Centenary of Northern Ireland

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 13th April 2021.

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Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 1:00 pm, 13th April 2021

2. Mr Buckley asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the plans in place in recognition of the centenary of Northern Ireland. (AQO 1850/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Thank you for your question. As outlined in previous statements by my Department, we have no plans in place to mark the centenary. However, a £3 million fund to mark the centenary has been set up by the British Government and includes £1 million of funding to be distributed through the National Lottery Heritage Fund, with the NIO in the lead.

That aside, PRONI, in line with its statutory remit, will facilitate access to archival records in its care that are relevant to the centenary by individuals, organisations and the media . PRONI will also launch an A-level educational resource titled ‘Ireland 1900-1925: Crisis, War and Revolution’ in May 2021. It will comprise a range of archival material covering the period, including sources relating to the establishment of the Northern Ireland state and the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament.

Plans have been in place for some time across a number of our arm's-length bodies (ALBs) and other funded organisations to make the centenary. I have asked my officials to write to the Member separately to provide him with an update on their plans.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Sadly, the Minister's answer today confirms verbally what she confirmed to Mr Allister in written format, which is that the Department for Communities will not fund the centenary celebrations in Northern Ireland. Many people in Northern Ireland will rightly view her callous snub of the centenary as a recurrent and running theme in Sinn Féin: first, there was the centenary stone, and, now, a Department that has so much responsibility is not putting forward any funding. When will the Department for Communities — "Communities" plural — step up and respect the cultural aspirations of a significant community in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

There is nothing callous in my approach, and I say that to the Member right now. It is unfortunate that he is trying to use those remarks in terms of the question.

I was extensively involved in the decade of centenaries in Belfast City Council during my time as a councillor. We managed to agree a programme that looked at all the events in the context of one having an impact on another, whether it was the formation of the Northern state or the different perspectives on partition. They are sensitive issues. For some, it is a celebration, but, for others, it is an event that has negative connotations. We need to be responsible and sensitive in how we address all the issues. I would prefer us to do that by sitting down collectively as an Executive. It is not just my responsibility as Communities Minister; we need to approach the issues sensibly. We need to look at all the events in their widest context, how one has an impact on another and how we then communicate that to the public.

We live in a contested society. We see issues emerging at our interfaces as things rupture. Anything that we do when looking at all the issues has to be planned and considered. As I said, my experience in Belfast City Council was that that worked well. All the political parties, most of which are represented in this Chamber, sat down in a coordinated and structured way to plan events. That has not happened. The NIO, of course, is running forward with events. Some of my arm's-length bodies, such as PRONI, are doing events. However, if we are serious about looking back at the past and learning from that in terms of building forward for the young people whom we saw on the streets of Belfast and beyond over the past week, we need to be mature about it rather than saying that we are acting callously. We need to look at all the issues in the round in terms of how they reflect across the community. Of course, the centenary is held dearly by some people —

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

— in our society, but there is also the issue of partition —

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

— and its ramifications. We need to look at all of that in the round.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Several other Members are listed. I ask Members to be direct in their questions and the Minister to be direct in her answers; otherwise, this may well take up the entirety of Question Time.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Following on from the Minister's answer, does she agree that many people in the North find nothing to celebrate about partition and what followed it and that it is important that any centenary events reflect the different narratives of the past here?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

We have a layered and complex history, and we have a responsibility to lead. Obviously, we come from a contested and divided society. We are trying to build reconciliation and give our young people hope for the future. Those historic events could cause issues to rupture again. We need to do it sensitively and collectively. We need to look at how the issues knit into one another and have an impact on communities as a whole. I am willing to engage in such a process, and I ask others to do the same.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The title that the Minister holds in the House is "Minister for Communities". She knows that, for the unionist community, the centenary of Northern Ireland is very important. However, consciously and deliberately, she did not seek one penny for her Department's budget. It does not have money for unionist community groups —

