Northern Ireland marks centenary without fanfare as crises simmer

Muted celebrations amid COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, post-Brexit tensions and the first minister’s resignation.

Since its creation, Northern Ireland has been beset by a split between unionists and those who wish to see Ireland reunited [File: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters]

Northern Ireland marked its centenary with muted fanfare, as stringent coronavirus lockdown restrictions, simmering post-Brexit unrest and a leadership crisis overshadowed the anniversary in the United Kingdom province.

Home to 1.9 million people, Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act came into effect and partitioned the island into two entities following the Irish War of Independence.

Northern Ireland became part of the UK alongside England, Scotland and Wales.

But Monday’s commemoration events have been scaled back this year, with no big celebrations scheduled to take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent weeks have also witnessed the worst rioting for years in the region, where a delicate political balance has been unsettled by the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Adding to a sense of unease, First Minister Arlene Foster on Wednesday announced her resignation against the backdrop of an internal revolt in her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), where rancour is brewing over the consequences unleashed by Brexit.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, said the centenary came amid a “great deal of worry” in Northern Ireland over recent events.

“There is a recipe for violence unless there is political stability,” he said.

‘Complex history’

Since its creation, Northern Ireland has been beset by a rift between those who want the province to remain part of the UK and others who wish to see Ireland reunified, with Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic of Ireland.

That split fuelled decades of sectarian violence between mostly Catholic nationalists pushing for a united Ireland and mostly pro-UK Protestant unionists, or loyalists, before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement ended the fighting.

More than 3,600 people were killed in the conflict, known as The Troubles, which also involved UK armed forces.

The 1998 pact halted violence and led to formalised power-sharing arrangements between unionists and nationalists.

But the two sides often fail to agree on how to govern, and there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence.

The UK’s Queen Elizabeth II on Monday said Northern Ireland’s centenary was a reminder of its “complex history”, and provided “an opportunity to reflect on our togetherness and our diversity”.

“It is clear that reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding cannot be taken for granted, and will require sustained fortitude and commitment,” she said in a statement.

“Across generations, the people of Northern Ireland are choosing to build an inclusive, prosperous, and hopeful society, strengthened by the gains of the peace process. May this be our guiding thread in the coming years.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also marked the date, describing it as a “very significant” anniversary and stressed the importance of reflecting on the “complex history” of the past 100 years.

“People from all parts of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and across the globe, will approach this anniversary in different ways, with differing perspectives,” he said in a statement.

Brexit deal controversy

Recent unrest across Northern Ireland came as anger boiled in unionist communities, where Johnson is currently held in low esteem for allowing a special post-Brexit “protocol” for Northern Ireland which many feel dislocates the region from its place in the UK.

At least 88 police officers were injured in a week of riots in April that spread to the nationalist community.

Riot police in turn fired water cannon on young people throwing bricks and petrol bombs.

Unionists fear the UK-EU Brexit deal’s so-called Northern Ireland Protocol – which effectively keeps the province in the bloc’s customs union and parts of the single market – could increase the likelihood of a united Ireland.

Some critics of the protocol say the new checks implemented at Northern Irish ports to enforce it have essentially created an “Irish sea border”.

Its inclusion in the Brexit deal also dealt a heavy blow to Foster, who had been vehemently opposed to any special post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, but was also powerless to prevent Johnson agreeing them with Brussels.

Foster will step down as DUP leader on May 28 and as first minister “at the end of June”, she said in her departure statement.

A leadership contest to replace her is now under way.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies