Skip to main content

Centenaries (UK and Ireland)

Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2011

The timing of this debate is in many ways very appropriate. Yesterday, 6 December, marked the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which led to the formation of the Irish Free State, as was, and ultimately to the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. It also led to the Irish civil war, which some sources believe may have claimed more lives than the original war of independence against Britain that preceded it.

In the context of this debate, it is worth noting that not only did the civil war leave Irish society divided and embittered in its immediate aftermath, but that the political divisions of that era remained the dominant cleavage in Irish politics for almost a century, reflected by the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael—the direct descendants of the opposing sides in that war.

Arguably, the 2011 Irish general election, which took place against the backdrop of the serious financial and economic crisis, is the first in Ireland’s history that has departed significantly from civil war politics. That is evidenced by the clear switching of voters between those parties. We can therefore be in no doubt that history casts a long shadow forward. The events of the past shape us—shape our identity, shape our present and also shape our future, to the good or otherwise, and never more so than when those events are contentious.

We are rapidly approaching the start of a decade of centenaries of seminal events and significant milestones in the shared history of the UK and Ireland. The period in question commences with the signing of the Ulster covenant in 1912 and the Home Rule crisis; covers the period of the first world war, from 1914 to 1918, including the battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Easter rising in the same year; and culminates in the events to which I have referred regarding the partition of Ireland.

During the period of history that I am describing, in 1912, the Titanic was launched and, tragically, sank—an issue of huge importance to my constituency, in which she was built. The period also stood witness to the emergence of the Gaelic revival movement and to the rise of both the women’s suffrage movement and the labour movement, from which flowed universal male and limited women’s suffrage in 1918. The Dublin lockout, which lasted from August 1913 to January 1914, was probably the most serious industrial dispute in Irish history, reshaping entirely the relationship between worker and employer. Also during that era the Irish Citizen Army, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteer Force were formed, the latter two being actively engaged in gunrunning activity.

I concede that the list that I have given is very long, but it is by no means exhaustive. I have focused entirely on centenaries, without reference to the fact that, in the same period, we will mark other significant anniversaries, including the 400th anniversary of the plantation of Ireland.

The period between 1912 and 1922 was one of considerable change and turmoil, which shaped not only Northern Ireland, but the relationships within and between these islands. Sadly, in much the same way as post-partition politics in the Republic has been defined by the civil war, the divisions evident during that period remain to a large extent the basis of divisions in modern Northern Irish society. Therefore the manner in which we publicly mark those historic events, which remain both sensitive and emotive, is hugely important to preserving the current stability and, more importantly, to the building of a peaceful, stable and shared future.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is referring to the manner in which and the sensitivity with which commemorations are held. Obviously, the timing of the centenaries of each of the events that she has outlined is fixed, but does she agree that in the divided society that we have in Northern Ireland, how and where those events are commemorated is very important—so that they can be celebrated, rather than causing divisions like those that occurred in the past?

I agree entirely. Celebrating may not always be appropriate. It may be a case of marking or commemorating some of the events, which are still very emotive. That is an important point.

Handled well, the coming decade has the potential to allow us to explore our past together, aiding understanding through education and discussion, and helping us to learn from our past and to consider how we can create and shape stronger and better relationships and enhance community relations. By contrast, if handled poorly, it has the potential to be a highly charged and fractious period, marked by deepening antagonism and division in society, and playing to and reinforcing centuries-old divisions rather than focusing on future progress.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Although it will be impossible to achieve or express a received version of our history in relation to all these events, it is of course right that we should be responsible in dealing with the centenaries. However, particularly as the decade progresses, we will also be hitting significant 50th anniversaries, which might be much more contentious in the north. Surely that adds to the point about getting the treatment of the centenaries right, in a measured and responsible way.

