June 1971 marked the jubilee of the Northern Ireland parliament. Plans to commemorate the event began in 1968, but from the start, the organisation of what ultimately became known as 'Ulster '71' was fraught. This was because during this period Northern Ireland had three prime ministers, and more significantly, was suffering serious civil unrest. Despite this, the attempt of the Northern Ireland government to secure a royal visit as part of the celebration was a top priority. However, the security of Queen Elizabeth II could not be guaranteed, and there was ultimately no royal presence. In its failure to commemorate the jubilee as intended, in its difficulties uniting disparate forces to organise the events, indeed in its failure to dictate the form the jubilee would take, the Northern Ireland government revealed that it was no longer in control of the state; although, the fact that it still attempted to stage the commemoration in the face of opposition indicates its importance to them. Ultimately, failure to command the ritual revealed the collapse of the government's power, as much as the civil disorder which escalated and intensified steadily in the state over the period of the organisation of 'Ulster '71'.
Three prime ministers oversaw 'Ulster '71', Terence O'Neill, James Chichester-Clark and Brian Falkner. At the outset O'Neill thought that the commemoration could be tied into his attempts at improving community relations. However, as some unionists were quick to point out to him, the jubilee could not be an ecumenical affair: partition was perceived as a unionist victory, and the celebrations should not try to mask these facts. In 1969 a government committee was established to organise events; that they were faced with an onerous task is evident not least from the problem of naming the event. 'Ulster '71' went through a series of names: 'Ulster Jubilee', 'Come to Ulster Year', 'NI-Land '71.' Some suggested the use of the word 'home' in any title in the hope that the event would at least attract support from 'our own kith and kin' (if not strangers) regardless of any unrest. While the focus of the event began with the jubilee of the Northern Ireland state this rapidly changed. So, by 1970 the jubilee was to be included in various activities planned for 'Come to Ulster Year' as opposed to being the raison d'être. Indeed, for large periods of time the commemoration was deliberately allowed to drop off the public's radar for fear of provoking a hostile response. Committees gathered to advise and organise the event found themselves under pressure and internally discordant, reflecting their society's malaise. Yet Northern Ireland's Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clark, hoped that despite the 'political and cultural divisions' people would see that Northern Ireland was 'a pleasant place to visit or to work in.' These hopes expressed in the months running up to the Lower Falls curfew in July 1970 and with the escalation of the IRA's bombing campaign seem, at best, optimistic.
Plans for the commemoration stopped and started, although given the circumstances in Northern Ireland in 1971 it remains remarkable that any events were ultimately staged at all. Notions of a new leisure centre in the city and new housing projects ('Jubilee housing estates') were shelved due to lack of finances. Festival weeks of celebration in towns throughout the state were organised, much as they had been for the Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland in 1951. The Ulster Jubilee was now 'Come to Ulster Year.' More proposals for events began to come into the organisers, one was that the game show It's a Knockout could hold a regional final in Belfast. Organisers also looked for a list of 'inoffensive dates in local history' for inclusion in the exhibition. It was suggested that the event should have a publicity feature based on the Northern Ireland barmaid in the BBC radio drama series The Archers returning to Carrickfergus. There was a proposal for a Miss Ulster contest. It was suggested that Jimmy Kennedy, author of the lyrics to 'Red Sails in the Sunset', be asked to write something for the jubilee. The mind boggles. One civil servant suggested that the government should try to get Kellogg's Cornflakes to advertise the event, and offer a prize of a week's visit to Northern Ireland and the exhibition to be held in Botanic Gardens - a suggestion which, given the increasing level (and serious nature) of the violence, seems remarkable in retrospect. The old punch-line comes to mind - what was second prize? Two weeks? Twenty years on from the Festival of Britain in Northern Ireland (and following in the steps of Sam Hanna Bell's The Arts in Ulster) the Arts Council (NI) was asked to organise all arts events for 'Ulster '71. They chose to publish a selection of essays on the arts in the state, Causeway, edited by Michael Longley, and an anthology of children's writing Under the Moon, Over the Stars, Young People's Writing from Ulster. Concerts were given by the BBC and Ulster Orchestras; special art exhibitions toured the state; Julius Chagrin, the noted mime artist, and Peter Katin, the concert pianist, gave performances. Theatre events centred around the Ulster Theatre Company (performing Ballyfarland's Festival by St John Ervine and Michael J. Molloy's The King of Friday's Men) and the Belfast Arts Theatre's autumn season (with, again ironically, Oh, what a lovely war!). The visual arts were highlighted in three 'Ulster '71 painting stamps' based on the work of the northern artists Tom Carr, Terence Flanagan and Colin Middleton. The Northern Ireland cabinet was ultimately unhappy with the stamps when it viewed the proofs, and asked whether they could be scrapped, was it possible, they wondered, to have a stamp which depicted the Botanic Garden's exhibition or a factory? It was, however, too late for changes and the stamps were issued as they were.
