Henry McDonald: Row involving President Higgins confirms my fears that those who want a more pluralistic, tolerant Ireland are being marginalised

Almost everything on Twitter should come with a health warning especially on matters Northern Ireland.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 20th September 2021, 7:03 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 12:49 pm
In 2011 the Queen laid a wreath in Dublin at a memorial site for those who died on the nationalist-republican side of the Irish War of Independence. The political ramifications were major. How things can change in a decade!
In 2011 the Queen laid a wreath in Dublin at a memorial site for those who died on the nationalist-republican side of the Irish War of Independence. The political ramifications were major. How things can change in a decade!

This is particularly so when the Shinnerbot army is out in force to shout down any voices that don’t share their warped vision of the world.

There was however one telling item on Friday morning inside the Twittersphere that caught my eye in terms of public opinion south of the border.

A snap Twitter poll found huge support in the Republic for President Michael D Higgins’ decision to snub the Armagh inter-church service marking the 100th anniversaries of both states on the island of Ireland.

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The findings read out on the Pat Kenny Show on the Newstalk radio programme found that a whopping 80% of the nearly 700 Twitter users polled supported President Higgins’ boycott. Only 11% were against him while a further 9% simply didn’t care.

As a sceptic not only of Twitter but certain polling organisations part of me wants to take this snapshot poll with a pillar rather than a pinch of salt. Yet instinctively as someone who lived in Dublin on and off for almost a decade in the 2000s I have an inescapable (depressive) gut feeling that this early, unscientific, untested data is probably a true reflection of where southern public opinion stands not only on Higgins’ stance but in a general attitude towards Northern Ireland.

On a state trip to Italy at the end of last week President Higgins denied his refusal to attend the service was a snub to that other major guest invited to Armagh — the Queen.

Instead he claimed that the organisers had messed up in their invitation by incorrectly addressing him as ‘the President of the Irish Republic’ rather than the ‘President of Ireland’. Moreover, the ‘President of Ireland’ described the billing of the religious event to “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” as highly “politicised” and thus made it inappropriate for him to attend.

The word “politicised” is apposite here because it seems to suggest that events tied to the history of this island in the 20th and 21st centuries could ever be entirely devoid of political baggage.

I remember witnessing the seminal image of the Queen’s historic visit to the Republic in 2011 when she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin’s Parnell Square, a memorial site principally created for those who died on the nationalist-republican side of the Irish War of Independence.

Reporting on that occasion and others during the royal visit all I could think about were the political ramifications of these set piece events and what they were meant to symbolise.

How things can change in a decade!

On Thursday President Higgins paid a visit in Rome to the grave of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. The founding father of what became Eurocommunism who died in a fascist prison exercised huge influence on post-war Marxist thought.

In his writings Gramsci emphasised the important of cultural shifts and strategic influence on public life beyond the traditional class struggles of the industrial proletariat. The left would have to gain power by marching through existing public, cultural and communal institutions as well as via the old labour battlegrounds.

Standing at Gramsci’s memorial I doubt if President Higgins considered that a malign Gramscian cultural shift has taken place in the Republic in the years since the Queen’s visit. Because his boycott of the Armagh ceremony fits a wider pattern of politico-cultural swings and moves that has resulted in a return to old fashioned Four Green Fields nationalism recapturing public consciousness south of the border and becoming hip among the young.

Think of the furore and rage in 2020 against Charlie Flanagan’s proposal for a memorial service in Dublin for the mainly Catholic Royal Irish Constabulary during the decade of commemorations.

So widespread was the opposition to remembering the RIC that the Dublin event was cancelled and it will now take place eventually in London.

The controversy’s only winners were the Wolfe Tones who reached number 1 in the Irish charts with a traditional Irish rebel tune about the Black and Tans, a song they re-released in part as protest against the aborted RIC commemoration.

Living and working south of the border from around 2016 I detected this shift in southern public opinion and the return of a more revanchist style nationalism in the air. This latest affair merely confirms what I have suspected and feared: that those in the Republic who have argued for a more pluralistic, tolerant and all-embracing vision of a Shared Ireland are being marginalised; their voices increasingly irrelevant and shut down especially in the southern mainstream media.

As for the latest controversy of commemoration the Irish government will no doubt try to defuse the affair by sending a cabinet minister to the Armagh event. But the damage is already done and objectively speaking it merely compounds the perception within unionism about a state that is increasingly being pushed away from the path it was on at the time of the royal visit.

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