Centenary of Northern Ireland

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 4th May 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 4th May 2021

Mr Jim Allister has been given leave to make a statement on the centenary of Northern Ireland, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their place and continue to do so. All Members who are called shall have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has finished.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Yesterday marked the centenary of Northern Ireland as a separate political and legal entity within the United Kingdom. Therefore, it also marked the centenary of the United Kingdom in the form that we currently know it. That, for many of us, is an occasion for considerable thankfulness and celebration.

Northern Ireland came into existence and continues to exist because of the will of its people. That is despite external and internal aggression. Externally, of course, for decades, our nearest southern neighbour overtly claimed our territory and allowed its territory to be used to facilitate the launch of terrorist attacks, and, internally, of course, we have had the besetting of vicious terrorism.

Northern Ireland is, indeed, a triumph of democracy over terrorism. Having faced all that vicious terrorism, I want today to salute the memory of the many who selflessly gave their life to stand between the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland and the evildoers in our midst.

Of course, Northern Ireland has also been subjected to relentless insult and vilification, including by those who tell us what the standards of respect are that are expected of us all, but Northern Ireland is still here and is flourishing as part of the United Kingdom. Scholars, sportsmen, inventors, generals, captains of industry, leaders in medicine: we have proudly produced them all and much more besides. I am proud of Northern Ireland. I am proud to call it home.

Looking forward, as in the past, we cannot be complacent to the threat that faces us. Vigilance served us in the past. Vigilance will serve us in the future, along with the determination to defeat any threat that comes along, including the current threat of the iniquitous protocol.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

That determination against —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— those who want to see us overcome and who wish the Province ill —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

— from within and without.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

It is with immense pride and joy that I stand in the House today to welcome and mark the centenary of the country that I love and cherish. Undoubtedly, Northern Ireland means a lot of different things to many people, but one thing that we, regardless of community background, can all take huge pride in is its people. Be it in war, on the sporting field, in civic society, in industry or in medicine, Northern Ireland has punched well above its weight across the world. I am proud to call this place home, and I recognise that it is a shared home place.

I look forward to the next century with optimism. As the youngest unionist in this place, I am not oblivious to the threats that face the union and face Northern Ireland. As a young unionist with hope, I look forward to the next interesting time in our lives and in the development of this country, but I must mark and recognise the huge contribution and sacrifice of so many. Today, I think about my great-uncle Bobby Crozier, who was killed by a terrorist act at Glenanne army camp as he donned the uniform to protect its citizens. Today, I think about the many families of those who donned the uniform to defend this nation and ensure that we could reach this historic milestone in our nation's life. Their sacrifice is not in vain, and I pledge to them, in their memory, to their families and, indeed, to the community that I represent that I will do all within my power to make sure that this place prospers in the next century and that it is seen and recognised as a welcoming place for those who may not share my community background or history.

Northern Ireland is a place that we can all rightly call home. Northern Ireland is a place that should be welcoming to all. That is the spirit in which I look to the next 100 years. I look to it with positivity, and I invite colleagues, yes, to reflect on the past but to look forward with optimism and to mark the centenary with the respect that it deserves.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Quite clearly, there will be different perspectives on the events of 100 years ago, and it would be quite easy to rise to the bait of Mr Allister's usual angry performance.

However, we have to reflect on what those 100 years have meant to all who live on this island and, indeed, across these islands and on what the future will look like. Mr Buckley's comments on the future were important. He is the youngest unionist in the House, and we need a vision for the young people and the not-so-young people who live on this island.

Ireland was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act. In my opinion, which many share, that was the wrong thing to do to Ireland. It created division, and it created a state that systematically discriminated against a large proportion of its citizens. It created laws such as the Special Powers Act that were the envy of the apartheid South African regime. That is not democracy.

We can look forward, I think, to a new future. The Government of Ireland Act was repealed as part of the Good Friday Agreement, and the Good Friday Agreement is why we all sit here today and why we share power today. Of course, we still have our differences. We have our differences about what the future will hold, but I am confident that the future will be different from the past, both in how the past was created and in how it was enforced. I believe that democracy, that much-used word, will create a new beginning on the island of Ireland, where Protestant and Dissenter can live alongside the Catholic and the nationalist and all of those other traditions that are coming forward and that a new Ireland will be a home place to us all. I do not know what that new Ireland will look like, but I firmly believe that we now have the mechanisms in place to ensure that it is a shared place, that the mistakes of the past can be learned from and that the generation of Mr Buckley and those in the Chamber who may be slightly greyer in the head will have a better time.

