Thought for the day — Stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation: King George V

Thought for the day — Stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation: King George V
22 June 2021

On this day one hundred years ago the Parliament of Northern Ireland met for the first time at Belfast City Hall. It was opened by King George V, with a speech calling for reconciliation in Ireland. 

He said, “I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill…”

It’s interesting to look at the language of the speech. The King calls it “the Northern Parliament”. He describes the moment as “a critical occasion in the history of the Six Counties” and he refers to those assembled as his Irish people in the British Empire. He asks them to “work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect”.

Of course, 22nd June 1921 was not a moment of Kumbaya! The Irish News reported the speech was “full of vague professions and pious good wishes”.

The King addressed only Unionist MPs, as the Sinn Féin and Nationalist MPs refused to take their seats in the new Parliament, and although the King and Queen were well-received in Belfast that day, sectarian tensions were high, and the next day the IRA blew up a train carrying the King’s cavalry escort, killing six men and 80 horses.

State Opening of Ulster Parliament — Gaumont Version (1921). Source: YouTube.

As I watch the grainy footage of the occasion on Pathe newsreel, I’m struck by the fact that all the great and the good, the rich and the poor, the unionist and the nationalist from 1921 are long gone. I reflect that life is fleeting, a hundred years is but a blink of the eye, and I question the ultimate importance of political and national allegiances in our short lives.

If the people of 1921 were able to time travel to 2021 they’d be bewildered at our computers, smart phones, heart transplants and rockets to Mars.

They might be shocked at the end of Empire, the change in social values, and the diversity in Ireland today.

However, I wonder what time travelling nationalists and unionists from the Ireland of 1921 would think about our 21st century progress on “forbearance and conciliation” on “respect and justice” and our ability to “forgive and forget”.

I wonder what our ancestors would have to say to us today, about “joining together in making for the land which we love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill”.

Originally broadcast at BBC Radio Ulster on 22 June 2021. Transcript provided by the author.

Image: The State Opening of Parliament by William Conor (1921) (Northern Ireland Assembly)

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