Orange Order chief hits out at British government's handling of Northern Ireland centenary celebrations
AN Orange Order chief has expressed "bitter disappointment" at the British government's handling of the centenary celebrations of Northern Ireland - accusing them of missing a "great opportunity" to build unionist confidence.
The order's grand secretary, Rev Mervyn Gibson, said while he understood the constraints imposed by the pandemic, he felt more could have done to mark the event.
The Government of Ireland Act came into effect on May 3 1921, partitioning the island into two separate entities.
A Centenary Forum made up of 19 members was set up by the NIO to discuss the programme with business, political and community representatives.
Rev Gibson, who sat on the forum, said they had hoped to stage a number of events as well as commemorative memorabilia - including a coin - but these never materialised.
He told the BBC he was "bitterly disappointed" with the NIO, adding that while staff had worked hard it was "on all the wrong things".
A large Orange Order parade from Stormont to Belfast city centre was cancelled due to the pandemic but is being rescheduled for this year, Covid restrictions permitting.
"There was a lot promised initially, a lot hoped for," Rev Gibson said.
"We understood there were certain difficulties around it and we accepted those.
"So many things could have happened. We could have had a coin, we could have had a stamp. We were told none of those things could happen for a variety of reasons."
The senior Orangeman added that the Conservative government had missed "a great opportunity" to "give confidence to the unionist community".
The NIO has defended its centenary programme.
Among the projects was the allocation of £1 million to 39 community projects to research and demonstrate what 100 years of Northern Ireland has meant to them and their community.
The Centenary Rose, a flower the government said would represent reflection and hope, was produced and planted in the gardens of the royal residence at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down.
Every school was presented with a native tree to plant in their grounds, while a young people's programme explored what the future will look like in the next 100 years.
NIO minister Conor Burns said they had celebrated the event "a way that is sensitive to its nature, but recognising Northern Ireland's core place within the United Kingdom".
He told the BBC: "I am a Conservative, I am a passionate supporter of the union.
"I think we have tried to mark that centenary in a way that is sensitive to its nature, but recognising Northern Ireland's core place within the United Kingdom.
"A centenary event marks the end of a centenary, and it crucially marks the beginning of a new centenary so we tried to deliberately put the emphasis on young people, and the future that they want to forge here in Northern Ireland."