The Arts Council's task was not an easy one; unsurprisingly, many performers were not inclined to travel to Northern Ireland in 1971. Kenneth Jamison, the director of the Arts Council, writing to its president Peter Montgomery in May 1971 expressed some of the frustration felt by those involved in organising arts events for 'Ulster '71'; for instance, when a visit of the Festival Ballet was cancelled, Jamison wrote:
I was speaking to Charley Brett a short time ago. He feels that a high-minded letter from you to The Times would be useful in the context of the ballet cancellation. He also feels that you might take the line that the cancellation was not very courageous, and quite inappropriate to the traditions of the theatre ('the show must go on'), unnecessary in the local context and has international implications for hoaxers and political propagandists. Express hope that no other organisation, cultural or otherwise, will be so feeble.
Given that by 7 May 1971 there had been 314 gelignite explosions in Northern Ireland since 1969 (136 in 1971 alone) the condemnation of others as 'feeble' was harsh. And this was by no means the last refusal.
The government's central plan for the commemoration was an exhibition in Botanic Gardens, although organisers feared that the open space would leave the exhibition open to attacks by students and other demonstrators. There were ultimately only a few hoax bomb threats and a small student protest at the opening, on 14 May 1971 by the Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Sir Peter Studd. Included was a funfair, a bar, discotheque, restaurant and souvenir shop, as well as a Festival Pavilion. The exhibition itself was organised in several sections, under titles including: 'landmarks of progress'; 'the genius of Ulster' and 'Ulster today'. In the section 'Ulster tomorrow' 'visitors were shown a glimpse of life in the Ulster of the future including new and expanded towns, developments in education, economic expansion, research in industry and conservation.' Visitors to this exhibition walked down a corridor which 'demonstrated Ulster's long history of development' and entered another area 'a giant dome' thirty-five feet high, with the Ulster coat of arms and a map of the state.
Civil unrest continued to impact on the event. Official attendance figures indicated that at its peak (22 May) attendance at the exhibition was 84,157 and the lowest (two days after the introduction of internment) was 14 August with 10,953. Indeed, a poster produced by the People's Democracy in December 1971 made an explicit connection between internment and 'Ulster `71,' echoing the domed areas of the 'Ulster `71' exhibition in Botanic Gardens. As Jonathan Bardon has described, Northern Ireland was imploding. 'During the month of August there were thirty-five violent deaths and around one hundred explosions. About seven thousand Catholics sought refuge in Dublin and in Irish Army camps and several hundred Protestants moved to Liverpool for safety.' Unsurprisingly there was a wartime tone to the final official report on the exhibition:
The Exhibition park which was very gay and colourful, particularly at night when it was illuminated by the coloured festoon lighting and the lights of the funfair equipment. It was evident from the thousands of people, including families, who visited the Park that this was a welcome relaxation for them.
The preceding tone and content of the official report was certainly at variance with its concluding statement: 'Judging from the public and press reaction and the many comments which were made, there is no doubt that by any standards Ulster '71 was a magnificent success.' Michael Foley's contemporary assessment of 'Ulster `71' in the literary journal The Honest Ulsterman was somewhat different:
It gives me great pleasure to announce that I find the Ulster '71 festival a roaring success. I got me hole thirty-two times in the one day and that even beats Portrush on Bank Holiday Monday. Who would have thought that Portrush could be bettered in our lifetime? It just shows you what funds, cooperation and publicity can do. If it keeps up at the present rate I'll be a six stone skeleton by the end of September.
The need for ritual and pageantry in society increases in the face of instability, and this was certainly the case in Northern Ireland. In a period of civil unrest and uncertainty, the jubilee was intended to provide an opportunity for unionists to celebrate theirs and the state's history and to reaffirm their wider political position. In fact, what it revealed was a state in the process of collapse, one which could not celebrate a shared history, indeed one whose history was divisive to the point that its parliament's jubilee had to be all but sidelined on the very occasion of its anniversary. In 1971 Northern Ireland's past was as contentious as its present, and there was no common history to which the organisers could hark back in an effort to create the image of a common cultural or political heritage. In the face of escalating systemic violence, attempts by the organisers to rally the Northern Irish population behind 'Ulster `71,' to create a 'we-feeling' in the state, failed because the 'we' had for so long not been an inclusive but an exclusive one from which many felt alienated.