I will end on this note. A young republican said to me a number of years ago, "We will be the generation that lives for Ireland. No more should any generation die for Ireland". That has to be the ambition for us all.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

We talk a lot about history in this place, perhaps a little too much. It is probably fair to say that we definitely talk about it too much. It is, however, the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Government of Ireland Act, the partition of Ireland and the creation of the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, all of which were, clearly, historically significant moments. They were part of a decade of disruption on the island of Ireland that began in 1912. The decade of centenaries will run right through to the centenary of the conclusion of the Irish civil war. That decade 100 years ago brought about enormous disruption.

Rather than seeking to score points from history, it is important to set out and acknowledge two broad truths about the partition of Ireland. The first is that the disruption that took place as a result of the Government of Ireland Act was, in part, a reflection of the fact that a substantial minority of people on the island did not feel that they wanted to be part of, first, a home rule Ireland and, secondly, an independent Ireland. The second truth is that the partition of Ireland was, in my view and certainly that of my party, not the best way of reacting to that dissent. It created what was for a very long time a deeply unjust state. It would therefore be wrong to mark this day without acknowledging both of those truths: there was a substantial minority in this part of the island with a distinct identity, but the jurisdiction created by partition was deeply unjust and, indeed, the act of partition severed many families, communities and geographies in a way that is regrettable and traumatic to this day.

You only have to go to the west bank of the River Foyle in the city of Derry. It is sometimes forgotten that the city side of Derry is all on the Inishowen peninsula, and what surrounds it is both a wide river, the River Foyle, and an international border. While acknowledging the distinctness of this part of Ireland, it is also necessary for us to acknowledge the deep hurt that was caused by partition. However, that is history. As Mr O'Dowd said, what we in this place should be about is making the present better and building a better future. That is the only future for people on this island, particularly in this part of Ireland, whatever your constitutional preference.

My constitutional preference, and that of my party, is that we, on the basis of reconciliation, remove the border on the island of Ireland. However, any of us with a constitutional preference, whether to maintain the Union with the United Kingdom or to remove the border in Ireland, can do so only on the basis of reconciliation, mutual respect and sharing this place. That should be the lesson of our history, and the lesson that we all take forward as we build the future.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 10:45 am, 4th May 2021

I thank Mr Allister for bringing this Matter of the Day to the Assembly.

Today marks the first day of our next century. It should be a century of pride, because we can take a lot of pride in what we have achieved. There is a lot to commemorate and to reflect on.

Yesterday, I spent the morning at a church service, which was quite remarkable in that it was led by someone from what I call the "new Northern Ireland". The minister is from Scandinavia, and she sees herself very much as part of this new Northern Ireland. The music director — I declare an interest here — was my wife, and she is American. The whole church service was not about fear or anything like that. It was about hope for the future. It was interesting to speak to some of the younger people who were at the service. I asked them how they viewed Northern Ireland, and they said that they were very happy with the way it is. There are things wrong with Northern Ireland, but there are things wrong all over the place — with the Irish Republic, Europe and the United States.

When you sit back and think about it, Northern Ireland is not a bad place to be. We have so much opportunity, and we have the greatest natural resource of all: our people. Yes, our people need to be looked after. We need a proper health service, which we are trying to build, and an education system that educates our children together rather than separately. We need an economy based on the future, which deals with the challenges that we will face as a result of climate change and other issues. We must grab the opportunities for things like fintech and other new emerging technologies. We can do that.

This is a time for hope. We should all look forward confidently together and do that in a manner in which we all work closely with one another. That is what the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was all about: transforming Northern Ireland and getting ready for the future.

We can look back on all sorts of things and say that we did not want to see such things. I could use Her Majesty's words to express that. However, our most important task, as an Assembly and as politicians, is to look confidently to the future and the next 100 years. Let us make Northern Ireland work for everybody.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

As Northern Ireland hits its 100th anniversary, I respect the fact that there are many perspectives on that in society and in the Chamber.

