One hundred years since the creation of the UK as we know it today, we still have no accepted term to describe what Northern Ireland is. Is it a province? A region? A country?
It has certainly been in “a state” at points. Depending on who you ask, it is either a failed state – “riven by an unbridgeable chasm between two opposing traditions”, as Leo McKinstry wrote for the New Statesman earlier this year – or it is “one of the greatest places to live, work and start a business in the entire world”, to quote the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on the day of the state’s 100th anniversary.
The Troubles revealed how the smallest acts can have the most tremendous impact over time. Words and actions matter. All carry consequences beyond ourselves, and our lifetimes. More than 50 years ago, British troops were sent to break up a riot in Derry. They ended up staying for 37 years, the longest military campaign in UK history. More than 3,500 people were killed. The conflict and cyclical trauma still affect communities and families.
This period highlights how much we can do, for good or for ill; how the individual has incredible power to influence with whatever is in their heart and soul; whether to fan the flames of pain, or drain wells of resentment; whether to integrate, or increase shared suffering.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of “Ireland’s Greatest” John Hume – a man of vision, integrity and courage, and a powerful force for non-violence at a time of intense discord on the island.
The hard-won stability in Ireland is credited to many people, and Hume was a protagonist in the peace process. His actions read like a Christopher Nolan movie script: targeted for intimidation by the IRA and loyalists; spied on and smeared by the British secret services; in his own words, “thrown out” of Downing Street in 1981 by Margaret Thatcher – an individual renowned for relishing robust argument – after an exchange about hunger strikes.
The path forward Hume articulated is based on the principles of equality, power-sharing and democratic self-determination: that for nationalists, what is important was the unity of people, rather than of territory. And to unionists, he said that no stability was possible without the inclusion of nationalists.
Today, the province needs a new process to build on the peace. What has gotten it here will not get it where it needs to be in the future.
Looking to the next 100 years, it is essential for unionist leadership to persuade, but also to engage constructively with conversations about the prospects of the island. Similarly, it is incumbent on republican counterparts to do the detailed work and spell out the specifics of their proposed new Ireland. These can happen in parallel and need not involve a betrayal of principles, but rather an acceptance of reality. Sensible people and serious discussions can find a way forward with the mutual agreement John Hume stressed so consistently.
This may be the high-water mark of unionist influence on Northern Ireland, which only subsides with growing republican support. Opinion polls indicate there could be a first minister at Stormont and a Taoiseach in Dublin from Sinn Féin before too long. The Northern Ireland census is also expected to confirm that Catholics outnumber Protestants in a territory whose borders were designed to avoid that.
Within these historical boundaries lies my native County Tyrone. In recent years, people there have discovered one of the world’s most promising undeveloped precious metal and diamond deposits – a gold mine they’ve only been able to tap into in more peaceful times, perhaps a metaphor for the rewards of setting aside bitterness.
People in Northern Ireland believe they’re the authors, not the prisoners, of their history, putting reconciliation before division. The peace process has demanded courage, vision and compromise across communities to realise the potential of a new future. This is one of the lessons of Northern Ireland’s first centenary since partition, and a cause for celebration.
Stephen Lynch is a former Conservative press adviser, and writes in a personal capacity.