In the summer of 1971 a fun fair sprang up on the banks of the River Lagan in south Belfast. The carnival rides and teenage disco shared space with an exhibition centre on a 37 acre site in the Botanic Gardens. “Ulster 71” had been years in the planning and the Stormont government wanted it to showcase the best Northern Ireland had to offer in its fiftieth year in existence.
Outside the perimeter of the site, the troubles raged. In 1971, 171 people were killed in a conflict which was to drag on for a further quarter of a century. Cynics nicknamed the Botanic Gardens attraction “Explo 71”. Opponents denounced it as an exercise in “official amnesia” deliberately forgetting Northern Ireland’s track record on “unemployment, exploitation, forced migration and sectarian hatred”.
The troubles put off many of the visitors from elsewhere in the UK Stormont had been hoping to attract. However the locals seemed undeterred. By the time the exhibition stands were dismantled it was claimed that half a million people – a third of Northern Ireland’s population – had visited what was thought to be the UK’s most ambitious exhibition since the 1951 Festival of Britain.
Fast forward 50 years and preparations are underway for another milestone – the 2021 centenary of the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. The conflict ignited in 1969 has – largely – been transformed into a political rather than a violent quarrel. But the plans for the commemoration of the birth of the modern UK are beset by uncertainty of a different kind.
The Orange Order – whose members suspended their usual marches during 2020 due to the pandemic – has signalled its intention to mark the centenary with fireworks displays and (Covid allowing) a mass parade in May, around the date of the first session of the Northern Ireland parliament.
The UK government’s official planning document is more restrained. It envisages a debate on the centenary’s significance at Belfast’s Queen’s University, a commemoration at Belfast City Hall and a service of reflection and reconciliation somewhere in Great Britain. A special anniversary coin may be struck, although for some reason a stamp is not considered appropriate.
Attempts will be made to involve young people, the creative sector and Northern Ireland’s Diaspora. But, as with all plans being hatched in these times of pandemic, the official document notes that every element in the centenary events will have to be Covid-proofed.
A forum has been set up to try to agree on the shape of any commemorations. However shortly after Boris Johnson unveiled the forum, both the main Irish nationalist parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, made it clear they would not participate. The Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she saw nothing to celebrate in the partition of Ireland. The nationalist dominated Derry and Strabane Council voted to play no part in the centenary plans.
Some unionists expressed annoyance at the nationalist boycott of the preparations, pointing out that the Queen had participated in the Irish government’s ceremonies marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter rising against British rule. However nationalist disdain for any UK approved telling of the story of Northern Ireland is hardly surprising. What was perhaps more remarkable than the party political boycott was the almost complete absence of civic Catholic participation in the official centenary forum.
The UK would like to keep any commemorations as soft focus as possible, concentrating on the contribution Ulster people have made to sport, science and the arts. There’s also likely to be an emphasis on 1921 as the starting point for the wider union – a point often forgotten in Great Britain where the central argument about the future of the UK tends to pivot around Scotland’s intentions.
Come the centenary in May 2021, however, the UK’s “softly softly” approach is likely to be lost in a harder edged debate about Northern Ireland’s divided history. The obvious question will be posed regarding how many more anniversaries the often troubled state is likely to be able to mark.
At Stormont, unionists have lost their once vaunted majority, whilst a growing Catholic population undermines the logic of the convenient line of partition drawn across the map of Ireland back in the 1920s. Despite that, nationalists haven’t yet overhauled unionists at recent elections. Instead it looks like the immediate future will lie in the hands of centre ground voters and their representatives, who by their nature have tired of the traditional polarisation of local politics around one simple constitutional choice.
Recent opinion polls don’t clarify a great deal. In September 2019 an online poll carried out for the former Conservative treasurer and pollster, Lord Ashcroft, suggested 46% of those surveyed would opt for a United Ireland in any future vote, narrowly pipping the 45% who would back maintenance of the UK.
In February this year a poll conducted by the firm Lucid Talk for the investigative website the Detail also projected a knife edge result. However this time the pro union side narrowly edged out the united Ireland supporters, by 46.8% to 45.4%.
Yet just to muddy the picture, a survey also released in February 2020 conducted by Liverpool University and the UK Economic and Social Research Council provided much more comfort for unionists. It suggested only 29% of people would vote for a united Ireland “tomorrow”, whilst 52% would back staying in the UK.
