Speaking at a virtual event organised by Queen's University Belfast, DUP Leader Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA reflected on the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act.
"The Government of Ireland Act was born of a unique blend of acceptance and denial.
Between 1885 and 1921 parliamentary election results and political discourse demonstrated that Ireland was one island with two nations.
The creation of two political institutions was acceptance of that.
Throughout those years there was an underlying transformation that reinforced the need to recognise this reality. The Irish nationalist tradition was slowly being undermined by a generational shift towards Irish republicanism.
Irish republicanism was deeply influenced by culturally and linguistically driven nationalist movements across Europe. They promoted a series of new cultural fronts that made clear that the definition of Irish was inextricably linked to Gaelicism and Roman Catholicism.
However, the Act sought to deny two realities. It assumed firstly that Irish republicanism would be content with fulfilment of Irish nationalist demands and second, that the two political institutions would come together in the long-term. In reality, Republicanism would not be sated by devolution and the belief in the Union was the settled will of Northern Ireland.
What resulted from those turbulent years was two secessions, not the two devolved parliaments within the UK of the Act but the Free State seceding from the UK and NI seceding from the Free State to remain in the United Kingdom.
On the creation of Northern Ireland we must reflect that it was a compromise. The Unionist campaign began as an All-Ireland one. Later it became about the prioritisation of Ulster, something even the Irish Unionist Edward Carson implicitly accepted when he took the mantle of leading Ulster Unionism. The goal of preserving all of Ulster was compromised for six counties. The goal of no Home Rule was compromised for a parliament for Northern Ireland.
These compromises were not reciprocated. Irish republicanism has never truly accepted them. The Irish governments vacillated from constructive engagement to obstructionism.
As a political leader when I look back at the decisions of my predecessors I do not always agree but I can understand. Each of us must lead according to our time. A knowledge, an appreciation and an understanding of history is vital but we must not be prisoners of it.
Irish nationalism and republicanism is wedded to historicism. Karl Popper details how impoverished a belief system it is, expecting events to deliver
political outcomes. In my opinion its attraction is it disposes of the need to self-evaluate, engage with opponents or to change. It imprisons its believers.
2021, Northern Ireland’s centenary year, demonstrates the poverty of historicism. How many predictions of Northern Ireland’s impending demise were made over those 100 years? Countless but every prediction confounded.
Unionism has never subscribed to historicism. This freedom is a strength.
Every prediction is to plant a seed of doubt but our response should be self-belief.
Some ask will the centenary year be a reflection, a commemoration or a celebration?
For me it must be all of those and more, we must look forward to the new century ahead.
We will celebrate the achievements and potential of Northern Ireland and its people, we will commemorate the challenges we faced, we must reflect on past decisions that shaped Northern Ireland but all of this is to build our vision for the next generations.
The Northern Ireland of 1921 was of its time. The Northern Ireland of the new century must be of ours.
Our Northern Ireland, is not one of two communities or of two ideologies. Many of us who lived through or were born in the years of terrorist violence had an urgency and attachment to our politics and identities. Unsurprising when the mode of persuasion was violence.
Over two decades of substantive peace new generations have grown up in Northern Ireland free of threat with their own outlooks and identities. Unionism and Nationalism doesn’t mean as much or the same as it did before. Their political priorities are not constitutional debates but focused on our political institutions working and delivering for Northern Ireland. For the past few months I have been regularly meeting young people from across Northern Ireland to learn about and appreciate their aspirations to shape a vision for Northern Ireland beyond 2021.
In 1921 the Northern Ireland parliament was formed without the co-operation of Irish nationalism and the false expectation of similar institutions elsewhere in the UK. In 2021, there is a multi-party power-sharing executive of unionist, nationalist and neither, cross-border bodies built on co-operation and sister devolved institutions across the UK.
In 1921, Northern Ireland was a force in the global economy in ships, rope and textiles. In 2021 we have built new industries of fintech, cybersecurity, film and
television and advanced manufacturing with a new national levelling up agenda and national infrastructure we need with the Union Connectivity Fund.
2021 can be an opportunity to re-examine the past decisions that shaped Northern Ireland. Lord Londonderry’s early proposals to create a common education system were not implemented. Is 2021 the time to re-start that debate?
My key reflection on our first century is our many successes were weakened by the lack of a common purpose. We did not harness the talents of all our people for the common good.
Beyond 2021, I believe the common purpose of the vast majority is to make Northern Ireland a success. In our new century, we can use the talents of all to build the common good of a happier, healthier, sustainable and prosperous place and people. By setting out our positive vision and our plan for that future is how Unionism will shape the future.
This is our common opportunity and I want to build it together"