Ben Lowry: President Michael Higgins is by no means alone in snubbing the centenary of Northern Ireland

Michael D Higgins was looking isolated politically yesterday for deciding not to go to a Northern Ireland centenary service in Armagh.

Saturday, 18th September 2021, 1:44 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th September 2021, 10:16 pm
With local Northern Ireland institutions silent on the 100th anniversary of our country, only the government in London has the clout to celebrate it properly. The notion that NI is a disreputable, failed state has been allowed to gain ground

His action seems to have alienated even some people who are not friendly to unionists.

It reminded me of the DUP decision not to attend the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 2016 or even the papal visit in 2018.

I covered both events for the News Letter. The decision not to attend the massive parade on Easter Sunday 100 years after the rebellion was because unionists view the violence in 1916 as unnecessary.

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In fact unionists think that glorifying that uprising justifies the later terrorism of the Provisional IRA and even dissidents today.

Even so, as I stood in a press gallery opposite the GPO in O’Connell Street that day, I thought there was something almost poignant about the unionist absence — like the absence of a relative at a wedding after a long feud, but whose presence is still missed.

The DUP decision not to send someone to the visit of Pope Francis in the summer of 2018 was a much more clear-cut mistake, I think.

Christians are increasingly a minority in the western world.

Regular churchgoers have been a tiny minority in England for decades but even in Northern Ireland — which still has much higher levels of belief than the mainland — people who go to a service weekly are now very much in a minority.

As could hardly be clearer from the culture wars, people on the island of Ireland who hold to Catholic or Protestant values have more and more in common with each other in an increasingly secular age.

The DUP had a real chance in 2018 to win a new level of respect among traditional Irish Catholics, who do not have the influence they once had but who are still much more numerous than we might realise from the media.

So President Higgins is not alone in making a political mistake in terms of reconciliatory gestures (although whether the public in the Republic of Ireland thinks he has made a mistake remains to be seen).

But in snubbing the centenary event, President Higgins has many spiritual allies.

The notion that Northern Ireland is a disreputable, failed — even rogue — state has been allowed to gain ground.

There is a widespread cultural embarrassment about NI’s big milestone. Next to no institutions or organisations that have Northern Ireland in their name seem prepared to so much as say, as we do on our front page, ‘Happy 100th Birthday Northern Ireland!’

If this was almost any other society, then the Police Service of Northern Ireland, BBC Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Civil Service and so on would all have logos celebrating such a major birthday. They would be carrying out commemorative events. The centenary would form a backdrop to their imagery and their publicity.

It is of course important that workplaces are neutral, comfortable places for employees of all backgrounds, and it would be quite wrong to celebrate the 100th in any way that could be plausibly depicted as sectarian. But the problem is that timid leaders in positions of influence across NI seem, perhaps subconsciously, to have imbibed the idea that any marking of the 100th at all is of itself potentially sectarian.

There are many distinct things to celebrate, even for people who are not unionist: the countryside, the sporting stars, the scientists, artists and actors and so on.

People from Northern Ireland who leave typically retain a deep attachment to the place. In my experience, even if they live far away and feel highly ambivalent about ‘home’ there is still a part of their soul that is here, and that thinks of it as a specific place (as opposed to, for example, just another part of Ireland).

Yet by ignoring the centenary of the imperfect, two-state 1921 solution to the ‘Irish Question’ we are ceding ground by default to those who say that this society has been rotten from its inception.

The recent LucidTalk poll was gleefully cited against the DUP for the divisions it found within unionism. But the Sinn Fein vote was 25%, several points lower than their best past vote tallies in elections.

So it is not the case, as you might think, that half this society is so enraged by the very idea of Northern Ireland that our institutions should be reacting in the way that they are to this big date, which is as if it hasn’t happened.

Whatever the failures of various institutions, only the UK government has the levers to make something big of the centenary.

Instead, its programme of events has been pitiable. Indeed if it was not able to hide behind the excuse of Covid, it would be a major scandal. London could not even say it was celebrating the anniversary but rather marking it. The West Belfast Festival is a far more visible annual event than the centenary of NI.

The government is partly to blame for the Higgins fiasco. The purpose of the service was unclear.

Such a church service of itself sounds like a fine thing. But there should be full-throated celebrations of NI at 100 too. It is one of the four ‘home nations’ after all.

Incidentally, guess what BBC Northern Ireland did on May 3, by some estimates the precise date of the centenary? After Good Morning Ulster felt it had to balance its interview with Johnny Andrews, a descendant of a former NI premier, with an interview with an academic who was withering about NI, BBC Talkback felt no need to balance its show that day.

It was devoted to just one person.

Guess who? Someone who epitomised our wonderful society?

Not quite.

It was the ever-righteous president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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