I love Northern Ireland and consider it my home, but I want to build a future based on respect and reconciliation. What makes Northern Ireland unique is its people. I am so proud of the people who make up Northern Ireland. That is what makes me happy to call the place home. However, I recognise the history of this place and that, at far too many times, people did not feel at home, and discrimination was prevalent. That discrimination affected many people, including members of my family. I am conscious of that and also of the hurt that was caused to many as a result of the violence in our past.

As we look over the last 100 years, it is important that we take learnings from the past, which will enable us to consider and appreciate different viewpoints. Some of the events that have been organised recently by your office, Mr Speaker, have been very worthwhile, and I commend you for organising them. The BBC has a podcast, 'Year '21', which I found very useful. We can benefit from engaging with and learning from our past.

As other Members said, the Queen issued a statement yesterday, which, for me, was very welcome. It follows on from the call made by King George V at the opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament many years ago. He called on people:

"to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation".

As we look to the future, that future must be based firmly on reconciliation. President Higgins said recently:

"The whole purpose is not to allow some event of the past have the capacity to disable you in the present and remove options for the future from you."

That is so true.

Northern Ireland society has drastically changed. It is a wonderful rainbow of minorities and a great society to be part of. The future, however, must be about continuing that progress, which must be about being an open, welcoming and more equal place that attracts and retains people, talent and jobs. We have it in our gift to create that future society, which is about celebrating and embracing diversity. I encourage everyone to grasp it.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

People Before Profit does not support the idea that the centenary of partition is something to be celebrated. Everything in the North is pitched within the binary framework of the two traditions, where people are expected to be either unionist or nationalist. As a James Connolly socialist, I firmly reject that narrative. While some may want to, we are not about sitting on the fence when faced with so-called divisive issues; we are about kicking down fences and challenging division, and that necessitates challenging partition.

Partition was a reactionary and undemocratic development that was used to thwart progressive and revolutionary change in Ireland. Look at the history of partition: it was undemocratically imposed on Ireland and backed by sectarianism and the widespread use of violence. That included having battalions of the British Army here, sectarian policing, the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries to ensure unionist power and a deep level of discrimination against the minority nationalist community in housing, jobs and the democratic franchise.

Of course, it is worth remembering that, in the aftermath of partition, many radical Protestants were expelled from the workforce, as they were deemed to be a threat to the state. Such was the nature of the injustices enshrined in the Northern state that it took mass upheaval through peaceful protest to challenge discrimination. The civil rights movement in the late 1960s was, of course, met with violence and repression by the unionist Government and the British military, creating the context for a sustained period of violence.

As James Connolly said it would, partition created a "carnival of reaction" on both sides of the border: in the South, a state based on the oppressive power of the Catholic Church that locked women up; and, in the North, an orange state in the image of the Unionist Party and the Orange Order. Partition created permanent divisions that have been cynically exploited by elites on both sides of the border to keep workers and ordinary people in their place. Partition has firmly held back progress on both sides of the border.

We want to learn from history for sure, but we are not for celebrating the anniversary of partition. We want to see a socialist Ireland based on equality, justice and solidarity, where there is a world without borders and without imperialist war. It is true to say that the old world is dying and the new world is fighting to be born. In that fight, our party will be a socialist voice for challenging both states, North and South, in the interests of working-class people across the board.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

It is ironic to be lectured about the creation of a new world by someone who, I suspect, regrets the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I will speak briefly about previous generations and then move on to talk about what we can do for future generations. I place on the record of the House my appreciation of the generation that created this state, the generation led by men such as Edward Carson and James Craig and that contributed to the victory of this country in the Great War at the Battle of the Somme. They are the founding fathers of Northern Ireland, and my children are full United Kingdom citizens because of the contribution of that generation. I will skip a generation and talk about the generation that kept the Atlantic open during the Second World War, that endured the blitz of this city and that made a contribution to the defeat of Hitlerism and fascism. Skipping forward another generation in the history of this country, I pay tribute to those who endured with bravery and stoicism the violent campaign of the Troubles, whether serving in the police, the armed forces or in any public service that kept this place going.

