On 3 May, Northern Ireland turned 100, a landmark moment by any standards. Most centenarians find that their anniversary is celebrated by everyone they meet but in NI’s case, not everyone was wishing many happy returns. A century ago, NI’s creation brought with it immediate division; Unionists cherished the new state, their Britishness and place in the United Kingdom upheld while Nationalists felt abandoned and betrayed and longed to be reunited with the 26 Counties. Fast forward 100 years and those divisions remain; Unionists celebrated Northern Ireland’s centenary, hailing its survival despite the many challenges it has faced since its creation; Nationalists were reminded of the painful memories partition created and renewed their hopes for a united Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s first century has certainly been a tumultuous one. A Unionist government at Stormont was responsible for widespread discrimination against Catholics throughout most of NI’s early decades. The major divisions between Protestants and Catholics helped to ignite the Troubles in 1969, which raged for 30 years before they came to an end. During that time, terrorism, death and destruction blighted NI, leaving 3,500 dead and 40,000+ injured. The Good Friday Agreement brought a long awaited peace and a new found hope for a better future. However, more than 23 years after the Agreement was signed, Northern Ireland remains more divided than ever; the NI Protocol has caused Unionists and Loyalists to feel as though their British identity and place in the UK is under threat; the Centenary of this place has only reinforced the stark differences that we already knew existed between citizens; the legacy of the Troubles still casts a long shadow over our society; issues around culture, identity, flags and traditions remain unresolved, seemingly too insurmountable to tackle. All of this makes me ask whether things were always going to turn out this way in Northern Ireland; that our people were always going to have to live in the shadow of a dark past, a divided community and with no prospect of a shared future.
There have been many in the past who have promoted a united community and a shared future – the late John Hume, David Trimble, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, even the late Martin McGuinness and the late Ian Paisley Snr. However, it will surprise many that the first person to call for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and indeed in Ireland as a whole was King George V back in 1921. On 22 June, the 100th anniversary of the opening of the new NI Parliament by King George V was marked. At a time of tension in NI and more widely across the island, King George came to Belfast to encourage people to put their differences aside and move forward in peace, reconciliation and goodwill. Looking at the King’s words in his address to those gathered at Belfast City Hall, it is difficult not to be struck by how relevant they are in Northern Ireland in 2021.
King George V said that “Few things are more earnestly desired…than a satisfactory solution of the age long Irish problems... as they now weigh heavily upon us.” At the time when Ireland was partitioned, many in Britain believed that the problems in Ireland had at last been resolved. However, a century on, historic divisions still plague NI. Our community is still as, if not more, divided than it was 100 years ago. These divisions and tensions have been magnified more recently by the NI Protocol and the Centenary and prove that the “age long Irish problems” referenced by King George, rather than being resolved 100 years ago, were just brushed under the carpet.
The monarch made a “…appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.” King George V’s wise words ring true as ever today as they did in 1921. NI needs to move beyond the past to create a better future but until our society resolves legacy issues, this cannot happen. People need to pause and think about where our country is and where it needs to go in the future. There must be a resolute focus on reconciliation and creating strong cross community relationships in order to build a united community. The mistake that we have made for too long is that we have neglected the important work around durable peace building and reconciliation. Regardless of whether we want a united Ireland or to keep the United Kingdom together, we must all join together to create a united Northern Ireland. This is the only way to create that “new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill” that King George V talked about.
Interestingly, King George V seemed unsure as to whether the new constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland would be temporary or permanent. At the end of his speech, he said, “May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two… shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect." It is impossible to be sure whether NI will mark a second century or not; the constitutional debate in NI and across the island is too fluid. For now, there must be a focus on deepening co-operation between everyone in our community in Northern Ireland as well as expanding co-operation across the island between the two jurisdictions in that “common love for Ireland” that the King alluded to. This increased co-operation should be based on “mutual justice and respect” and work on ensuring that we make Northern Ireland work before starting to worry about any future constitutional debates.
King George V’s aspiration of a shared future and a united community in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole is very much achievable. Everyone in our society needs to “stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation” to allow us to move beyond our past. A “new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill” will only be created if NI focuses on durable peace building and reconciliation. All of us must learn to “work together in common love for Ireland”, North and South; we all have to make our shared home place somewhere everyone can feel at home in. As Northern Ireland turns 100, King George V’s words really are more relevant than ever.
Peter Wilson is a 18 year old student studying A Levels in Politics, History and Sociology. He is a member of Alliance and the Liberal Democrats. His interests include local politics, British politics and Irish politics.