Neil McCarthy: President Higgins is in a sentimental Irish republican bubble

When it became clear that Mary McAleese was about to become President of Ireland back in 1997, the writer Eoghan Harris famously wrote that he feared that she would prove a “tribal timebomb”.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 11:49 pm
Updated Saturday, 27th November 2021, 7:53 am
Far from backtracking on his Armagh centenary service snub, President Higgins doubled down on it with a remarkably partisan speech in Co Sligo

He believed that her apparent conservative Catholic northern nationalism would make her not only blind to the perspectives of unionists in Northern Ireland, but would actually cause harm to relationships between unionists and nationalist Ireland.

It is the mark of the man that he later apologised for being quite simply wrong about McAleese, who went on to reach out more successfully and generously to unionists than perhaps any other Irish president.

It is the mark of McAleese too that on the one occasion when she made uncharacteristically ungenerous and even bitter remarks about the Protestant people of Northern Ireland, she very quickly not only retreated, but made a fulsome and heartfelt apology.

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What a pity then that the current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has not only failed to backtrack from his absurd and frankly insulting comments about the interdenominational service held in Armagh a few weeks ago but has in fact recently doubled down upon his snub in a remarkably partisan speech delivered in Tubbercurry, County Sligo, on November 2.

The occasion was the 101st anniversary of the execution of Private James Daly, the last British soldier ever to be executed for mutiny.

Daly and his fellow mutineers were members of the Connaught Rangers stationed in Jalandhar and Solon, India, who in June 1920 protested against the conduct of British forces in Ireland by refusing to obey orders and at one stage attempting to seize rifles belonging to their company.

Whilst Daly was the only man executed, two other Irish soldiers were killed in the incidents and altogether courts martial were brought against 88 soldiers.

Doubtless brave men were involved on both sides of these incidents and there was certainly nothing exceptional about President Higgins seeking to give a speech at this commemorative event where a new monument to the mutineers was also unveiled.

What was exceptional was the patronising and historically amnesiac way that he sought, in the words of the Irish Times, to “make a plea [for Irish people] not to judge those who ... had taken up service with the Crown in the days before Irish independence”.

President Higgins wasn’t channelling his inner Kevin Myers here however. Whilst writers such as Myers — and indeed Eoghan Harris — have done exemplary work in bringing to light non-nationalist traditions in modern Ireland, Higgins went on to stick in a brutally reductive knife.

People like Private Daly who voluntarily joined the British Army, or others who joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), must have done so out of sheer financial desperation: “How can we not seek to understand the attempts that people made in the conditions they had been reduced to in the absence of there being an independent State?” Higgins gravely intoned.

Perish the thought that young men such as Daly may have had any other motivations.

I wonder what Higgins would make of the motivations of Lance Corporal Ian Malone from Ballyfermot in Dublin who was shot in the head by a sniper in April 2003 whilst advancing with a company of Irish Guards on Basra, and whose funeral was the first with a uniformed British military presence in the Republic since 1922?

No excuse for him that he had been reduced to conditions where he could not make a free choice in the absence of Irish independence.

Higgins clearly lives in a sentimental Irish republican socialist bubble far removed from the complex realities of a city like Dublin where some working class people for generations have chosen, and choose, to serve in British uniform.

He mustn’t have seen RTÉ’s 2017 documentary on soccer legend Johnny Giles where Giles, recalling that to play soccer in 1950s Dublin was an act of defiance against nationalist imperatives, memorably said: “I didn’t consider myself Irish”.

One of the boons of the original peace process in the Republic was the massive injection of energy it gave to those seeking to broaden what it meant to be Irish.

The very personification of this broadening was Bertie Ahern, the passionate Dublin GAA man who could follow Manchester United with an equal if not greater passion, all the while supping on his pint of Bass in Fagan’s pub in Drumcondra.

Bass was one of the British products most violently opposed by the IRA in their early 1930s “Burn everything British but their coal” phase; it was not only a British product but was further demonised by Irish republicans for the Conservative Party membership of its then chairman, Colonel John Gretton. It is tempting to think that Bertie, whose father had been an old IRA man in the 1920s, relished such historical nuance.

Yet it was Bertie last week who got stuck into loyalists with his now infamous comment that they “don’t have a clue” about the protocol and see it solely through the prism of identity. It says something for the neo-nationalist europhilia which has for the time being taken over the south that a man such as Ahern should so clearly have wet his finger and stuck it up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.

With one eye on the next presidential election, Bertie is now locked into a Dutch auction of nationalism with Higgins.

In the meantime Irishness contracts and Billy Hutchinson has announced the withdrawal of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and no doubt UVF support for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

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