Northern Ireland marks 100 years, divided

Belfast, United Kingdom: Northern Ireland marks its 100th year on Monday, but faltering efforts to commemorate the centenary encapsulate the rift at the heart of the British province.

Ever since Ireland was freed from British rule in 1921, Northern Ireland's existence has been controversial, and the knot in an often bloody tug-of-war between warring factions.

The province's troubled past, fragile present, and uncertain future are endlessly disputed between pro-UK unionists and republicans who favor union with Ireland.

But the zero-sum contest is heating up again, in part due to Brexit.

"The centenary of Northern Ireland is, by its very nature, divisive, and it can't be anything but divisive," said Jonathan Evershed, a researcher at University College Cork.

"There is simply no way of commemorating Northern Ireland in a way that is reconciliatory or inclusive," he told AFP.

100 years of strife

Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921 when the island of Ireland was split in two following the Irish war for independence.

Northern Ireland had a powerful Protestant pro-UK majority but a large demographic of pro-Ireland Catholics seeking shared destiny with a new free Irish state, which eventually became a full republic.

To this day, republicans often call Northern Ireland "the north of Ireland" and refer to the creation of the province as "partition" -- nodding to deeply held beliefs about an illegitimately imposed border.

Northern Irish republicans -- also known as nationalists -- often fly the Irish tricolor flag from their homes, a signal they identify as citizens of Ireland occupied by a foreign power.

On the other side, unionists pepper their enclaves with Union Jack flags, murals to Britain's royal family and the UK armed forces -- signifiers of a bond with mainland Great Britain.

This is the profound rift at the heart of Northern Ireland -- a war over whether it should, or even does, legitimately exist, and which sparked 30 years of bitter sectarian conflict known as "The Troubles".

Some 3,500 lives were lost before a 1998 peace accord and though violence has waned, the division remains in a tug-of-war contest to edge the province closer to Ireland or to the UK.

In this context, each side's gain is the other side's loss -- sustaining a bitter cycle of political enmity and recrimination.

"Partition and the legitimacy of Northern Ireland are what conflict in Northern Ireland is about, and views on this are irreconcilably opposed," said Evershed.


Britain's Northern Ireland Office promised centenary celebrations will "highlight the strength and beauty of the diverse perspectives and identities" in the province and the rest of the UK.

But the events are necessarily founded on the premise that Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state.

One planned event is for a "centenary rose" to be "presented to Her Majesty the Queen for her own garden" -- a prospect unlikely to delight fervent republicans.

The programme does include olive-branch events intended to fold in support from the nationalist community, including a cross-denominational church service and the foundation of an inclusive "shared history fund".

But the two main republican parties in Northern Ireland -- Sinn Fein and the SDLP -- boycotted a planning forum for events.

"There will be no celebration of partition which has failed the people of this island," said Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, last year.

Conversely, some unionists seemingly unsatisfied with the UK government's neutral rhetoric have set up a celebration committee with "a roadmap towards the next 100 years of Northern Ireland".

"Unionists and nationalists have different understandings of the past -- they commemorate different things, and do so differently –- because they have conflicting visions of the political future," said Evershed.

Future at stake

The centenary also comes at a time when Northern Ireland's future is ever more uncertain, and ever more hotly contested.

Unionists have lost their historic grips on regional and national parliamentary power while Britain's departure from the European Union has radically altered the international status of Northern Ireland.

When a post-Brexit transition period ended in January a new "protocol" for the province came into place, with checks at ports keeping it effectively in the EU customs union and single market for goods.

Rioting broke out in early April, emanating from the unionist community and among more hardcore loyalists where many feel the protocol endangers their identity.

First Minister Arlene Foster announced her resignation last week.

"Northern Ireland's centenary is, I think, quite an unhappy one," said Evershed.

"Unionism greets the centenary of a state built in its own image but in which it no longer feels... secure, while republicans are forced to confront that a border they have opposed for 100 years still exists."

Petrol bombs, police patrols

Two weeks before Northern Ireland's 100th anniversary, black smoke from a burning roadblock billowed into the Belfast sky, signalling the deep divisions overshadowing the province's centenary landmark.

As hooded youths hurled masonry, weary riot police poured out of rusty armoured Land Rovers to form ranks.

All sides know their roles in this well-versed piece of street theatre, which provides the backdrop to the 100 years of the divided British province.

Scenes of unrest returned last month to the streets of Northern Ireland, the former battleground of "The Troubles" where tempers are fraying over Brexit and other tectonic political shifts.

At least 88 officers have been injured in clashes emanating from pro-UK loyalist enclaves, angry with a post-Brexit "protocol" they feel is casting them adrift from mainland Britain.

"All generations are angry and frustrated at what's going on," said David McNarry, of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).

"This damn protocol is a European invention (to) take away my Britishness," he told AFP in central Belfast, a heavy trace of emotion in his voice.

Communities facing off

Violence has been focused at "interfaces" -- where loyalist and pro-Ireland nationalist areas butt up against one another.

Towering "peace walls" separate the communities, crisscrossing the Belfast landscape, a reminder of the divisions that remain even after "The Troubles" ended in 1998.

The latest violence saw loyalist youths face off with police who were preventing their advance towards a gate in the barrier.

