Commemorating a centenary of partition?

The 3rd of May 2021 will see the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. In recent weeks this has come into focus with the DUP taking offence at the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stating that the party would not be participating in celebrations of the centenary of partition.

In 2016, the DUP’s Arlene Foster was forthright in her refusals to take part in any commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. According to the Irish Times, she had told the BBC: “Easter 1916 was a very violent attack on the state. And it wasn’t just an attack on the state. It was an attack against democracy at that time. Anyone that knows me knows that I believe in democracy and I believe in the democratic will, and therefore I just do not believe that it would be right for me to go and to commemorate such an occasion. When you look at the history of commemorations of Easter 1916 it is only relatively recently that the government of the Republic of Ireland have commemorated that occasion because actually it gave succour to violent republicanism here in Northern Ireland over many years. It would be wrong for me as the leader of Northern Ireland to give any succour to those sorts of people.”

Ironically, as 2021 approaches, there will be an ever increasing engagement with partition, the events that led up to it and all that flowed from it. And not just by unionists. I’d expect that republicans, nationalists, trade unionists, various socialist, communist and anarchist groups, feminists and others will engage with the events around partition. The difference will be that they will critically engage with partition rather than ‘celebrate’ it.

Post-partition unionist rule will inevitably become bound up in that engagement, particularly the structured and sustained abuse of civil rights and curtailment of any meaningful form of political or social opposition.

Another, and in the light of Arlene Foster’s rejection of involvement in 1916 commemorations, perhaps more pertinent issues will be an increasing exploration of the violence which led to partition. In that regard, the synergy between unionist violence and partition will become a dominant aspect of that centenary, largely because for so long it has remained relatively unexplored.

An example in point, that I’ve looked at previously, is the bombing of Weaver Street in February 1922. Weaver Street and the a cluster of adjoining streets such as Shore Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street and Jennymount Street, contained a concentration of Catholic families who worked in nearby mills. Enclosed by a district largely inhabited by Protestants all within the docks area of Belfast which was the scene of intense violence in 1920-22.

The elements of the tragedy in Weaver Street are uncomfortably familiar. You can read more here, but, in brief, a police constable moved Catholic children from Milewater Street into Weaver Street where they then congregated around a skipping rope near the end of the street. A number of men, possibly including the same police constables, observed the children then, from short range, threw a grenade into their midst. After the explosion, they opened fire on people trying to leave the houses and assist those injured in the explosion. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Unionist administration attempted to mislead the press into believing it was carried out by the IRA (rather than unionists). Subsequent evidence at the coroners inquiry exposed how the police made no attempt to gather evidence or investigate the incident. Four children and two adults died, with at least a dozen more badly injured.

This grainy image (from Birmingham Daily Gazette) shows Weaver Street residents loading a horse and cart before fleeing in May 1922. This is one of the few images I can find of Weaver Street before May 1922.

The remaining residents of Weaver Street fled their homes in May 1922 never to return (a comparison of street directories shows a near total change in the names of heads of households between 1918 and 1924). In subsequent decades Weaver Street was incorporated into a factory and now has been wiped off the map.

Weaver Street decorated for the Twelfth July 1924 (from Belfast Telegraph). Most of those in the photo presumably moved in after May 1922. The photo looks north towards Jennymount Mill. The site of the February 1922 bombing is on the footpath behind the crowd on the right side of the picture.

Weaver Street might seem like an extreme example, but it stands as a metaphor for the types of history that will be explored by people engaging with the centenary of partition. A centenary that will simply not become the celebration that Unionists might want it to be.

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