First published on the Irish Border Poll blog on 13 January 2022. Looking at the Northern Ireland centennial, I argue that British people need to confront their own history and join with Irish people, from every part of Ireland, to put the past to rights.
“There was a lot promised initially, a lot hoped for…so many things could have happened. We could have had a coin, we could have had a stamp. We were told none of those things could happen for a variety of reasons.”
Rev Mervyn Gibson’s disappointment in Northern Ireland’s centennial programme should come as no surprise. Though nowhere near as calamitous as its 50th anniversary (strapline Ulster 71 – come and join in the fun), the centenary year was far from auspicious. Coming on top of mounting political tensions surrounding the NI Protocol, Covid-19 restrictions dampened plans for public celebrations and political ceremonials, forcing the Orange Order to postpone its Centennial rally and parade. Even the Queen cancelled her visit on medical advice.
Speaking as secretary of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson’s complaint of false hopes and broken promises was directed towards the British government for failing to commemorate Northern Ireland’s past in ways that might inspire unionist confidence in its future. The complaint is well grounded. The NI centennial was part of the ‘decade of centenaries’, marking significant events that had shaped Ireland and Britain in the 20th century. London’s interest in commemorating the creation of Northern Ireland fell far short of the Dublin government’s engagement with the programme of public events, concerts, exhibitions and talks that marked the centenary of the signing of the 1921 Treaty, which brought the Irish Free State (Saorstat Éireann) into being. With not even a commemorative stamp to its name, Northern Ireland’s lacklustre centenary betrayed a remarkable reticence towards recollecting a significant historical moment that had, in the words of NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, ‘paved the way to the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today.’
Britain’s ambivalence towards the centennial commemorations of the ‘precious Union’ speaks volumes about the semi-detached status of Northern Ireland in the Union. The gap between the illusion and reality of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been made even more glaringly obvious through the operation of the NI Protocol. As one wag remarked on Twitter: ‘nothing says celebration like a border down the Irish Sea’. Nevertheless, whilst Brexit and the Protocol are the immediate destabilising factors, the problem of Northern Ireland goes far deeper. British politicians like to talk about our responsibility for keeping the peace between Northern Ireland’s warring tribes, but they rarely address the question of how we came to be embroiled in these intractable battles, let alone why we remain. With his reference to the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today, Brandon Lewis locates the answers in our history.
History does nothing, wrote Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, it possesses no wealth and wages no battles: ‘it is man, real, living man who does all that…history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.’ By the early twentieth century, British industrialists, businessmen and land-owners had amassed immense wealth and shown great determination defending their interests through waging battles at home and all over the globe. As a ruling class they were, however, subject to intense fears. Threatened by the forward march of democracy, they feared the popular challenges that would inevitably be raised to their established order. Facing an increasingly militant working class and with men and women demanding the vote at home and growing resistance to colonial rule abroad, they found themselves on the defensive and paralysed by divisions. It was in this menacing atmosphere, that the Irish Question once again emerged as a testing ground for their determination and a focus for their fears.
Whilst maintaining the essential integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Liberals had adopted Home Rule for Ireland as a strategy for managing discontent and removing the Irish Question from everyday politics at Westminster. The Conservatives regarded calls for self-government in Ireland, even in this limited form, as evidence of a weakening of British power, verging on treason, at a moment of increasing great power rivalry and challenges from subaltern classes in the empire and at home. These divisions were sharpened in the political and constitutional crisis that followed the House of Lords’ rejection of the Liberal government’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’. In the General Election that immediately followed, the Liberal government were returned by a narrow majority, with the Irish Parliamentary Party holding the balance of power. Home Rule was pushed back to the top of the government’s agenda, alongside a determination to remove the power of veto, exercised by the Tory peers that packed the House of Lords. The 1911 Parliament Act weakened their semi-feudal legislative veto and, in so doing, removed the backstop for preventing the enactment of Home Rule in Ireland.
