It’s unusual for the DUP, and other Unionists for that matter, to be exercised at the non-visit of a President of Ireland. The reaction sounds like a mixture of genuine disappointment, wounded vanity and point-scoring. In the case of the DUP, glass houses come to mind.
Whatever the reason, the nature of the clamour achieves little and has launched a tirade of sniping political comment on social media. This is something which Archbishop Eamon Martin, shortly after the low-key launch of the NI Centenary, urged politicians of all political parties to avoid; rather:
“to try to recognise very differing perspectives and to bring to the conversation their own hurts, their feelings of disappointment…. frustration.”
President D Higgins’ absence and clumsy avoidance of endorsing a Service of Reflection and Hope focusing on the NI Centenary will be seen, in spite of an explanation with echoes of intellectual contortion, as distancing himself from acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s legitimacy; as symbolic of non-revisionist Southern partition-ism.
Hosting the first of a series of Macnamh 100 seminars at Áras an Uachtaráin, the President was quoted in the IRISH TIMES of 2 December 2020 as saying:
“People should engage with history and commemoration in ‘an inclusive, ethical, pluralist and honest’ way, that evaluates the motives and of actions ‘on all sides with fairness………. For the sake of the future, we must break loose from the snares of the past.’
In launching the events the President, perhaps conscious of his own inner historical demons, called for a need:
“To reflect on that tumultuous period of 100 years ago and what it means for us today; to engage with our shared past in a manner that is honest, authentic and inclusive; assist in healing the wounds of conflicts, recognise different narratives as to their causes, and their repercussions, that cannot, and should not, be forgotten; to shine a light on overlooked figures and events as all of us with intersecting stories attempt to achieve a deeper, more balanced and inclusive perspective and collective openness to perspectives of the stranger, the ‘other’, including the enemy of yesterday”.
The light to which the President Higgins referred shines a little dimmer than he surely intended.
Ignoring the advice of Michelle Obama, rather than going high, has he stooped low to meet on the ground where he perceives planned events to be sited? If so, it is not in keeping with his earlier sensitivity.
What people see and hear is at least as important as what you say. You make it difficult to build understanding without collaboration and dialogue.
Anyone who views partition through an Irish Nationalist or Irish Republican prism cannot be expected to view political agreements which produced the events of 1920-1922 and indeed 1925, as cause for celebration: the clue is in the designation.
However, an inclination towards limited engagement from an essentialist position of ideological interpretation and binary referencing will not contribute to participative reflection and informative discourse about the shared history of the island of Ireland and beyond.
The controversy surrounding the inclusion of the RIC in commemorative events in the Republic of Ireland serves to commend caution but not abandonment.
Being selective in terms of engagement, when seeking to reconcile or reflect whilst hoping for a better future, is to build bridges that remain incomplete. Allowing the protocol of any office, or decision-making based on a singular narrative, to determine this is to dehumanise diplomacy and the pluralism required of peace-making. Both now seem more fragile.
If this is where the President has placed us, therein lies an opportunity.
Events relating to the NI Centenary have facilitated debates on partition, not always balanced or free from assertions devoid of evidenced analysis. Celebratory activities adhering to purist displays of communal traditions which have a particular way of understanding but now display denial of their fading prominence, have been a feature.
But, this is not a complete picture.
Within many pro-Union communities, celebration has embraced diversity to avoid any suggestion of triumphalism and has been inclusive in acknowledging achievements and contributions in the arts, sport, science and other areas of life.
Commemoration has focused across the 100 years and is coupled with Reflection, characterised by a deeply felt desire to understand, beyond single narratives, the causal and consequential nature of conflict; to avoid repetition of past mistakes.
The latter is creating a strategic, unthreatening and sometimes tentative energy to unpack the past; to nurture mutuality and a better future for a new generation. The stance adopted by an Uachtaráin Higgins can feed into reflection, even if he has retreated from the scene.
It will be necessary, for there is little doubt that the stance of the President acts to promote scepticism about a Shared Island and talk of accommodation for unionism by Ireland’s Future and others, should referendums in both jurisdictions provide a mandate for unification.
It points to a more immediate priority to build friendship, mutual respect and compassion; to let our humanity run more deeply than appears to be the case in the present.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.