Neil McCarthy: Northern Ireland centenary row caused by President Michael Higgins is reminder that banging the green drum is a vote winner in Irish Republic

In September 2020 I wrote an article in this newspaper, ‘Nationalists should welcome the celebrations of Northern Ireland’s centenary’.

Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 8:41 am
Updated Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 9:21 am
President Michael Higgins and, by extension, the Irish state, have come out of the Northern Ireland centenary service affair badly. It is depressing that Higgins appears to have hit a popular nerve

(See below for a link to that article)

I could not have imagined that the Irish state itself, which has put so much commendable effort into the ‘Decade of Centenaries’, should now be engaging in petty disputes about nomenclature as a way of saving its blushes over snubbing a proposed inclusive ceremony in Armagh designed to simply ‘mark’ the ‘partition of Ireland’ and the ‘formation of Northern Ireland’.

When I wrote that “unionists have long been denied the basic courtesy from nationalists of having the constitutional position of Northern Ireland being recognised” and that “the infantile posturing of pretending that it does not even exist is to this day a hallmark of much nationalist discourse” I did not have the first citizen of Ireland in mind.

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Yet incredibly this is where we find ourselves today.

Michael D Higgins — Uachtarán na hÉireann, President of Ireland — is the personification of the Irish state and he has in recent days not only engaged in petty semantics over whether he is the President of ‘Ireland’ or the ‘Republic of Ireland’ but also, more dangerously, in discourse which is close to pretending that Northern Ireland somehow does not exist, or never came into existence in the first place.

What else is one to make of his assertions that the question as to whether Northern Ireland came into being in 1921 or 1925 or some other time is a matter of historical dispute and that to assert that it came into being in 1921 is “not a politically neutral statement”?

The historian Éamon Phoenix has indeed suggested that there may be as many as three dates which could legitimately contend for the title of the official inception date of Northern Ireland.

I am not aware that it has ever been suggested that there is a particular political significance as to which date one recognises however.

Of course, as far as diehard republicans are concerned, Northern Ireland never came into existence in the first place because in their view it is an abomination and fundamentally illegitimate.

Higgins, in seeking to politicise the date of inception, is veering dangerously close to this type of extreme and frankly insane republican analysis: Northern Ireland is an unreal thing, though, paradoxically, at the same time malign.

And he has done this to justify his refusal to go to a ceremony which could not possibly be more anodyne and nationalist friendly in its unwillingness to in any way celebrate the founding of Northern Ireland.

Indeed Archbishop Martin has spoken of the service being partially a ‘lament’ for the partition of Ireland.

The additional fact that for at least 24 hours the president gave the impression that one of his main reasons for turning down the invitation from the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) to the ceremony in Armagh was that the invitation had been incorrectly addressed to the President of the Republic of Ireland, only to clumsily backtrack and admit that it was the leadership of the DUP who had engaged in such an appalling act of misnaming and not the Church Leaders Group (who it turned out had observed the constitutional niceties to perfection), shows that he was engaging also in dark arts of deception and/or simply looking for excuses for a snub for which he knew there was precious little intellectual justification, at least according to long formulated Irish government policy which accepts the principle of consent.

Somehow the irony that Higgins has sought to politicise the date of Northern Ireland’s inception but has stated that he cannot in conscience go to the ceremony in Armagh because it has been “politicised” has been lost in much of the commentary.

What is certain is that he and, by extension, the Irish state, have come out of this affair extremely badly.

It must be excruciatingly embarrassing for the Irish government that Higgins’ newly brushed up irredentism has gone down particularly well with Sinn Féin and, indeed, more radical republican elements.

Now there are even memes of Higgins on the internet dressed in an IRA style beret, complete with Easter Lilly, raising one finger in a f*** off gesture.

Higgins is an extraordinarily popular president.

To say that his actual politics are at serious variance however with much of the Irish electorate would be an understatement.

His schoolboyish admiration for Castro revealed in tweets after the dictator’s death was certainly an embarrassment to many.

It is depressing that in this instance he appears to have hit a popular nerve, with opinion polls in the Republic on his handling of this affair showing 80 percent plus approval ratings.

Castroite socialism might not be a surefire vote winner in the Republic but banging the green drum has yet again been shown to be a very reliable one.

Sadly it is hard to imagine a worse and more dangerous moment for such tribal indulgences.

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