I agree entirely. The degree of maturity displayed over the coming 10 years will set the tone for the handling of events that are lived history for many of us who grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles. That is an important point. People will of course have their own perspectives on the past and, indeed, differing aspirations for the future, and the free expression of that cultural diversity is a cornerstone of any normal liberal democracy. Different parts of the community will inevitably wish to place differing emphasis on selected events, and the right to do so should be respected.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that in relation to these largely, shall we say, contentious issues, there must not only be very good management? We must all seek to build consensus and to develop understanding so that we can celebrate our shared identity. We must build, in many ways, an active process of reconciliation.

I agree. What the hon. Lady refers to is hugely important. I am about to come on to how we can go about doing that.

The desire to place context around the public marking of the centenaries is not about curtailing people’s expression of their perspectives and aspirations, which may differ. It is about ensuring that space and opportunity are created for discourse, interaction and debate in order that people have the opportunity to engage with aspects of our history with which they would not traditionally associate and to consider alternative perspectives on those events with which they most closely identify, so that no single narrative crowds out all other opinion.

It is therefore important that both Governments are involved in marking events throughout the period and not just those aspects of most relevance to their own jurisdiction. I hope that that approach will be reflected in the Minister’s response to the debate. I shall give just one example. During a recent visit to Belfast city hall, the Taoiseach specifically asked to see the original covenant table, which sits in the council chamber; and, in recognition that there is interest among people in the Republic of Ireland in marking the signing of the Ulster covenant, the Irish Government are supporting work by the Orange Order in the south to mark that event and to collate the history of those communities.

Does the hon. Lady agree that although the anniversaries or centenaries in Northern Ireland—and, of course, the Republic of Ireland—are important to both sections of the community, it is important that this matter is not left to the devolved Administration and that our national Parliament should also get involved?

I agree entirely. One reason why I sought this debate is my belief that both Governments need to be involved in structuring the commemorations, as both Governments were heavily involved in the original events.

The transformative power of respectful commemoration based on inclusion and cultural diversity is also reflected in the preparatory work by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In developing their guidance notes for funding bodies, called “Remembering The Future”, they have stated in relation to the forthcoming centenaries:

“How these and others are marked in public as opposed to private space will chart the progress this society is making on its journey out of conflict. These anniversaries need not be mutually exclusive; indeed, if the commemorations are handled sensitively, they will provide an opportunity to underline how much of our history is shared.”

It is that potential that I want to explore in the remainder of the time available to me.

Given the huge improvements in east-west relations during my lifetime—marked most notably by Her Majesty the Queen’s recent state visit to Ireland, hosted by former President Mary McAleese—the decade ahead is an important opportunity to build on that established good will and progress and to enhance further the relations between the UK and Ireland. In doing so, it can make a tangible contribution to cohesion, sharing and integration in Northern Ireland. The success of that historic royal visit also teaches us important lessons about how to maximise the benefit of these unique opportunities when they present themselves. Such events are not spontaneous, but require a mix of detailed planning, careful management, sensitive choreography and strong political leadership.

The same is true of the upcoming commemorations, so I am pleased that the Taoiseach, despite all the other challenges facing Ireland, is establishing a commemorations committee to oversee his Department’s work, and that an all-party Oireachtas consultation group on commemoration has been established, which is being chaired by Jimmy Deenihan TD, who is Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I trust that that will provide a good basis for close east-west and north-south engagement. Today gives us an opportunity to probe the preparations being made by the UK Government ahead of the commencement of the upcoming decade next year.

Does the hon. Lady agree that with everyone participating in the preparations for these centenaries, it is vital that no one tries to rewrite the history of the United Kingdom or Ireland?

I agree. I assume that the hon. Gentleman has sneaked a little peek at my speech, because I am about to move on to historical rigour.

Working together, the British and Irish Governments, along with the Northern Ireland Assembly, local councils and other interested groups, all of which are planning for the upcoming period to varying degrees, can set the tone for how events are marked and ensure that certain principles apply. Those principles include placing events in an inclusive and shared framework and looking to the wider history and context of the time in these islands and across Europe, rather than allowing celebrations to fragment into a series of, at best, exclusive and, at worst, divisive, events marking each centenary.

