A large security operation failed to prevent republicans protesting against a provocative commemoration of the partition of Ireland which took place in Armagh on Thursday.
Despite ongoing censorship, republicans from different groups gathered at police lines to demonstrate against an event at St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral described as a “celebration” by unionist leaders.
In what appeared to be a deliberate insult to nationalists, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wore a mask emblazoned with a Union Jack for the occasion. He said “people from very different perspectives” had come together to “celebrate” the north of Ireland, which he said was an “incredible part” of the UK.
At the security barriers some distance away, a protest took place, but tensions had reduced following the last-minute news that no member of the English royal family would attend.
Members of Saoradh and its youth department, Éistigí, released smoke flares after breaching the security barrier and raising banners and posters highlighting different issues.
The chairperson of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Francie Mackey, said the protest had been organised to highlight the “continued failure” of partition and the injustices caused by it over the past century.
He praised the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins who he said “saw it for what it was” by declining his invitation, and said it was no surprise the Queen of England had opted not to turn up.
It had been a “very well choreographed set up”, he said, for the two heads of state to be used to “send a message internationally” to justify the continuing imposition of partition on Ireland.
Éistigí member Caoimhín Murphy denounced British forces who he said had “surrounded” the town and the “warlords” who had attended.
Inside St Patrick’s Cathedral, the gathering took place in a glum, funereal atmosphere.
Clergymen who organised the event emphasised “reconciliation” but Church of Ireland archbishop John McDowell admitted his church had “obsessed about some things, especially borders”.
Sinn Féin boycotted the service and condemned Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael after the two coalition partners sent Ministers to attend. SDLP leder Colm Eastwood also took part, insisting it was a “hopeful service” and that he felt partition was “coming to an end”.
The Dublin government’s attempt to counter the President’s rejection of his invitation led to continuing debate. There was particular discomfort within Fianna Fáil after Chief Whip Jack Chambers attended, only to be christened ‘Union Jack Chambers’ on social media.
Comparisons have been made to the “thundering disgrace” scandal in 1976, when a Minister’s denunciations brought the resignation of then President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh after he used his constitutional powers to refer oppressive legislation to the Supreme Court.
Speaking in the Dáil, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan endorsed President Higgins’s position but denied that the three-party coalition had snubbed him by sending its own representatives.
He said: “His role in this issue is not in any way being called into question, it never was from the very start of this becoming a controversial matter.”
He was responding to a question from Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín over the stance of Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, which he said had amounted to a public reprimand of the President.
“The government could have presented a united approach in the issue but instead your government disagreed with the President’s decision. You have contradicted the words of the President,” Mr Tóibín said.
Public sentiment remains strongly in support of President Higgins and against the government’s approach. Political commentator Joe Brolly cogently described the idea of celebrating 100 years of partition as “a bit like celebrating slavery and inviting leaders of the African American community to sit at the back of a bus, waving as it drives through Mississippi”.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also backed President Higgins and said partition was “catastrophic” for Ireland. “Our country and our people suffer its consequences to this day,” she said.
There was also dismay in Ireland at a provocative decision by the Tory government to light up civic buildings across Britain to celebrate its ‘success’ at carving out a statelet in the North of Ireland one hundred years ago.
In Belfast, where the same plan was advanced, Sinn Féin successfully opposed a plan to illuminate Belfast City Hall. The party’s group leader on the council, Ciaran Beattie, said the move to illuminate public buildings for the centenary was “entirely political and triumphalist”.