Image Credit: robert+french - https://picryl.com/amp/media/high-street-belfast-925959
Nearly a century ago, on 3 May 1921, a line was drawn across Ireland in the aspiration of establishing two distinct nations. Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, legislative autonomy was granted to two separate Parliamentary jurisdictions, Northern Ireland’s Stormont and the Irish Free state’s Dáil Éireann (which later became the Republic of Ireland). In so doing, so too was a line indelibly struck between Northern Ireland’s pro-Irish Catholic community and the pro-British Ulster Protestant majority.
In the build-up to this year's centenary celebrations, communities are once again gripped by the legacy of inter-communal violence that characterised the Troubles of the 1960s–1990s. Community leaders on both sides of the Irish Nationalist and Ulster Unionist dyad face growing pressure, either to denounce partition and the North's subsequent relationship with the United Kingdom entirely, or sidestep the issue of partition to focus on Ulster’s economic prosperity under the Union respectively.
Political commentators and observers of the Good Friday agreement have questioned the validity behind and the appropriateness of celebrating partition as a positive contribution to Ireland’s overall social and cultural wellbeing. In other words, is Northern Ireland's existence, within the context of the United Kingdom, an occasion to lament or celebrate? To find out more about this issue, Nouse caught up with Claire Sugden MLA.
Ms Sugden is a Northern Irish politician, representing the East Londonderry constituency in the nation’s devolved Legislative Assembly at Stormont. As the only Independent Unionist sitting in the assembly, rather than reconciling herself to the dominance of hard-line Unionist parties (the like of the Democratic Unionist Party and the ardently Republican Sinn Fein) Ms Sugden has utilised her unique position and her reputation for upholding liberal and progressive values to platform her vision of unionism.
Pointing to the problems that have arisen in the aftermath of the Brexit negotiations (more specifically the renewed constitutional debate following the implementation of an Irish Sea border) I raised with Ms Sugden the attitudes of most critics, who assert that the Northern Ireland protocol has intensified demands for Irish Unity and that a border poll is almost certain to take place in the near future. I subsequently asked in what way she thought the centenary festivities would impact Northern Ireland’s societal relations and political preferences.
Ms Sugden responded, by saying that above all else, while the centenary celebrations should be a “wonderful opportunity to be both British and Irish”, it is important to recognise that the Good Friday agreement is designed to “encourage of us all [community leaders and citizens] to respect that actually Northern Ireland is important to me [and others] for a variety of reasons” and that there is “more to the country’s vibrancy that extends beyond the simplistic past perceptions of the old orange and green.”
With regards to the border poll, she added that “we’ve been in a state of peace for 25 years”, that the “old arguments” for reunification and therefore the dissolution of Northern Ireland “to an extent aren’t nearly as relevant today as they were 25 years ago”. The Independent MLA was conscious that the commemorations must acknowledge the past and should push us to “remember, so we don't go back” to violence. However, she said that we must equally appreciate, “When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, they signed it with hope, signed it perhaps accepting things that they wouldn't normally have accepted but recognised for the future, for their future, for their children, for their grandchildren's future, they were prepared to make those difficult compromises so that we had peace.”
Further to this, Ms Sugden asserted that “people who weren’t even born then, want to be forward-thinking about where we go and that isn't necessarily related to constitutional politics”, and that the centenary “should be about looking forward and trying to ensure that we provide the best possible opportunities for everyone on the island in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.”
Given the current state of the Union, with polls in Scotland indicating an increased demand for separation, we asked Ms Sugden if she thought the 100 year anniversary of Northern Ireland’s establishment also presented a unique opportunity to reflect upon and re-examine the country's relationship with the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit era.
She replied stating that “it is really important that we have that conversation about the UK as a whole, so when people assume that it's about partition, it's not, it's about the ongoing relationship with our other partners within the UK and how Irelands fits in with that”. The MLA insisted that the integrity of the United Kingdom can only be sustained by realizing that the United Kingdom is a “sum of its parts”, that to come apart now would not make sense as “as we're very similar people of a very small island in the grand scheme of the world.”
Of course, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Northern Ireland’s commonly elaborate physical displays and commemorations that underpin communal identification have been put on hold. The Orange Order, the country's largest protestant civic organisation, has issued a directive that no Orange parades should proceed until the 1st of June. Under these circumstances, we asked Ms Sugden in what way she thought community leaders would respond to community cultural needs.
Being a former member of a community drum and flute band, Ms Sugden was dismayed by the fact that these important community and church organisations, regardless of their political identification, could not provide the resources and activities that fuel into young people's perceived sense of belonging to a community, especially in rural areas.
She recounted the time that Orange parades were once positive occasions “insofar as what they were, that was colour, it was music, it was hundreds of thousands of people on the street having a really good time, it was a festival atmosphere”. She did express, however, that knowing the origins of these sectarian parades now, to arrange the festivities around one narrative of the past would not satisfy her beliefs on inclusivity and equality, nor do they speak to her liberal progressive values with regards to gay marriage or wider goals of the feminist movement.
Ms Sugden instead pointed to other aspects that give cause to celebrate the country's existence beyond the constitutional and economic justifications. Northern Ireland isn't just about the pageantry, she highlighted that the country is experiencing a booming film and television industry, playing host to and providing film sites for notable shows such as Game of Thrones, The Fall, and the new BBC drama, Bloodlands, bringing in millions of tourists every year. She also highlighted that Northern Ireland is an area of outstanding beauty with its beautiful coastlines. Although it is not obvious at the moment, Ms Sugden excitedly pointed to Belfast's unique culture and nightlife scene that is the envy of many towns and cities across the United Kingdom.
Going back to the Centenary, however, Ms Sugden shrewdly pointed out that “if you were born raised, and lived your whole life in Northern Ireland, then it's your Northern Ireland as much as it is mine regardless of whether the governments in Dublin or London”, that the government should be trying harder to sell Northern Ireland’s contribution to the world in an apolitical context, and that that was something to accentuate in the centenary celebrations.