May 3rd 2021 marks one hundred years since Northern Ireland pressed itself into the fabric of the world. And to the day one hundred years on it still exists, yet its future still remains uncertain.
The Government of Ireland Act 1920 will go down as one of the most important, pieces of legislation in British and Irish history respectively. That which had once been a single Ireland united under the British Crown, was now divided into two lands with an ever more inseparable history and future to share.
Whilst the history of this small part of the world is well-known to everyone not least in Ireland and the country’s diaspora abroad, what I am more interested in is the present.
In the week the Literific Society at Queen’s University debated a ‘United Ireland’, I interviewed students from across Northern Ireland to find out what they thought about this ‘wee country’ in its present state and how they thought it would manifest itself in the future. I asked them about their concerns, their hopes about the country they call home.
Whilst I wasn’t sure what I was going to find from these interviews, I can certainly admit that what I did find was fascinating. From shared disillusions to contrasting hopes, it’s fair to say that Northern Ireland’s future remains, sadly, unclear, as it did in 1921.
With the weight of Brexit looming over the region as this part of Europe emerges from the Covid-19 era of isolation, decimation and misinformation, it’s fair to say Stormont’s next leaders have a lot on their plate.
For the sake of privacy, two interviewees will remain anonymous but are happy to have their studies made public. The two anonymous students will be referred to as Person A & Person B. The first thing I asked all four was a simple question, “Focusing on the present day, what do you think about Northern Ireland?”
Their responses differed considerably. Matthew, a 20 year old student from Ulster University, told me he thought Northern Ireland was a nice place to live. He did, however, also feel that there were definitely some underlying issues. Matthew believed that the Green vs Orange rhetoric, still staining Stormont politics, sewed a division that wasn’t necessary and acted as a barrier to progression; “Once that mindset of Green vs Orange is taken out of the North”, he told me, “We’ll truly progress for the better.”
Person A, a 20 year old student at Queen’s University, responded comically with, “Harland & Wolff.” Once the shared laughter of this moment had passed, I pressed them for an actual answer. Interestingly two things came up as a concern for them. The first, in agreement with Matthew, was the Green vs Orange rhetoric in Stormont. The second, however, came as more of a surprise to me. They told me that what they were focused on was the upcoming 2021 census. Person A explained to me that young adults from the Nationalist community were more likely to stay in Northern Ireland whilst those from the Unionist community “tend to move to [Great Britain]” for their education or careers.
Whilst Person A refused to express their position on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, they felt it was certainly an important matter to focus on. The results of the U.K.-wide Census are set to be published in 2022. For those unaware, it is census data, amongst other things, which is used to determine whether there is an appetite for a Border Poll, which if successful for nationalists Northern Ireland would leave the United Kingdom.
What I found interesting about these answers, though perhaps as a reader you disagree with me, is how similar yet also different they were. You see, I had expected Green vs Orange rhetoric to come up; it’s something I myself am not a fan of. Yet the focus on the future, whilst being asked about the present, caught my attention.
Whilst I’ve considered Belfast to be a place of hopefulness and forward thinking since I was a boy crossing the Irish Sea every summer, I wasn’t quite expecting the future to be the knee-jerk response to a question about the present. This certainly suggests to me that students in Northern Ireland are more concerned with where we are going than where we are presently.
However, not all students were on the same page.
In contrast to Mr. Cullen and Person A, two other interviewees also shared in a similar answer and accompanied it with a difference in meaning.
I asked 19 year old Ulster University student, Alexandra, what she thought about Northern Ireland today. Her answer was very simple, “We’re a long way off where we should be”. Similarly, Person B, a student at Queen’s University, told observed, “We were promised a lot more”.
Both students agreed with one another that they felt Northern Ireland had made progress since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and expressed their belief that the social progress Northern Ireland has made was also something to be proud of.
Their differences, however?
Alexandra told me she felt that Northern Ireland was still stuck in the sectarian mud. Meanwhile, Person B said that Northern Ireland was becoming worryingly closer to a United Ireland which they felt Good Friday “was meant to avoid”. When pressed further on the point of the present day Northern Ireland, in great contrast to Mr. Cullen and Person A, the two interviewees focused on the past. Alexandra told me she felt, “John Hume wouldn’t be pleased.” At first I thought this historical reference was my interviewing introduction to the Green vs Orange politics, but in fact Alexandra confirmed to me that she was “straight down the middle” when it came to communal politics. Person B, similarly to Person A, refused entirely to express any confirmation of their political leanings, but instead informed me that the Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of compromise.
They told me they felt that the Peace Process was a recognition of two things: the Irish dimension was to be brought in but that the British community would also rightly maintain their place within the Union. This comment once again reaffirmed the stark contrast of their responses. I found it fascinating that the two shared a common theme; history. It wasn’t that Northern Ireland’s present was something enjoyable, but it was not what previous generations had sought after.
Perhaps this set of interviews suggests that not all students in Northern Ireland were as interested in the future as others. It is possible that some people are still holding the promises of previous generations to account.
Personally, I’ve always thought that the best thing for anyone is to focus on their future; seek out whatever it is they want and wherever it is they’re going. To be a Cloud 9 dreamer with one foot firmly still on the ground. But these interviews in particular have shown me that maybe my beliefs need rethinking.
All in all, I found these interviews interesting. They showed me that there’s no clear measurement on what modern day Northern Ireland is. To some its a matter of what it could be and to others what they think it should be. After reading through my notes and reviewing the interviewees responses, something stuck with me. I thought about where this island was when the Government of Ireland Act came into force. For some it was a place of simplicity and for others the seat of conflict.
On May 2nd 1921, they all went to sleep in a divided, yet united, Ireland under the Crown. But on May 3rd 1921, many woke up the citizens of a civil war state and others the subjects of that same old Crown. Whilst it seems obvious, it’s still incredible to me to observe the changes that have occurred and continue to advance in this part of the world.
If you think about England one hundred years ago, or France and Germany for that matter, you’d be common in thinking about the First World War or the beginning of the Roaring 20’s.
But if you think about Northern Ireland, it was a newly birthed country, internally divided along communal lines, with no idea of the turbulent future it was about to embark upon. But with the discussion on the present over, it’s time to look to the future.
The Gown & 100 Years of Northern Ireland
Peter Donnelly, Editor
The Gown will continue to feature articles on the centenary of Northern Ireland and invites students and young people across Northern Ireland to submit their views on the progress the region has made over the past 100 years.
Queen’s University and BBC Northern Ireland are collaborating on a joint project to remember the centenary from a range of academic perspectives. You can read more about this initiative here, which is sponsored by the British and Irish Governments as well as the British Academy and Royal Irish Academy.
All text accompanying images within this article are attributed to the Editor.