In the early evening on April 19, teens covered their faces and scrambled for bricks and stones to throw.

A mother pushing a pram scooted her child out of the way as a small gang charged a police Land Rover, climbing on the bonnet, prying off a wing mirror and pulling at locked door handles.

Police on the frontline remained inside their vehicles -- their windscreens and sirens covered in metal grid-work that parried the worst of the debris.

Early in the evening, a switch pressed by an unseen hand slammed shut the gates in the "peace walls", completely sealing the neighbourhoods off from each other.

A convoy of police vehicles pulled in from a side street, parking in practised formation to block the road to the gates.

The ranks of riot police wielding batons and shields quelled the worst of the violence, for one night at least.

The unrest paled in comparison to clashes earlier in the month, when water cannon and dog units waged a running battle with gangs throwing petrol bombs and fireworks.

Loyalist and nationalist youths faced off in a night of violence that shocked the UK and left the area by the peace gates charred and pockmarked.

A teddy bear has since been hung on the gates with a hopeful handwritten dedication: "Peace for our children's future."

Siege mentality

Against this backdrop, it is hard to imagine a "happy birthday" for Northern Ireland.

Unionists and nationalists fervently disagree about the legitimacy of the region, both contest its future, and both feel under siege.

On nationalist Bombay Street, a whole row of terraced houses built in the shadow of the peace wall have caged gardens.

Looking out of their back windows, residents see a slanting metal fence designed to stop rocks and bottles pelting their homes.

The British government has promised events around the anniversary on Monday will be sensitive to all traditions.

But when both sides live a bunkered existence, there is little prospect of a shared celebration.

"That will not happen here," said one resident on the nationalist side of the peace wall.

"(Their tradition) is the only one that matters, not ours," she said, gesturing towards her unionist counterparts who feel much the same.

Timeline: 100 years of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland came into being on May 3, 1921 as Ireland became independent from Britain and was split between pro-Ireland nationalists and pro-UK unionists, who hold the most power.

'The Troubles' begin

On August 12, 1969, "The Troubles" begin with sectarian fighting in Londonderry between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. Two days later, British troops are deployed.

In December, pro-Catholic nationalist paramilitary, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) is formed.

British security forces start interning prisoners without trial in 1971 -- 342 nationalists suspected of terror activity are immediately detained. Interrogation techniques used on prisoners have since been described as torture.

British soldiers shoot dead 14 at a peaceful nationalist protest in Londonderry on January 30, 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. British prime minister David Cameron later calls it "both unjustified and unjustifiable".

In March, the regional government in Belfast is suspended and Britain takes over "direct rule" of the province in an attempt to restore order.

Talks between British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in December 1973 result in the Sunningdale Agreement, which pushes for a power-sharing government but the short-lived project is brought down a few months later by a general strike among unionists.

Violence intensifies

May 17, 1974 marks the deadliest day in "The Troubles", with 34 killed in four bombings by unionist paramilitaries in the Irish capital, Dublin, and border town of Monaghan.

On August 27, 1979, 18 British troops are killed by the IRA in twin bombings at Warrenpoint -- the deadliest attack on the army in the conflict.

Simultaneously, the IRA kills the cousin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Lord Louis Mountbatten, by bombing his boat off the west coast of Ireland.

Republican prisoners begin a high profile series of hunger strikes in 1982, seeking special political status. Bobby Sands is the first of 10 to die in the strikes, which generate international sympathy and are regarded as a propaganda victory for republicans.

Moves to peace

In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement is signed, confirming Northern Ireland's status will not change without the consent of a majority of citizens.

Secret peace talks are revealed in 1993 between John Hume, the leader of moderate republican party, the SDLP, and Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's then-political wing Sinn Fein. The talks laid the foundation for peace and Hume would be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his role.

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement ends "The Troubles". Paramilitaries agree to decommission weapons and Northern Irish residents can choose British or Irish citizenship, or both. A cross-community, power-sharing regional government is established.

In August, a car bomb in Omagh kills 29 people and two unborn children in the largest loss of life in a single incident in "The Troubles". The bombing is carried out by a splinter republican group opposed to the peace process, but the scenes draw condemnation from mainstream republicans now devoted to peace.

Towards Brexit

The last British troops leave the province in 2007, ending a 38-year operation that remains the longest in UK military history.

Britain votes to leave the European Union in 2016, but 56 percent in Northern Ireland vote to remain in the bloc.

Talks to deliver Brexit stall on Northern Ireland, with fears that new checkpoints on the border with EU member Ireland will be targets for dissident republican paramilitaries.

Unionists lose their parliamentary majority at the devolved assembly of Stormont for the first time in 2017.

Two years later, a British general election returns more nationalist than unionist politicians in Northern Ireland -- another first.

On January 31, 2020, Britain officially leaves the EU, however relations are frozen under the terms of a withdrawal agreement.

The Brexit transition period ends in January 2021 and a special "protocol" comes into effect for Northern Ireland, keeping it effectively inside the EU customs union and single market for goods.

Checkpoints to enforce this are erected at Northern Irish ports which some unionists decry as an "Irish sea border" undermining the position of the region in the UK.

Share this story