Northern Ireland’s Centenary - Reflecting on Past, Present and Future Divisions
In 2021 Northern Ireland (NI) will celebrate its centenary; citizens will look back to the Partition of Ireland and cast their gazes forward to their future. The stakes are especially high as the nation waits for Boris Johnson's Brexit deal to be announced. The anticipation has already sparked concerns of kicking up the dust of the past.
Over the course of 2020 we have seen contentious commemorations and tense reckonings with British history; slaver statues were toppled in Bristol and university buildings across Scotland are being renamed to honour historical figures with less controversial pasts. However, as British citizens have reckoned with their colonial past across the globe, it has been harder to reflect on their historical oppression closer to home. One need look no further than how a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and NI was a mere afterthought during Britain's decision to leave the EU. Britain's self-serving silence over its role in NI means the hardening of an Irish land border has created the potential for catastrophe. This decisive political amnesia is not a mentality shared by older generations in NI.
As NI gears up to reflect on its progress in the past century since partition, younger political generations are feeling swept up in a disillusioning cycle of the British power-play over Northern Irish citizens. NI, and especially its younger voters, voted to stay within the EU. Unsurprisingly, Brexit has stirred up new conversations about century-old issues. The chaotic muddling of crucial border issues on the island of Ireland by powers in Westminster is reminiscent of the British government of one hundred years ago, making decisions for NI with minimal political support or consideration for the impact of those decisions on the Irish.
The bitter political aftertastes of British rule across Ireland matter. For many in Northern Ireland, theirs is a story of resilience and the achievement of peace against all odds. For others, remaining subject to the British Crown stirs up disappointment and loss – a reminder that the flame of the united Ireland, a dream before the Partition, has temporarily been extinguished for the North. Though they may not remember the daily violence of the Troubles, for many young people the present political moment illuminates the greater issue of Northern Ireland's history with the UK. The opaque Brexit process threatens the peaceful borders between the North and the Republic, as society continues to make sense of the legacies of a sectarian conflict that ended barely 20 years ago. Whilst appearing unconnected, the connection of these two crises – the Troubles and Brexit – leave many reflecting on the cyclical nature of British powers toying with Irish peace. "It's kind of Irish history repeating itself," one 19 year old voices in an article last year. "A decision's made in England, and we're just dragged along with it."
People born after the Good Friday Agreements in 1998 have grown up with the narrative of being the 'post-conflict generation'. To them, identity politics do not matter as much as they did to older generations. Young people identify as less religious and less "culturally" Catholic or Protestant, the primary division that fractured the region during the Troubles. Many who were against nationalism prior to the 2016 referendum are now reconsidering the case for a united Ireland amid the post-Brexit uncertainty. The economics have changed too. Today, the Republic of Ireland is more prosperous than NI. A generation ago, Belfast was Dublin's more prosperous counterpart, but today we see the opposite, which is an extra pull to support the nationalist ideologies of Irish history.
The weight of the decisions that will be made over the next few months are not lost on anyone in NI. Whether they bore witness to the conflict or have grown up among the ghosts of Belfast, the people of NI understand the spark that could be ignited when borders and sovereignty are thrust under the microscope. Young Northern Irish have come of age in an era void of the uncertainties their parents and grandparents lived with. The young feel the collective tensions and anxieties that their ancestors felt before them – but now the uncertainty is more about the future than the past.
As NI celebrates one hundred years of peace, it is crucial to reflect on how fragile that peace has been. A no-deal Brexit threatens everything that has been achieved. Young people in NI are the first generation to grow up without daily violence and they are even more inclined towards unification than their parents. But if the border issue doesn't get sensibly resolved they will end up in the cycle of sectarian violence that has been the hallmark of NI since 1921. We owe it to them, the post-conflict generation, to protect their legacy and their future.
Rachael Louise Healy is an Anthropology MA student at IHEID. She is currently working on a qualitative research project about urban space, contentious commemoration and memory around Belfast's peace walls since the Troubles. She has a degree in Global Health and Social Medicine from King's College London, where she wrote a dissertation about historical trauma in the US. After completing her Master's, she plans to continue her anthropological research around the intersections of temporality, space and heritage in Belfast as part of her doctoral studies.