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.
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?
It was the ever-righteous president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.
• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Sep 4: Drivers are now well paid ... which reminds me of a job idea
• Ben Lowry Aug 28: Lagan Valley shows the challenges facing both unionism and Alliance
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans
Ben Lowry Aug 21: Bigwigs should realise that there is no holiday before retirement
• Ben Lowry Aug 14: The collapse of Kabul to the Taliban will be seen as a sign of western weakness
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Covid has been a bewildering and humbling pandemic
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Now I understand those older people who want cooler summer weather
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.