That spirit of inclusion must be matched with historical rigour. While there is still no shared or agreed narrative about many of the events, and while many myths continue to endure, there is a set of agreed historical facts, which should be the starting point for exploring different perceptions and interpretations of history. It is also crucial that we consider not just individual events in isolation, but their consequences, if we are to develop a deeper understanding of the period and our interrelated history. Much good work has been done already, and the Minister will be able to set out in his response the work that the UK Government have done in preparation for the coming period.

Time does not permit me to reference all the ongoing work, but I want to flag up Belfast city council’s commemorations working group. This cross-party group has developed a plan that, rather than focusing on individual events, has framed a programme divided into three chronological periods. The first, entitled “Shared History, Differing Allegiances”, covers 1912 to 1914. The second, which covers 1914 to 1918, includes world war one, the Somme and the Easter rising. The third will cover the events surrounding the partition of Ireland. That thoughtful approach to the civic commemoration of those events is a good example of cross-party working, and other work can be based on it.

Clearly, many of these events are significant beyond Northern Ireland, having both a national and international context. They will therefore be marked not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout these islands. The co-ordination of approaches will therefore be crucial if we are to maximise the opportunity not only to build good relations, but to capitalise on the upcoming period’s heritage and cultural tourism potential.

Northern Ireland has a competitive advantage because of the international interest in Ireland and the UK generally, including in its varied culture and history. It also has a strong creative industries and arts sector, and that shared asset is well placed to develop inclusive, high-quality cultural engagement and products around these historic events.

More broadly, Northern Ireland’s attractiveness as a general tourism destination has been boosted significantly by the positive publicity generated by a number of international events—including, most recently, the MTV awards in Belfast. National Geographic Traveller has listed the city as one of the top places to visit in 2012. That accolade comes on the back of TripAdvisor listing Belfast as the best-value UK city break, Lonely Planet encouraging people to visit the city before the rest of the world does and the Financial Times listing it as one of the top 10 places in the world to hold a conference or major event.

The recommendation by National Geographic Traveller reflects the 2012 Titanic centenary. The story of the Titanic creates an almost unrivalled international draw for Belfast, and particularly for my constituency, where so much of the authentic physical heritage linked to the construction of the Titanic is located, and where the construction of the Titanic Signature project is also making rapid progress. The year 2013 will see Derry/Londonderry assume the mantle of UK city of culture, and Northern Ireland will host the World Police and Fire games, which will, again, add to the tourism opportunities for Northern Ireland.

Co-ordination of the commemoration activity throughout these islands, and close collaboration between tourist boards, the arts sector, business and civil society will be necessary to ensure that the cultural, heritage, tourism and related economic benefits of the coming period are maximised and that the tourism legacy created continues to contribute to economic growth beyond the immediate decade.

The coming decade therefore presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity. It will not be easy, and the issues that are raised cut to the core of current divisions, but it would send a very positive message and mark real political progress if a mature, agreed way forward on sensitive issues could be found in Northern Ireland and between the UK and Ireland.

These events present us with an opportunity to move beyond the divisive historical legacy of the period marked by these centenaries and to deliver a watershed transition to a new era of shared history, where the focus shifts increasingly towards healing divisions, building cohesion and addressing our joint economic challenges.

We can respectfully and sensitively mark our shared history but refuse to be held captive by it. That aspiration can be advanced. The UK and Irish Governments have a role to play in that process. The east-west dimension was crucial to the history of the period we are talking about, and it remains important to exploring and commemorating it successfully in the years ahead.

I am grateful to have had an opportunity to raise this matter in Westminster and for the participation of other Northern Ireland MPs in the debate. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response, as I know from my discussions with him and the Secretary of State that the Northern Ireland Office is keen to make progress with others on this decade of positive change.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for her opening speech and congratulate her on securing a debate on this important issue. It will not come as a great surprise that I agree with much of what she said and with the responsible and interesting contributions of all other Members.

We all have different interpretations of history. Too often in Northern Ireland, the celebration of the past has been a cause of division. Respectfully, I submit a challenge to all those with any influence. The biggest challenge with these anniversaries is to recognise the past in a manner that does not cause hurt and does not offend, but that seeks, at least in some small way, to bring people together.

