Opinion: the ghost of partition will continue to haunt politics on these islands and we will all need to learn to live with it

By Jonathan Evershed, UCC and Rebecca Graff-McRae, University of Alberta

During and since the heated #BlackandTans debate about the government's proposed commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), some commentators have lamented that commemoration during Ireland's Decade of Centenaries has become newly "politicised". What this take misses, however, is that commemoration is always political. There is no neutral or apolitical commemoration. What is (or is not) to be commemorated, and how, is always a political choice, driven by political pressures. 

The Decade of Centenaries has been shaped by the (largely false) perception that the state commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising contributed to or even caused the outbreak of the Troubles. This has created tremendous political pressure to use the centenary commemorations to claim that Ireland has "matured" since 1966, and to demonstrate that the violence and division of the past have been overcome. 

The resultant will to reconciliation and inclusivity in recent Irish commemoration is both understandable and even laudable, but it is nonetheless political. While it has usually been historians that have been invited to publicly discuss and debate commemoration during the decade, the political forces that have driven it are actually more properly understood using analytical tools from the social sciences: politics, sociology and anthropology. Commemoration is ultimately all about politics in the present and it has almost nothing to with the past or, indeed, with history at all.

From RTÉ Archives, audio footage from an Anti Partition Rally in Dun Laoghaire in April 1950 with Eoin O'Mahony and Ithel Davies

The upcoming centenary of partition comes with intrinsically and divisively political questions. The Irish border represents the intersection between three overlapping political entities: the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The internal politics of each entity are currently highly volatile, while relationships with each other have been severely strained and constitutional futures are in a state of flux.

As it has approached its 100th birthday, the Irish border has taken on renewed political salience, finding a new voice and new ways to interrupt, disrupt and re-shape political relationships within and between "these islands". While commemorating it could never have been "neutral", the politics of the centenary of partition are likely to be all the more highly charged in the context of Brexit, the prolonged absence and recent restoration of Stormont, the Sinn Féin surge in February's election and what have been lengthy coalition negotiations.

So highly chargedare these politics that whether the centenary of partition can be commemorated at all remains something of an open question. In our research on commemorating this centenary, we have struggled to find consistent answers to some of our most basic social scientific questions: what will be commemorated, where, when, by whom and how? The partition of the island was, after all, a process rather than an event.

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Darach MacDonald and Patrick Mulroe talk about the history of the border, from partition to present day.

Will its centenary fall on 23 December 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Government of Ireland Act? Or is it more appropriately marked in May 2021, or in June, on the 100th anniversary of King George V's ceremonial opening of the first Northern Ireland parliament? Is the border’s real centenary later – maybe falling on the 100th anniversary of the Northern Ireland parliament’s December 1922 decision to opt out of the Irish Free State, or of the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission in December 1925?

Should the centenary of partition really be about commemorating the violence that surrounded it: the riots, pogroms and ship-yard expulsions that marked an earlier phase of "Trouble" in Northern Ireland? Is it about celebrating Northern Ireland’s endurance for one hundred years, or mourning a century of division on the island of Ireland? There are no neat or easy answers to these questions, and they necessarily defy any attempt at reaching reconciliatory consensus.

The British political establishment, on which the reconciliatory reorientation of Irish commemoration has had remarkably little impacthas more-or-less entirely absented itself from any efforts to commemorate the British state's bitterly divisive role in the founding of the two states in Ireland. For its part, the Irish state is liable to approach this centenary with trepidation and ambivalence.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane show in 2018, Donnacha O'Beachain discusses his new book 'From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland'

Events will likely centre on Northern Ireland, where the political and constitutional future looks increasingly unclear. Abandoned and betrayed by Boris Johnson, and all-but powerless to overturn a Brexit deal which will create new regulatory barriers in the Irish Sea, unionists are asking whether and how the Northern state's hundredth anniversary can be marked with a view to securing its existence for another hundred years. Republicans, on the cusp of holding power on both sides of a border that they don't recognise as legitimate, may now have to contend with the divergent practicalities of governing the very partitionist states that they have spent decades seeking to overthrow. There is also a significant, growing, and newly assertive cohort of citizens in the North for whom the constitutional question is not a central political concern. They will be wondering what stake they have in all of this – if any. 

On the face of it, the ambiguity, contradiction and unavoidable conflict that surround the centenary of partition might be read as a warning to steer away from commemoration. But the kinds of value conflict that are at stake in the forthcoming centenary are not intrinsically bad: they are the very stuff on which politics, by definition, hinges. Leaning in to a contested, messy and politically fraught commemoration of the Irish border, and grappling with the political questions that are bound up with it, may be preferable to attempting to sanitise or ignore it. The ghost of partition will continue its haunting of politics on these islands, and we will all need to learn to live with it.

Jonathan Evershed is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork. His book on the politics of commemoration, Ghosts of the Somme: Commemoration and Culture War in Northern Ireland (University of Notre Dame Press), was published in 2018. Rebecca Graff-McRae is a Research Manager for the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her book, Remembering & Forgetting 1916: Commemoration and Conflict in Post-Peace Process Ireland (Irish Academic Press) was published in 2010.

This piece is based on research made possible through the support of the Ireland Canada University Foundation and the UCC College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences (CACSSS) Research Support Fund.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