This decade will mark the centenary of a number of seminal events in the history of UK and Ireland. The period could be said to commence with the signing of the Ulster Covenant in (1912); then the Home Rule era, which covers the period of the First World War from 1914-1918, including the Battle of the Somme and Easter Rising in 1916 and culminating in the war of independence, Government of Ireland act and partition between 1919 and 1922.
During this period we also have an event of huge importance to the industrial and cultural heritage of my own constituency, the construction and tragic sinking of the Titanic (1912). I commend the Executive on its preparation and investment in this event and all the connected work from Titanic Quarter to the innovative Dock Church set to feature on Songs of Praise.
This decade also saw Gaelic revival and rise of both the women’s suffrage movement and the Labour Movement out of which came the universal male and limited women’s suffrage in 1918, a pivotal moment in our democratic history and a development which must be given a central place in a decade of commemoration.
The era also saw the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force.
This period therefore presents a unique opportunity to commemorate and explore historic events that shape our present in a profound manner and a challenge to ensure that this is done in a shared and inclusive way, maximising social and economic benefit for Northern Ireland.
The challenge is can we explore our past together, in a way that aids understanding through education and discussion, in order to learn from our past and help us inform the possibility of a shared and better future.
Should we fail this challenge there is potential for a divisive period, rather than one focused on future progress. The degree of maturity displayed over the coming 10 years in how we look at our past will shape much of how we in Northern Ireland look to the future.
From an Alliance Party perspective the important thing it is that people have the opportunity to engage with aspects of our history with which they would not traditionally associate and 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 just those aspects of most relevance to their own jurisdiction.
Working together, the British and Irish Governments, along with the Northern Ireland Assembly, local councils and other interested groups, all of which are planning for the upcoming period to varying degrees, can set the tone for how events are marked and ensure that certain principles apply. Those principles include placing events in an inclusive and shared framework and looking to the wider history and context of the time in these islands and across Europe, rather than allowing celebrations to fragment into a series of, at best, exclusive and, at worst, divisive, events marking each centenary.
Belfast City Council has already laid down a marker of collaborative working on this issue through establishing the commemorations working group. This cross-party group has developed a plan that, rather than focusing on individual events, has framed a programme divided into three chronological periods. Their work to help build positive community relations is now delivering results, and we in this Assembly must make every effort to replicate this constructive form of politics.
The highly successful state visit of the Queen to Ireland, hosted by former President Mary McAleese was another example of how a coordinated approach can produce positive results for community relations. Such an approach in this regard can make a tangible contribution to cohesion, sharing and integration in Northern Ireland. The success of that historic royal visit also teaches us important lessons about how to maximise the benefit of these unique opportunities when they present themselves. Such events are not spontaneous, but require a mix of detailed planning, careful management, sensitive choreography and strong political leadership.
As such, I would call on the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to work together, with the British and Irish Governments, to develop a coordinated approach to the commemoration of these upcoming centenaries, all of which represent important events in our shared history.
Whilst highlighting the challenge the coming decade presents to our region, I should also mention the opportunities it creates. Northern Ireland is now an exciting tourist destination boosted significantly by a number of key international events; including MTV and an excellent advertising campaign NI 2012 Our Time, Our Place.
We in the Assembly must play our role in this important period, but it will require others too. Therefore, co-ordination of the commemoration activity throughout these islands, and close collaboration between tourist boards, the arts sector, business and civil society is helping to ensure that the cultural, heritage, tourism and related economic benefits of the coming period are maximised and contribute to a legacy of social and economic growth for this region.
These events present us with a unique opportunity to commemorate centenaries important to many people in a way that can deliver a transition to a new era of a shared society, where the focus shifts increasingly towards healing divisions, building cohesion and integration and addressing our joint economic challenges.
This will of course require a united approach and I hope this Assembly will take the opportunity to demonstrate such unity of purpose by fully supporting the motion.