We approach a decade that will witness many important anniversaries, including the centenaries of the Ulster covenant, the battle of the Somme, the Easter rising and the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Each of those events will evoke different images and represent different understandings of our past; that is the reality. However, this decade also affords us an opportunity to come together in a spirit of mutual respect. That is possible; we need look no further than Her Majesty the Queen’s ground-breaking visit to the Republic of Ireland in May. Many people thought that a bridge could not be built over the painful events of the past and the different interpretations of history, but they were wrong. The key is to learn from the past and, as Her Majesty put it,

“to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”

For too long, we have concentrated on our differences as we have sought to acknowledge our history. Yet, if we look at the past, we can see strong evidence of a shared history. Sir Edward Carson, the first person to sign the Ulster covenant, was born in Dublin and educated at Trinity college. James Connolly, who took such a central part in the Easter rising, was born in Edinburgh and served in the British Army for seven years. Willie Redmond, whose brother John was an Irish nationalist leader, died fighting in the first world war at Messines, in Belgium, and I visited his grave there in June. All this shared history has often been kept quiet by those who seek to emphasise differences and divisions.

For our part, the Government feel that some form of recognition is important. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) was recently appointed as the Prime Minister’s special representative to co-ordinate events to mark the centenary of the first world war. Those events will, of course, have particular resonance in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland, given that people from both traditions fought and died alongside one another in the face of a greater oppression.

One hundred years ago, this Parliament witnessed important events that were to shape the lives of future generations, and we are exploring options for marking them in some small way. That is being done in consultation with the Irish Government and all interested parties. To use Her Majesty’s words in Dublin, this will be done in a manner that emphasises the importance of forbearance and conciliation.

Although the UK and Irish Governments must play a significant role in ensuring that we approach this decade in a constructive and complementary manner, the greatest challenge will lie in ensuring that that approach is adopted in Northern Ireland. It is there that the Executive and the mainstream political parties must take the lead in ensuring that those who would seek to undermine the political process do not have the opportunity to do so. Those people oppose forbearance and conciliation and will try to use important anniversaries to further their own regressive agenda. They are the same people who in 2011 try to recreate the worst parts of our history. They do not want to commemorate loss and suffering; they want to create it. They do not want to recognise battles fought 100 years ago; they want to fight them all over again. Those people thrive on the suspicion and mistrust that can come from our different interpretations of history. They should not be allowed to hijack history to suit their own narrow and biased agendas.

As we approach important anniversaries, the greatest weapon we have against those people is tolerance and understanding: tolerance for different but equally valid perspectives on past events and understanding that celebration of those events may offend those with a different perspective. As I stated at the beginning of my speech, I respectfully submit that challenge to all those with influence. It needs real leadership, and we are not short of leadership and courage in Northern Ireland. We are where we are today thanks to the leadership and courage of many brave people. We cannot change history, but we can change how we deal with it and we can do all that we can to ensure that the commemoration or marking of significant events brings people closer together, rather than driving them further apart.

As we move towards a decade of anniversaries, we should think more of commemoration and less of celebration; more of recognition and less of triumphalism—

While we are in the midst of the Government’s preparation for the centenaries, is it not also correct that Northern Ireland should be a vital part of next year’s excellent celebrations for Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee?

I imagine that Her Majesty would want to visit all parts of the United Kingdom in her jubilee year and equally that all parts of the United Kingdom would want to receive Her Majesty and recognise the extraordinary work that she has done on behalf of the nation throughout her rule. The hon. Gentleman will, as a musician, know how dangerous it is to interrupt someone who is reaching his peroration, so if he will forgive me, I shall step back a bit, to try to get back in the mood that I was in before he interrupted me.

As we move towards a decade of anniversaries, we should think more of commemoration and less of celebration; more of recognition and less of triumphalism; and more of mutual understanding and less of mutual mistrust. Our language should be temperate; our ambition should be to educate; and our objective should be to bring people together.

Sitting suspended.