Gazing back 100 years will lead to a crick in the neck rather than the insights we need to grow…

And to finish the week, Newton Emerson throws some light on the politics of the President’s refusal to come Armagh in October as a part of the decade of centenaries…

Under his Machnamh centenary programme, described as “inviting reflections on the War of Independence, the Treaty Negotiations, the Civil War and Partition”, the President has spent a year hosting academic seminars on contested commemoration, ethical remembering and, above all, on colonialism as the overriding context for the centenary.

It is easy to imagine him taking a dim view of the “both sides” cliches of the church invitation as it landed on his mat.

The rarefied content of the seminars has rendered them low-profile, but attention was sharply drawn to them in February when the President condemned journalists and academics for “feigned amnesia” over British imperialism as the key shaper of Irish history.

There is no shortage of post-colonial theorising from academia and it seems unrealistic to expect the same from mere journalism. News reports will hardly say “there was trouble in Belfast last night due to the legacy of imperialism”. The media only works like that in Cuba.

The decade of centenaries was a post hoc rationalisation of ‘someone else’s idea’. Events were held singly with little sense of the ‘reconciliation’ envisaged in Fianna Fáíl’s original narrative of “conflict to consensus”.

The mission statement of the expert advisory group on commemorations from 2012: “there should be no attempt to contrive an ahistorical or retrospective consensus about the contemporary impact and legacy of divisive events”.

And that “the State cannot be expected to be neutral about the events that led to its formation”.

It set a partitioned character to all that followed: as though such a singular focus on the past left no space for the future. This clash between the original frame and the partitioned history that generated an odd sense of failure.

For instance, Diarmuid Ferriter notes of 2016 in his Irish Times column today: “the idea mooted that a senior member of the British royal family might attend a State event was seen as problematic and inappropriate.”

And yet, the 2016 celebrations in the south worked in terms of a highly internalised celebration of Irish national sovereignty and the supremacy of the Irish Defence Forces (a natural focus, perhaps, for a Fine Gael led government).

Even after 100 years, it’s still too early for the south to confidently test its own recently formed traditions against a messy cohort of northerners (of indeterminate loyalty to these same precious traditions) into the mix.

Not unreasonable in itself. But in the unceremonious dumping the ‘shared history’ aspirations of the last Fianna Fáil administration is a persistent hard core ‘othering’ that’s marked key relations over most of the last decade.

The UK’s unilateral decision to pull out of the formal relationships that bound it to the republic through Brexit. Both governments tolerated the collapse of every strand of the Belfast Agreement. Relations (and politics) got harder.

And worse, it can release a whole new spate of nativist atavism. Newton again:

Post-colonialism is a perfectly respectable academic pursuit. Unfortunately once out in the wild it becomes a sectarian crutch for calling unionists colonists and occupiers, as the past week has amply demonstrated.

It is now commonplace to hear Northern Ireland referred to as a colony, with little awareness or care for what that implies. In contrast to Machnamh’s high-minded deliberations, much of Ireland has begun sounding like a character from Father Ted, shouting “good for you, President Higgins, you tell ‘em!”

That can be seen in the President’s 82% approval in polls taken at a point when many in the south believed the churchmen had insulted the President by misquoting his official title (they hadn’t). But…

…there is a considerable difference between saying Northern Ireland was a colonial creation a century ago and saying it remains so today. The President is entitled to his historical analysis; unionists can argue the reverse. What undermines the agreement is forgetting this analysis was dropped at the outset of the peace process. [Emphasis added]

In a more positive tone, returning to the birth of partition provides little incentive to grasp present opportunity or indeed help us to reshape the future, If it doesn’t also mark the journey and the change of the subsequent 100 years.

The past matters. But gripping it tightly, such that new narratives are denied the space to emerge, can, as Kenneth Bloomfield once quipped in another context, give those who constantly gaze backward an awful crick in the neck.those who constantly gaze backward an awful crick in the neck.

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