May’s 2022 festival ‘likely to heighten tensions’ in NI

Models performing in the 1951 Festival of Britain’s Travelling Exhibition are pictured outside the venue (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

British prime minister Theresa May’s plan to throw a nationwide party celebrating British culture may “inflame tensions” in Northern Ireland since it is set to clash with the centenary of Irish partition and the Irish civil war.

May has said she hopes the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, scheduled for 2022, will strengthen “our precious union” after Brexit is delivered.

She has been warned, however, that the timing of the event risks causing further social divisions since it clashes with the anniversary of partition in Ireland and with civil war that raged for a year until 1923.

The conflict gave birth to what is now known as the Irish republic, while Northern Ireland remained part of the UK.

British Future, a think tank which examined the potential for arts and heritage to bring the nation together, revealed the worries about the date selection in a report. It recommends the festival is delayed by three years.

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Sunder Katwala, author of the study, described holding the festival in 2022 as “the worst possible timing”.

“It is only likely to heighten tensions between communities — and that’s before we know Brexit’s implications for the border. Right across the UK, a festival so closely associated with Brexit may only reinforce divides when it could be bridging them,” he told The Observer.

Speaking to the think tank, a source in Northern Ireland said: “[The festival] could easily become an English story, a London story and an establishment story of London establishment artists I am not sure about this festival. You can’t just fly in Tracey Emin and expect people to engage.”

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, told the Observer. “There is going to be a lot of rebuilding to do in Anglo-Irish relations, which had been put on a completely new footing over the last 20 years and were then trashed by the Brexiters over the last couple of years.”

Theresa May and European Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker Photo: EU Council

He added that “constant attacks” on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar exemplify this new “hostility” and that fears t will take years to put this right.”

Downing Street added that it would be a “unique event” that echoes the 1851 Great Exhibition, a temporary installation in Hyde Park that showcased culture and industry to the world. “Just as millions of Britons celebrated their nation’s great achievements in 1951, we want to showcase what makes our country great today,” said Mrs May after announcing the plans in September last year.


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