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Under pressure after Brexit, Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary




Since the Republic of Ireland freed itself from British rule on May 3, 1921, the existence of Northern Ireland, created at the same time and attached to the United Kingdom, has been at the center of a sometimes bloody standoff between the two countries.

Unionists defending membership in the United Kingdom, especially Protestants, and Republicans in favor of reunification with Ireland, largely Catholic, have been arguing for decades over the status of their homeland.

These tensions have been exacerbated recently by the changes linked to the Brexit earthquake, culminating in recent weeks in riots and the resignation of local government chief Arlene Foster of the ultra-conservative unionist party DUP.

“Northern Ireland’s centenary is by its very nature a source of division and can only be a source of division,” said Jonathan Evershed, researcher at University College Cork. For him, “there is simply no way to commemorate Northern Ireland in a reconciliatory or inclusive way”.

Even today, Republicans often refer to their province as “northern Ireland” and characterize its creation as “partition”, according to the deeply held belief that the border was imposed illegitimately.

This deep division was already at the heart of the “Troubles”, this bloody conflict which, in thirty years, left some 3,500 dead, before the conclusion of a peace agreement in 1998.

“Irrevocably opposed”

Despite this fragile peace, Republicans, also referred to as nationalists, still now decorate their homes with the Irish tricolor, a sign that they see themselves as citizens of an Ireland occupied by a foreign power.

Opposite, the Unionist enclaves of certain towns are adorned with the Union Jack or murals celebrating the British royal family.

“Unionists and nationalists have different understandings of the past – they commemorate different things, and do it differently – because they have conflicting visions of the political future. “

In this context, each victory for one camp means a loss of ground for the other, as their points of view are “irremediably opposed”, judge Jonathan Evershed.

This is why the centenary celebrations proposed by the government, necessarily based on the idea that Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom and has Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, are problematic.

The program of the local government, however, includes events supposed to reconcile the two parties, such as the holding of an interfaith religious service and the creation of a “shared history fund”.

But if the government wishes to “highlight the strength and beauty of the various identities of the province”, certain symbolic gestures risk angering Republicans, such as the fact that a “centenary rose” will be presented to the queen “for her own garden. “.

“Unionists and nationalists have different understandings of the past – they commemorate different things, and do it differently – because they have conflicting visions of the political future,” says Jonathan Evershed.

Shaken by Brexit

Especially since this centenary comes at a time when the underlying tensions have been strongly revived by the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

In order to avoid a return to a physical border with the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland continues to apply EU regulations. Controls on goods coming from Great Britain have been put in place at the ports of the province.

Feeling betrayed by London, which it accuses of having established a customs border in the Irish Sea, the Unionist community started violent riots in several towns in early April.

And Prime Minister and Unionist leader Arlene Foster was forced by her family to announce her resignation, ushering in a period of political uncertainty.

Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Arlène Foster (here in 2017) has been pressured by her supporters to resign. (AFP photo)

In this tense context, two of the main Republican parties (Sinn Fein and SDLP) have already boycotted the planning of the commemorations. “We will not celebrate this partition which represents a failure for the people of this island,” said Michelle O’Neil, leader of Sinn Fein in the province.

Opposite, some Unionists, who have recently lost their historic hold on the local parliament, are just as dissatisfied with the neutral tone displayed by the government in London.

This is why Jonathan Evershed speaks of an “unhappy” centenary, both for the Unionists who “greet the centenary of a State in their image but in which they no longer feel safe”, and for the Republicans, “obliged to see that the border they have always opposed still exists ”.

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