutional” nationalists of the Home Rule party, the labour movement and indeed many southern unionists. The birth of the border came as part of a violent process with what was to become the minority community in the new Northern Ireland effectively battered into submission.
To imagine that this could be an occasion of value-free reflection on history, as church organisers claimed it to be, was entirely ill-conceived. Just as leaders of the Democratic Unionist party refused (entirely logically) to attend events commemorating the Easter Rising in 2016, it was correct for Higgins to stay away from this event. He has attended numerous events north of the border but in this case has argued that the ceremony is not “neutral politically”.
While it cannot be said to have been the most important issue to face the public south of the border in the past month, opinion polls show a majority support the president’s decision. Does this reflect a hardening of the popular mood on issues such as the border? Partly, though that in turn has certainly been far more influenced by Brexit and its aftermath than by discussions about the past. What it may reflect however is a growing awareness of the limitations of the concept of a “shared history”.
For the past decade Ireland has been engaged in a commemorative process around the years that led to the birth not just of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland but the modern United Kingdom. The dominant thinking at official level has been about how remembering events such the first world war could lead to an appreciation of a shared history between unionists and nationalists on the island of Ireland and indeed between Ireland and Britain. This in turn, some believe, might even foster a sense of reconciliation between them.
The idea of “shared history” was always flawed, eliding as it did questions of imperialism, power, class and inequality and often attempting to avoid contentious issues. The real sense of fear among some commentators about commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising, for example, inspired vaguely ridiculous attempts at “branding” the centenary as a tourist marketing opportunity. The fearful approach also encouraged the bland, as the assumption seemed to be that too much politics would frighten people off.
This was partly the reason that much of the energy, enthusiasm and innovation during the centenaries came from “unofficial” local community groups and history societies rather than from government. Nevertheless there were very valuable interventions from the state, particularly making freely available (and accessible online) key documents relating to the revolutionary period, such as the military service pension files.
But trying to avoid contentious political questions was always problematic, since central to the current idea of commemoration was the very politically driven view that it must reflect the existence of “two traditions” in Ireland as well as a “shared history” with Britain. This approach patronised the people who lived in Ireland 100 years ago, who were, after all, prepared to fight over their real and deeply held political beliefs. It was an idea embedded in the politics of commemorative trade-off, whereby nationalists got to celebrate Easter Week, Unionists to remember the Somme, and politicians, historians and civil servants congratulated each other on their maturity.
The issues that deeply divided Irish people a century ago were simplified or glossed over and the role of Britain virtually ignored. Ireland and Britain of course share history, but they did not share an equal history: only one was conquered by the other and only one became a global empire. Ultimately, and allowing for all the complexities and nuances that British rule in Ireland involved, in the last resort the Crown depended on force to hold Ireland. The imposition of the border and indeed David Lloyd George’s threat of “immediate and terrible war” if Irish delegates refused to accept the treaty in 1921 graphically illustrate this. Attempting to commemorate partition and avoiding mentioning these facts lest they give offence will ultimately satisfy nobody. This is why ill-conceived ideas such as the planned Irish state ceremony in January 2020 to remember the pre-independence police forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, ultimately foundered in the face of a popular backlash.
In contrast to many commentators and historians, Higgins has notably reflected on the issues of imperialism and power at several key stages during the Decade of Centenaries. He has noted how many who critique the contradictions of Irish nationalism have tended to ignore the role of British imperialism in Irish history. By puncturing the consensus around shared history, he has actually performed a service to those of us seeking an honest debate about events a century ago. Perhaps this may eventually open up space for a more genuine reflection on how our current societies remain shaped by partition and the process by which it came about.