Naomi Long’s speech on centenaries affecting the UK and Ireland

Here is the speech by East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long on her Westminster Hall debate today, the debate was titled: ‘Government preparations for centenaries affecting the UK and Ireland’. (Speech subject to change on delivery)

The timing of this debate is, in many ways, very appropriate. Yesterday, the 6th December, marked the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which led to the formation of the Irish Free State (as was) and, ultimately, to the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Northern Ireland. It also led to the Irish Civil War, which some sources believe may have claimed more lives than the original War of Independence against Britain that preceded it.

In the context of this debate, it is worth noting that not only did that Civil War leave Irish society divided and embittered in its immediate aftermath, but also that the political divisions of that era remained the dominant cleavage in Irish politics for almost a century, reflected by the two main political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the direct descendants of the opposing sides in that War.

In fact, arguably the 2011 Irish General Election, which took place against the backdrop of the serious financial and economic crisis facing the republic, is the first in Ireland’s history which has departed significantly from civil war politics, evidenced by the clear switching of voters directly between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

We can, therefore, be in no doubt that history casts a long shadow forward. The events of the past shape us, shape our identity, shape our present and can also shape our future – to the good or otherwise – and never moreso than when those events are contentious.

We are rapidly approaching the start of decade of centenaries of seminal events and significant milestones in the shared history of the UK and Ireland.

The period in question commenced with the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 and the Home Rule Crisis, and covers the First World War from 1914-18, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Easter Rising in the same year, and culminated in the events to which I have already referred – the Irish war of independence, the Treaty and partition of Ireland in 1921, and the subsequent formation of the Irish and Northern Irish Parliaments.

In addition, during this period of history, the Titanic was launched and tragically sank in 1912, an issue of huge importance to my constituency in which she was built. It also stood witness to the emergence of the Gaelic Revival movement and the rise of both the women’s suffrage and labour movements from which flowed Universal Male and limited Women’s suffrage in 1918. The ITGWU strike, better known as the Dublin lockout, which lasted from August 1913 to January 1914, was probably the most serious industrial dispute in Irish history, reshaping entirely the relationship between the worker and employer. In addition, during this era, the Irish Citizen Army, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force were formed, the latter two also being actively engaged in gun-running activity.

And whilst that is I concede a very long list, it is by no means an exhaustive one and I focused entirely on centenaries, without reference to the fact that in the same period we will mark other significant anniversaries including the 400th anniversary of the plantation of Ireland. The period between 1912 and 1922 was one of considerable change and turmoil, which shaped not only Northern Ireland but also the relationships within and between these islands.

Sadly, in much the same way as post-partition politics in the Republic have been defined by the civil war, the divisions which were evident during that period also remain largely the basis of the divisions in modern Northern Irish society today: therefore, the manner in which we publicly mark those historic events, which remain both sensitive and emotive, is hugely important to preserving current stability and, more importantly, building a peaceful, stable and shared future going forward.

Handled well, the coming decade has the potential to allow us to explore our past together, aiding understanding through education and discussion, helping us learn from our past and look to how we can create and shape stronger and better relationships and enhance community relations.

By contrast, if handled poorly, it has the potential to be a highly charged and fractious period, marked by deepening antagonism and division within society, playing to and reinforcing centuries old divisions rather than focusing on future progress. People will, of course, have their own perspectives on the past and, indeed, differing aspirations for the future and the free expression of this cultural diversity is a cornerstone of any normal, liberal democracy. Different parts of the community will inevitably wish to place differing emphasis on selected events and the right to do so should be respected.

The desire to place context around the public marking of these centenaries is, therefore, not about curtailing people’s expression of those perspectives and aspirations, but rather about ensuring that space and opportunity is created for discourse, interaction and debate in order that people have the opportunity to engage with aspects of our history with which they would not traditionally associate and also to consider alternative perspectives on those events with which they most closely identify, so that no single narrative crowds out all other opinion.

It is therefore important that both Governments are involved in marking events throughout the period and not only those aspects of most relevance to their own jurisdiction and I hope that this approach will be reflected in the plans which are being developed. As just one example, The Taoiseach during a recent visit to Belfast City Hall asked to see the original covenant table which sits the Council Chamber and, in recognition that there is interest from people in the Republic to marking the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the Irish Government is supporting through its reconciliation funds, work by the Orange Order in the south to mark the event and collate history of those communities.

The transformative power of respectful commemoration based on inclusion and cultural diversity is also reflected in the preparatory work which has been done by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In developing their Guidance Notes for Funding Bodies called “Remembering the Future”, they have stated in relation to the forthcoming centenaries: “How these and others are marked in public as opposed to private space will chart the progress that this society is making on its journey out of conflict.

These anniversaries need not be mutually exclusive; indeed, if the commemorations are handled sensitively, they will provide an opportunity to underline how much of our history is shared.” It is this potential which I want to explore in the remainder of the time available to me today.

Given the huge improvements in East-West relations over my lifetime, and marked most notably by Her Majesty the Queen’s recent State Visit to Ireland, hosted by former President Mary McAleese, the decade ahead is an important opportunity both to build on this established good will and progress and to further enhance relations between the UK and Ireland. In doing so, it can also make a tangible contribution to cohesion, sharing and integration within Northern Ireland.