I was thinking about this the other day: my children will find it bizarre when I tell them that my mother had her bags searched when she went into Primark. Primark was on the news, and I was thinking that so much had happened in the history of this country that my children — all our children — will think, "How on earth did you live through that?". We did, and we endured.

Going forward to this generation, it is important that we commit ourselves to working together to make this place work. That is why I found it very disappointing that a party-political banner was erected on the side of a block of flats and pointed in the direction of a unionist community. That was nothing more than a calculated insult, and it is not within the spirit of the statement that the Queen issued when she said:

"Across generations, the people of Northern Ireland are choosing to build an inclusive, prosperous, and hopeful society, strengthened by the gains of the peace process."

It is our job and the job of all elected to this place to build that society, to make this place work and to pass it on better to the next generation.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Jonathan Buckley said that he was the youngest unionist, but, looking around, I think that I am the oldest nationalist here

[Laughter.]

A Member:

What about Jim?

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am not going to call Jim anything close to a nationalist.

I want to follow on from Matthew. As a young man of maybe 22, I made my first sortie into Belfast to buy a little bar called the Liverpool Bar. The bar used to close when the two ships — either the Ulster Prince or the Ulster Queen — left for Liverpool. However, on those first days, I remember coming from the country. It was only 18 miles away, but Belfast was a different place from what it is now. People came to take the cheap ferry boat to Australia, and hundreds left every night. I saw them crying on Donegal Quay because they thought that they would never see their loved ones or family again as they were leaving this place.

As I said, I worked during the Troubles, as they were called, and I made a good living for myself and my family in Northern Ireland. This is my home, just as everyone else has said it is their home. I was born into this home, but there were problems. We cannot deny the problems that we had. We have inflicted hurt and pain on each other, and that is a pity — what a pity. I heard Mr Stalford talk about keeping the Atlantic open, and, as I have said before, my father's younger brother was blown up off the coast of Tenerife. We have a shared history. I love traditional Irish music, I love the song, and I love my Irish language: that should be shared. No one should own it; it belongs to every one of us. It was given to us by our Presbyterian forefathers, who wrote down the music and lyrics of the blind harper that we can still play and recite today.

I believe that Northern Ireland was born out of an undemocratic situation. The majority of Irish people — 78% — voted in favour of home rule, the agreed principle of that vote. The next line, for me as a democrat, was the Good Friday Agreement; it contains all our truths and all the things that we share. We should be the generation that bends over backwards to accept and work with that document to make it work for us, our children and our children's children, and that should be our pledge.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I appreciate the opportunity that the Assembly has taken to mark the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland. It has been a period when we have had many good, positive things and many people who have excelled.

Harry Ferguson was a great inventor. My dad bought a farm off him many years ago, and it is something that we really cherish. Poets such as Seamus Heaney, writers such as C. S. Lewis, actors such as Liam Neeson, footballers such as George Best and Pat Jennings, snooker players such as Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor and motorcycle racers such as Joey Dunlop and young Jonathan Rea have all demonstrated that Northern Ireland people can achieve greatness. They have made great contributions here and in many other parts of the world.

I am a proud Northern Ireland man. All of its people are tremendous, friendly, kind and caring people. The scourge of the Troubles, which was inflicted for 25 years, was a disaster for Northern Ireland and for everyone in Northern Ireland. Not one of the bullets fired in the Troubles was justified. No one deserved to lose their life, and we can never return to that.

Let us look forward to a further 100 years. Others will achieve greatness, but hundreds, thousands and millions of our people will continue to be caring and loving people who are generous to others in need. Northern Ireland has had many great things to show and has many great things to come. We can move forward confidently and in a way that will ensure that people who have many benefits from being part of the United Kingdom and of that great Union will continue to have those benefits, which are not available elsewhere. We need to recognise that they are not available elsewhere and that doing anything other than being in this great Union will ensure that people will have less disposable income, less access to free healthcare and so many other things.

I am confident of a bright future for Northern Ireland within the Union. I celebrate the 100 years that we have had and look forward to leaving a Northern Ireland that is a great place for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 4th May 2021

That concludes the debate on the Matter of the Day. Members, please take your ease for a moment.