A forum set up by the British government to look at how to mark next year’s ‘Centenary of Northern Ireland’ is being boycotted by nationalists and republicans. The Centenary Forum was announced by British prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Ireland in August.
The make-up of the forum was announced this week by the British government’s Northern Ireland Office, and is to be chaired by its top spin doctor, Andy Pike.
While politicians representing all three main unionist parties were announced as members, both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have turned down an invitation to join the forum.
It ws reported that a number of academics also declined an invitation to sit on the ‘Centenary Historical Advisory Panel’, to be headed up by unionist academic Lord Bew, over concerns that the plans would not tell the full story of partition.
The SDLP said: “We have no faith that this British Government will be able to create a programme of events which manages the sensitivities of the occasion.
“We will, however, engage with the debate and discussion about the impact of partition in good faith, seeking to build a more shared and united future for our communities”.
Sinn Féin made no new comment, but the party’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said it would not honour the creation of a state built on religious discrimination.
Mrs O’Neill said: “When it comes to partition, Northern Ireland was built on sectarianism, gerrymandering and an inbuilt unionist majority and that is not something that I would ever celebrate.”
However, local councils have received funding for the ‘celebrations’ in any event, and are faced with questions on how to spend the money.
One, Mid Ulster District Council, is to establish a working group to discuss how to handle the £72,000 handed to it for projects commemorating partition. Exhibitions, drama productions, education programmes and “good relations activities” were all suggested.
Sinn Féin councillor Cora Corry said she wanted to ensure that events are “balanced” and considerate of “sensitivities” that exist.
“To some it is something to celebrate but to others the state was imposed under the threat of immediate and terrible violence,” said Cllr Corry. “To many it was established under state violence, sectarianism and discrimination, all of which was used to maintain power.”
Independent Councillor Barry Monteith backed a workshop to discuss the dilemma.
“I have no difficulty with people having talks, in around the 2016 period [centenary of the Easter Rising] we held events and I thought Council handled it fairly maturely,” he said.
“A lot of it wasn’t as I would have liked it but I thought it was fairly balanced. I have no difficulty with people coming forward for [grants] next year. I don’t think this needs to be an either or scenario.”