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— or organisations that want to celebrate the centenary.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Order. I appreciate the depth of feeling around these issues. Mr Buckley tabled his question, and I gave him some leeway. The entirety of Question Time will be taken up by this issue if we have long preambles to questions. I appreciate that this is a sensitive and important issue, but it is important that questions and answers are short, sharp and focused.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 1:15 pm, 13th April 2021

On this issue, when is the Minister going to start being the Minister for all communities and not just the Minister for the Sinn Féin community, despite her pious words?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

First, we are in a decade of centenaries, and I have not brought forward proposals on any of the issues. The NIO, under the auspices of the British Government, has given a commitment to mark the centenary of the formation of this state. As I said, I would have preferred a programme that looked at all the centenaries holistically. My focus as Minister for Communities is on delivering vital services right across the community, be they in Sandy Row, Donegall Pass, the Market, where I live, Springfield Road or the Shankill. My focus is on issues such as housing, inequality and the income that people have. That is certainly where my focus has been over the past year, and it has particularly been on addressing issues relating to the pandemic. That has been done right across the community, because I see it as one community that may have different traditions. My focus, however, has been on delivering for all those communities, and I think that many in the Chamber and outside it will accept that I have done that in a respectful manner.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister very much for her comments so far, and, indeed, I welcome the remarks made by the deputy First Minister about HRH Prince Philip, which were much respected by our community and, indeed, across Northern Ireland. In view of that, in the spirit of reconciliation, can she and her party not see a way forward to agreeing to having even just a centenary stone here in the grounds of Stormont? Agreeing to that would say just as much.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

As I have said before, and as you as a party leader will know, we all have a responsibility to look at the community as a whole. We are coming from a divided society, and we know that anything around symbols can cause tension. I think that the best way and the mature way is for the parties to sit down collectively. I know that my party is willing to do that, and I am willing to do that as a Minister. We need to sit down and address the issues so that everyone feels that their issues and what is important to them are addressed in a collective manner.

I have given a good example of how that was done on Belfast City Council, where we looked at the issues of home rule, the covenant and the 1916 rising and then started to look at the more recent centenaries that were approaching. That was done in a collective way, with the principles of looking at all the issues, and I think that that is the best way forward. It has been practised on Belfast City Council, and the sky did not fall in. Every party around that table that is represented in this Chamber welcomed the approach that was taken.

If people are serious about looking at the whole community and about looking at the aspirations of individual identities and needs, sit down collectively around the table. Sit down and work. I am willing to do that to look at all the events, because the centenary is important for a good section of the community here, but so too is looking at the issue of partition and the ramifications that that had. Again, I accept that people will have different perspectives on that, but let us sit down and see how we can mark all those events collectively rather than trying to rip each other down. What example is that sending out to the young people who were out on the streets of Belfast and beyond over the past few weeks? We need to be seen to be providing leadership on those issues, and I would welcome that. That leadership has to come from across the Chamber and from all the Executive parties, and I will play my part in that.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I appreciate that the Minister and others do not wish to recognise the centenary, but is this not a lost opportunity to look forward for all in Northern Ireland by perhaps investing in youth and doing so in the name of NI100? For me, the centenary is about looking forward, and there is a real opportunity to do that. For all the issues that the Minister has raised, I think that we have to look at how we unite Northern Ireland moving forward. There is an opportunity to do that through NI100.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

First, I do recognise the centenary. I recognise that it is a historic event that happened that still has an impact on our society here today, on what way you look at that society and on what your hopes are going forward. My view is that partition happened and that it was a reality that also had an impact. We need to look at all those issues in the round. We need to address and organise programmes that can be bought into right across our communities and across society and to do that in a coordinated and structured way. If we do not, it becomes a free-for-all, a fight and an argument. I do not think that that is good for young people or for society as a whole.

I have seen, in good practice, how it has worked. We need to look at examples such as those that I have cited and build on them in the time ahead. However, that involves all parties in the Assembly. Are they willing to buy into that? Are they willing to sign up to principles that look at all those events from the varying perspectives? I attended covenant events, and I attended dinners to mark the battle of the Somme and other events. Some people chose not to do that at that time. That is the type of responsible conversation and leadership that we need. I am willing to engage. The question is whether everybody else is.