However, the success of that historic royal visit also teaches us important lessons about how to maximise the benefit of such unique opportunities when they present themselves. Such events are not spontaneous: they require a mix of detailed planning, careful management, sensitive choreography and strong political leadership.

The same will be true regarding the upcoming commemorations and so I am pleased that the Taoiseach, despite all of the other challenges facing Ireland currently, is establishing a Commemorations Committee to oversee the work of his Department in this regard and also that an All-Party Oireachtas Consultation Group on Commemoration has been established, which is being chaired by Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I trust that this will provide a good basis for close East-West as well as North-South engagement on the issues.

Today is an opportunity to probe the preparations being made by the UK government ahead of the commencement of the decade next year. Working together, the British and Irish Governments, along with the NI Assembly, local Councils and other interested groups, all of whom to varying degrees are already planning for the period, can set the tone for how events will be marked and ensure that certain principles apply.

Those principles include the placing of events within an inclusive and shared framework, looking to the wider history and context of the time both in these islands and across Europe, rather than allowing it to fragment into a series of at best exclusive and at worst, divisive and triumphalist celebrations of each individual centenary.

That spirit of inclusion must also be matched with historical rigor. Whilst there is still no shared or agreed narrative about many of the events and, indeed, many myths continue to endure which impede understanding and can be toxic to current relations, there are a set of agreed historical facts which should be the starting point for exploring the different perceptions and interpretations of history.

It is also crucial that we consider not just individual events in isolation, but also their consequences if we are to develop a deeper understanding of the period and how events were inter-related.

Much good work has been done already and I trust that the Minister in his response will be able to set out the work which the UK government is undertaking in preparation for this period. Whilst time doesn’t permit me to reference all of the work which is ongoing in preparation for the next decade, in terms of setting out an inclusive framework for the entirety of the period, I want to briefly highlight the work of Belfast City Council’s Commemorations working group, currently chaired by my colleague Cllr Máire Hendron.

Through this cross-party group, the Council has developed a plan which, rather than focussing solely on individual events, has instead framed a programme of events divided into three chronological time periods.

The first entitled “Shared History, Differing allegiances” covers the period from 1912-1914, including the Ulster Covenant, the Home Rule Crisis, emergence of the Gaelic Revival movement, the rise of women’s suffrage and labour movements, and gun-running activity by the UVF and IVF.

The second phase, covering 1914-18 includes WW1, the Somme and the Easter Rising and the third phase will cover the partition of Ireland and the establishment of governments in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. This thoughtful approach to the civic commemoration of these events is a good example on which other work can be based.

Clearly, many of these events are of significance beyond Northern Ireland having both a national and international context, will be marked, therefore, not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout these islands so coordination of approach is crucial in order that we maximise not only the opportunity to build on good relations but also to capitalise on the potential heritage and cultural tourism potential of the period.

Northern Ireland can have a competitive advantage from the international interest in Ireland and the UK generally, including its varied culture and history. It also has a very strong creative industries and arts sector, which is a shared asset and, therefore, well-placed to develop inclusive, high quality cultural engagement and product around these historic events.

More broadly, the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a general tourism destination has also been boosted significantly by the positive publicity generated by a number of international events, most recently the MTV European Music Awards in Belfast. The city has also been listed as one of the top places to visit for 2012 by National Geographic Traveller. This accolade comes on the back of Trip Advisor listing Belfast as the best value UK city break, Lonely Planet encouraging people to visit the city before the rest of the world comes and The Financial Times listing Belfast as one of the ‘Top 10 places in the world’ to hold a conference or major event.

The National Geographic recommendation reflects the 2012 Titanic centenary, a story which has almost unrivalled international draw for the Belfast, and East Belfast in particular, where so much of the authentic physical heritage linked to its construction is located, but where the construction of the Titanic Signature project is also making rapid progress. 2013 will see Derry assume the mantle of UK City of Culture and NI will host the World Police and Fire Service Games in the same year, again adding to the tourism opportunity for Northern Ireland during that period.

Coordination of the commemoration activity throughout these islands and close collaboration between the tourist board, the arts sector, business and civil society will be necessary to ensure that the cultural and heritage tourism and related economic benefits of this period are maximised and that a tourism legacy is created which can continue to contribute to economic growth beyond the immediate decade.

The coming decade therefore presents both challenge and opportunity. Whilst it will not be easy and whilst the issues cut to the core of our current divisions, it would send a very positive message and mark real political progress if a mature, agreed way forward on such sensitive issues could be found both within Northern Ireland and, just as importantly, between the UK and Ireland.

It presents us with an opportunity to move beyond the often divisive historical legacy of this period and deliver a watershed transition to a new era of our shared history, where the focus can shift towards increased effort to heal divisions and build cohesion and to addressing the economic challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

By recognising respectfully and sensitively our shared and difficult history, and refusing to be held captive by it, but instead focusing on our interdependent and shared future, I believe that aspiration can be advanced.

The UK and Irish Governments clearly have a key role to play in that process. The East-West dimension was important to the history of the period and remains important to successfully exploring and commemorating it in the years ahead. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the matter here in Westminster and look forward to the Minister of State’s response, as I know from my discussions with both him the Secretary of State that the Northern Ireland Office is keen to work with others to make this a decade of positive change. ENDS

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