Proclaiming that ‘there are things greater than parliamentary majorities’, Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, said that he could ‘imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go, in which I should not be prepared to support them’. Organised through well-established political networks, the Tory and Unionists’ resistance to parliamentary democracy between 1911 and 1914 went a very long way, mobilising popular support at rallies in Britain and Ireland, arming the 90,000 strong Ulster Volunteer Force and setting up a provisional government in Belfast that would take power after Home Rule. On 24 March 1914, elite British army officers stationed in Ireland declared they would not fight against loyalist Ulster. The Curragh mutiny sent a powerful message that sections of the military were prepared to defy Parliament over Home Rule. Writing in the midst of the crisis, Lenin described this ‘revolt of the landlords’ as ‘a world historical turning point’, where the government, unwilling to appeal to the wider populace in defence of the constitution, yielded to the mutinous officers, giving them written guarantees that troops would never be used against Ulster loyalists. In The Fatal Path, his illuminating study of British policy in Ireland, Ronan Fanning argued that, ‘after Curragh, even in the unlikely event of the government summoning up the will to impose the democratic verdict of the House of Commons on Ulster, it had no means to do so’.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921, created the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Ireland was, however, partitioned the very next day, when the Unionist government in Belfast moved to exclude six of the nine Ulster counties from the settlement. As Fanning wryly remarked, ‘the Irish Free State was what remained once Ulster had been secured’. The United Kingdom suffered a similar indignity at the hands of the Conservative and Unionist rebels. Their revolt against Home Rule had not simply ripped the Liberal government’s Irish policy into tatters but robbed the state of the authority to use its own armed forces to implement Parliament’s legislative will. As George Dangerfield observed about this period, in words that resonate for own times, ‘the government was helpless, so too was the Parliament…the destiny of Ireland, whether with the Union or with Home Rule or with some more extreme dispensation was now passing away from Westminster and Whitehall and into the control of Belfast and Dublin’. Thus, as much as it placed limits on the sovereignty of a unitary Irish nation, Northern Ireland’s founding moment expressed the limits of the United Kingdom’s sovereignty within what it still claims as its own territory.
Commemoration is not history, nor is it a suitable vehicle for historical thinking. By turning history into collective memory and myth, we reconcile ourselves to living as the children of our histories – winners or losers, victims or perpetrators – with no way out except retribution or forgetting. Successive British governments have attached great importance to the history of Ireland, by way of justifying our responsibility to remain as neutral conciliators. Most recently, by associating a return to the bad old days with more generalized perceptions of risk and uncertainty, ‘the tragedies of the past’ have performed an indispensable role as the threatening presence for building consensus around the need to avoid a ‘hard Brexit’. As Peter Ramsay and myself have argued on this website, Brexit is the proof that Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland is not simply a barrier to peace and democracy in Ireland, but a fetter on its own sovereignty. The British people therefore have a powerful self-interest in bringing the union with Northern Ireland to an end. So too do the people of Northern Ireland since Britain drew a trade border through the Irish Sea and gave concrete shape to the irresponsible and undemocratic nature of its rule there.
Britain’s inability after Brexit to assert either its autonomous law-making powers or any determination to disengage from Northern Ireland is rooted in the history of a union, that grew from the revolt of a powerful elite against democratic forces in both Ireland and Britain. That is the history that British politicians prefer to keep a distance from. And that is the history that British people need to learn from and act upon. The mistakes of the past cannot be washed away through rituals of commemoration, atonement and reconciliation. The past will only be laid to rest when British people confront, what Dangerfield called, ‘one of the saddest and yet most illuminating chapters’ in our history and join with Irish people, from every part of Ireland, to put it right.
George Dangerfield, The Damnable Question, Constable 1975
Ronan Fanning, The Fatal Path, Faber and Faber 2013
V.I. Lenin, ‘The Ulster Crisis’ in British Labour and British Imperialism, Lawrence and Wishart 1969
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works vol 4, Lawrence and Wishart 1975
‘To see something in the form of an image is an invitation to observe, to learn, to attend to’. Reflecting on the ‘vast repository of images’ that make it hard for us to maintain ‘ignorance or amnesia’ in the face of war and human suffering, Susan Sontag warns that photographs can’t do the moral or intellectual work for us, ‘but they can start us on the way’.
Featuring artists, filmmakers and photographers from Northern Ireland, Argentina, Colombia and Iraq, Invitation to Observe presents extracts from eight important works that record, bear witness and reflect on the experience of conflict and conflict transformation.
The continous screening includes images from Frankie Quinn’s Interface Images, and Israel-Palestine, Helen Zout’s Disparations, Bitter from Open Shutters Iraq (Um Mohammed with Eugenie Dolberg), Edwin Cubillos Rodríguez’ Labrando Memorias (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica), Jamie Holman’s LCpl’s Stan Holman’s Belfast ’71 collection, Chad Alexander’s Entries and Belfast Exposed’s Portraits from a Fifties Archive. Drop by, see the work and browse the accompanying books and catalogues.
“Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: keep these events in your memory.” Susan Sontag, ‘War and Photography’ in Nicholas Owen (ed.), Human Rights, Human Wrongs (2003).
