Decolonisation in Northern Ireland: moving beyond old binaries and sectarianism
For museums across the island of Ireland, consideration needs to be given to the particular context and sensitivities associated with colonialism in this place. In Northern Ireland in particular, concepts of ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ should be explored and considered thoughtfully, given the cross-fertilisation of culture and cultural fusion that underpins our society today.
We must be mindful of the implications of this when it comes to understanding conflict, dealing with the legacy of the past and building social cohesion.
It is important to remember that historians and other scholars disagree over the extent to which Ireland was actually a colony at all (as opposed to a sister kingdom and then part of the United Kingdom), and there is also the complex question of Ireland’s part in the colonial project – was it exploited or exploitative (or both)?
In considering these issues, museums must support exploration and public discourse in a way that moves beyond old binaries and sectarianism, and instead challenges simplified views of history.
In looking at issues relating to culture, identity and the legacy of the past within our own communities and experiences, we must be careful not to undermine the core principle of decolonisation, which is to address racism and exclusionary practices.
In January 2020, A New Decade, New Approach restored power sharing in Northern Ireland. Annex E (Rights, Language and Identity) recognises ‘the need to encourage and promote reconciliation, tolerance and meaningful dialogue between those of different national and cultural identities in Northern Ireland with a view to promoting parity of esteem, mutual respect, understanding and cooperation’.
We absolutely should interrogate the British Empire and its legacy, and the different roles Ireland has performed within that, but in a hospitable and informative way, respecting different identities and perspectives and allowing marginalised voices to be heard.
For this reason, we believe that the approach to decolonisation in Northern Ireland is most helpfully framed as one of ‘inclusive global histories’. Whilst we are very clear on our ethical responsibilities, and the spectre of colonial violence and injustice, we feel strongly that decolonisation can be a positive force for encouraging mutual respect and understanding, tackling racism and promoting community pride – in short, to progress critical Good Relations work.
Working in partnership is key to success, both across museums – National Museums NI and the Northern Ireland Museums Council are committed to progressing decolonisation together – and, importantly, with newcomer and marginalised communities.
In 2018, an Amnesty International article stated baldly that ‘Northern Ireland has a racism problem’, after a survey revealed high levels of racial intolerance, and police statistics showed a greater number of racist than sectarian incidents. In January 2021, a fire at Belfast’s Multicultural Centre, which was operating as a food bank, was treated as a hate crime, following multiple incidences of hostility and Islamophobia.
We feel that, through increasing representation and promoting respect, tolerance and understanding, museums and collections can and should play their part in addressing the growing problem of racism in this place.