I see there’s been a major flaming debate on whether President Michael D Higgins was right or wrong to decline to come once the DUP said they would not be attending. I only joined in late last night on Twitter, but I couldn’t see a sound reason against him doing so.
Although Belfast City Council has done some very good things with the limited powers it has over the years, we’ve also seen that it can be every bit the sectarian death trap that Mairtin O’Muilleoir described it as in his seminal Dome of Delight.
If we doubted it, the ‘fleg’ dispute of December 2012 came directly out of an inability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to strike an equitable deal (ie one in line with the Equality Commission’s report on the matter).
So, with this set and long-term pattern of defaulting behaviour, who thought really it was a good idea to invite the Irish President in the teeth of an election with the two major parties [the DUP and Sinn Fein if you are really struggling to remember – Ed] running against* each other?
In strictly northern terms, whichever way it went it was always going to hand some class of electoral advantage to one but not the other. In this case, it was game set and match to the DUP. The President could have stayed on, but it would only have been to restore SF’s electoral advantage.
Should the DUP have gone? Well, if you talk to the DUP they say that in accordance with a protocol set between themselves and Sinn Fein over the commemoration of the centenary of the Ulster Covenant they had approved of the invitation but had never indicated they would attend themselves.
Nonetheless, despite kicking up a row over the invitation of the then First Minister which led to the establishment of a protocol of the Lord Mayor (whose prerogative it is to make the invitation) seeking advanced permission, Sinn Fein did actually have the grace to attend the 2012 banquet.
So it is easy to see why the SDLP and Alliance are also annoyed with the DUP for not sticking with the spirit of that 2012 agreement. But given the DUP ‘pull out’ it would have been a misuse of the good offices of Uachtarán na hÉireann.
IMichael D Higgins had no choice but to pull out of a lop-sided arrangement he’d been led to believe would not be the case.
*Yes, I know they don’t actually run against each other but each is the other’s most electorally lucrative bête noire.