Image from Entries by Chad Alexander
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awards World Heritage status on the basis that the ‘outstanding universal value’ of a site, whether in recognition of its natural beauty, historical or cultural significance, is deemed sufficient to ‘transcend national boundaries’. Liverpool was inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2004 in recognition of its rich architectural inheritance, unique maritime and mercantile history and its pioneering role in the development of modern dock technology, transport systems and port management. The designation covers several parts of the old commercial city centre, warehouses and merchant’s houses, including the Pier Head buildings and the iconic Three Graces, believed to be the inspiration for the Bund in Shanghai. While most agree that Liverpool’s status as a world heritage city has contributed to its sense of civic pride, concerns have arisen among the city’s business community and political leadership that the designation may be posing a significant threat to future prosperity.
The city council’s 2011 decision to grant planning permission to a £5.5 billion docklands development lead to a dramatic fall from grace, with UNESCO placing Liverpool’s cultural and architectural inheritance on its list of ‘World Heritage in Danger’. However city mayor Joe Anderson is continuing to back the development, in spite of a recommendation by UNESCO for a two-year moratorium on new developments in the city’s heritage sites and their surrounding ‘buffer zone’, including large parts of the city centre alongside derelict dockland and deprived neighbourhoods to the north of the city. The controversy not only places Liverpool’s WHS designation in jeopardy, but also raises important questions around local accountability for political decision-making and the problem of managing conservation in the context of the need for cities to grow and build prosperity for their citizens.
Aimed at reclaiming disused dockland to the north of the city, the Liverpool Waters development includes plans for apartments, offices, hotels and bars, as well as the 55-storey Shanghai Tower and other skyscrapers, which promised to ‘turn Liverpool into an international standard waterside destination’ that could rival New York, Vancouver and Shanghai. The dockland development is part of a wider Mersey Ports Master Plan aimed at building transport infrastructure as a drive for investment and trade, including an ambitious plan to develop ‘water freight transport solutions’ by re-connecting the Port of Liverpool to Manchester via the Manchester Ship Canal.
While initially supporting ‘the principle of a major scheme of regeneration in the Central Docks’ and recognizing the need for investment, particularly in the deprived north of the city, English Heritage raised objections based on the ‘density of development, the mass and scale of the waterfront blocks and the height and scale of the tall buildings’, alongside threats posed by underground car parks to ‘buried remains of the docks’. Some compromises have been reached around structural issues, however English Heritage’s key objection is based on its perception of the dockland development as a threat to the authenticity and integrity of the city’s cultural identity, by virtue of its location:
…..within an historic environment of international importance that reinforces the distinctiveness of Liverpool, allowing the City to be instantly recognisable, legible and rooted in its highly influential history. [Liverpool Waters-English Heritage Report Executive Summary. P.2]
This view that scale of the development would detract from the ‘historical primacy’ of Liverpool’s cultural heritage was echoed in a UNESCO inspection report published in November 2011, which warned of the threat of a ‘serious loss of historical authenticity’. The city council’s counter argument appears to be based on a very different concept of the city as a diverse, dynamic and political space where economic, cultural and social priorities remain contested:
We value the heritage status but we can’t let it stifle the growth of our city. People …come here for so many reasons – our culture, yes, our buildings, and because we are open and developing .
In a recent assessment of the impact of Liverpool’s WHS designation the Institute of Cultural Capital (ICC) explored perceptions and attitudes among citizens. Based on interviews and surveys of people involved in managing or promoting Liverpool’s visitor economy alongside ordinary Liverpudlians, the ICC report suggests that while people are generally agreed that Liverpool’s designation as a world heritage site has ‘contributed significantly’ to a sense of civic pride, those living in deprived areas outside of the city centre feel much less positive about the benefits than more affluent city centre residents. Local opinion is also divided on the economic value of the designation, with many citizens struggling to identify clear economic benefits. On the question of Liverpool losing its WHS designation, most agreed that this would have adverse impacts on the city’s image and attractiveness as a visitor destination. However, concerns over the negative impacts of delisting appear to be much greater among city centre residents than citizens living in ‘outlying and deprived city areas’, where the proposed Liverpool Waters development was ‘more likely to be welcomed as a much needed and long overdue’ stimulus for the economy.
The findings of the ICC Report appear to suggest a degree of sympathy among Liverpool citizens for the city mayor’s argument that compliance with the UNESCO moratorium on development would place ‘hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment and jobs at risk by sending out the message that Liverpool had ‘shut up shop and was closed for business’. The ICC Report concludes that the city should do more to promote and educate its citizens on the positive outcomes arising from the social, cultural and educational values associated with the WHS title. However the differences between ‘the heritage and development camps’ appear to run much deeper than questions of perception. How do ideas associated with defending the integrity of ‘threatened heritage’ translate into the messy business of local decision making in dynamic urban contexts, where people live and work? In an era of prolonged austerity and public spending cuts, might the object-based logic of conservation, authenticity and ‘historical primacy’ be more and more called into question as cities seek to recover the dynamism of the past as a way building a better future?