All of this is theoretical for now, as under the Good Friday Agreement the decision on when to trigger a border poll rests with the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Mr Lewis’s boss Boris Johnson is almost certainly as vigorously opposed to enabling such a referendum as he is to assenting to another Scottish independence vote.
However, 2021 will not simply usher in Northern Ireland’s centenary commemorations. It will also mark the first year of the state’s projected “half in half out” status within the economic unions of both the UK and the EU. At the time of writing, it’s impossible to know for sure how the practical application of the Brexit protocol will impact on the daily lives and livelihoods of Northern Ireland’s people and what the political fallout might be.
Optimists reckon the territory’s special access to the EU Single Market will provide opportunities which can be harnessed for economic growth. Pessimists fear vital supplies of food and medicine will face disruption and that some English manufacturers could decide exporting their products to Northern Ireland isn’t worth the hassle involved in all the extra paperwork.
As of the start of November 2020, it looks like the prospect of a hard economic border across the island of Ireland has receded. But the political ramifications of a new economic border down the Irish Sea remain difficult to predict. Could greater economic integration with the EU make the prospect of a united Ireland more attractive to floating centre ground voters? Or might they conclude they have already had more than enough uncertainty to deal with?
Various pollsters have tried to ascertain the impact of Brexit on the intentions of voters in any future border poll. But it seems fair to assume that those voters won’t themselves be sure of exactly how they will respond to life under the Protocol until the new economic dispensation becomes a lived reality.
Brexit, of course, isn’t the only variable. After the SNP first won a majority in Scotland. I remember the then Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams telling me he thought developments in Edinburgh could turn out to be far more momentous for the situation in Ireland than had previously been imagined.
Last year’s heated debates over Brexit revealed that some English political activists took a transactional view not only to the UK’s membership of the EU, but also to the bonds between the constituent parts of the UK. In June 2019 59% of Conservative party members told YouGov they would prefer to see Northern Ireland leave the union if that was what it took to secure Brexit (a slightly higher proportion, 63%, were also happy to sacrifice Scotland).
Although this sentiment may recede once Brexit is a fully fledged reality, one wonders how English voters might regard Northern Ireland in the wake of any future pro independence vote in Scotland? By then – viewed through English eyes – it would be a part of another island sitting across the sea from a newly independent northern neighbour. A far off place of which most English people know little, but still, presumably, requiring significant financial support.
Apart from Brexit and the possibility of Scottish independence, other determinants are certain to weigh on Northern Ireland voters’ minds should a border poll become a real prospect. These include, first and foremost, the consequences for their security and prosperity in the wake of any vote for a radical change.
In October 2020 a quarter of those surveyed by Lucid Talk for the Belfast Telegraph said concern about the potential loss of the services provided by the National Health Service would make them more likely to vote to stay in the UK. In any border poll campaign, debate about the continuity of pensions and other benefits and the future of the currency will almost certainly be fleshed out in far greater detail than ever before.
Two years after the exhibits at the Ulster 71 festival were mothballed, the UK government did call a border poll in Northern Ireland – the one and only time so far that such a vote has been held. Just as they have boycotted the latest 2021 centenary preparations, nationalist leaders told their supporters to completely ignore the UK’s 1973 referendum.
With less than 1% of the Catholic population thought to have participated, the crushing 98.9% victory for the pro UK camp was a foregone conclusion. Nationalists argued this proved nothing as the exercise had not addressed their fundamental objection to the way in which Ireland had been divided back in the 1920s, with the exclusion of three of Ulster’s nine counties purposefully bolstering the unionist majority.
Whatever the variables involved in determining the timing and context of any future border poll, this much is clear. Nationalists may boycott next year’s commemorations of Northern Ireland’s centenary, but they will certainly take an active proselytising role should any future British Secretary of State decide the time is right to put the continued existence of the Northern Ireland state to the test.
Mark Devenport is a journalist and broadcaster analysing Stormont politics, Brexit, the response to Covid-19, British-Irish relations and conflict resolution. He was the BBC’s Northern Ireland Political Editor, Ireland Correspondent and United Nations Correspondent and is a former chair of the Stormont Correspondents’ Association.