Irish president avoids the black and white view of the past

Morning View
Morning View

Most unionists will have problems with President Michael D Higgins’ view of Irish history.

He showed himself during the Easter Rising centenary to be a devout believer in that violent uprising, and it seems not to cause him any pause that the rebels had so little support at the time.

Even the language that he uses now, when he has made generous comments about Protestant suffering, is telling: he refers to the ruthlessness of many republican “executions,” which is a word that seems to leave open the idea that these killings were ultimately legitimate (if that is his thinking, does he concede that it would have been hard for Britain not to execute the leaders of a rising in one of its key cities at the height of its involvement in one of the worst wars in human history?).

He says “mistakes inevitably happened in the killings of purported informers,” which leaves open the unattractive notion that killing informers was a permissible way to deal with genuine informers.

Irish nationalism has long been indulgent of its own ruthlessness while hyper sensitive at the merest hint of British toughness. Consider the uproar that there was when six IRA men were sentenced to death for murdering an RUC man in Belfast during World War II, leading to five of the men being reprieved. One of them, Joe Cahill, used that freedom to remain a lifelong terrorist and founding member of the Provisional IRA. Meanwhile, untroubled by such protests, Eamon de Valera executed six IRA volunteers during the same war.

And yet, while Mr Higgins has an almost irreconcilably different view of the past to a unionist, his comments about “outrages perpetrated against Protestant people” are welcome.

It is a gradual move away from the black and white view of the Irish Catholics as perpetual underdog and innocent victim.

There have been growing signs in recent years of a much more nuanced view of history among the Irish establishment, and this latest speech reflects such thinking and is perhaps a sign of the growing confidence of the Republic.