Tim McGarry: Ulster’s 100th birthday bash nearly as low key as Prince Andrew’s 60th

There are certain phrases that can instantly strike terror in to the hearts of all right-thinking men.

Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 2:43 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd September 2021, 3:33 pm
President Higgins has declined a church service invite. I mean be honest, it’s the centenary of the formation of a state which is based on religion so a fall-out over a religious service is definitely on-message

Phrases like ‘prostate examination’, ‘contemporary dance workshop’ and ‘Nolan Show Special’.

In the top 10 of such phrases there must surely be a place for ‘interdenominational church service’.

So I have a lot of sympathy with Irish President Michael D Higgins.

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As outreach to unionists, Michael D Higgins could make his speeches from Jamie Bryson’s bin

If I were invited to a two hour session on the cold hard pews of a cathedral I would invent literally any excuse to get out of it.

I’d say they got my title wrong even though they didn’t (For the record, it’s Tim McGarry — King of Comedy, not King of Northern Irish Comedy).

Yes, the political drama this week was caused by the churches who made Michael D an offer he couldn’t refuse until he refused it.

Michael D turned down an invitation to a service to mark 100 years of Northern Ireland.

This was a surprise to most people.

The events to celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland have gone well so far.

In fact they were going so well that up to now nobody really knew they were happening — and the year is almost over.

There was something about schools getting a free tree, Seamus Heaney being a unionist and the Shinners objecting to a stone, but that was it.

Ulster’s 100th birthday bash was nearly as low key as Prince Andrew’s 60th.

I’m old enough to remember the attempt in 1971 to celebrate 50 years of Northern Ireland, an attempt which was somewhat undermined by the outbreak of what is best described as a D list Civil War.

Back then there was an exhibition and a funfair with the catchy slogan ‘Ulster 71! Come and join the fun’.

‘Ulster 100! Come to church’ quite frankly doesn’t have quite the same ring.

So this church service kerfuffle/furore came out of the blue.

Of course it shouldn’t have.

I mean be honest, it’s the centenary of the formation of a state which is based on religion so a fall-out over a religious service is definitely on-message.

Michael D’s refusal to go to church to thank God for partitioning Ireland led to entirely predictable reactions from both sides.

We all got to check our Northern Ireland ‘outrage’ bingo card. During the week I got — ‘sectarian statelet’, ‘Nationalist hypocrisy’ ‘50 years of unionist misrule’ ‘so this is their “New Ireland”!!?’, ‘Ireland unfree will never be at peace’ ‘insult to unionists’ ‘planters’ ‘foreign head of state’ and ‘border poll now!’

If you got all of those, congratulations on having a very cross-community twitter feed. If you got only half of those, well ...

The church leaders suggested that their service “to mark the centenary of partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland” was non-political, which, to be polite, is somewhat disingenuous.

If it’s non-political and they’re not going to even mention partition then what is the point of it?

I’d prefer if they went full throttle and properly and unapologetically celebrated Northern Ireland with a reading from the Book of B Specials, a video of Ian Paisley at the 1985 Ulster Says No rally, followed by the parable of the Ulsterman and the 26 lost counties and ending with a special prayer ‘What God has divided, let no man re-unite’.

• As outreach, Michael D could make his speeches from Jamie’s bin

When Michael D’s refusal to go to Armagh emerged there was much heated debate about snubs.

Of course both unionists and nationalists have form in this area. All our politicians are professional snubbers and boycotters.

Arlene Foster wouldn’t even go to a Republic of Ireland football match in the Euros in 2016.

Right now the DUP are sporadically boycotting North South bodies.

And Sinn Fein boycotted Stormont for three years.

So no-one is coming at this with clean hands.

Michael D is a polymath. A poet.

Even the most disappointed unionist would agree that President Higgins is an intelligent, thoughtful and erudite man.

He is unlikely to be seen at Feile an Phobail singing ‘ooh aah up the Ra’ along to the Wolfe Tones.

However there does seem to have been a failure of diplomacy and some redress is probably called for.

Michael D will need to engage in some serious unionist outreach.

I have a few suggestions.

Perhaps he could donate the tricolour that flies over Aras an Uachtarain to an 11th night bonfire.

Or he could, in future, make all his speeches to the nation from the top of Jamie Bryson’s wheelie bin.

And he could start by offering Ben Lowry free Irish language lessons.

Another way to make amends would be for Michael D to turn up to watch the Northern Ireland women’s football team.

This team is truly cross-community, peace and reconciliation yada yada yada... But everyone should forget about politics and just enjoy the really great job they are doing.

Northern Ireland Women have already qualified for next year’s Euros and have won convincingly twice in the last two world Cup qualifiers.

I’m slightly biased of course because Cliftonville legend Marissa Callaghan is also the Northern Ireland captain and three Cliftonville players scored against Latvia on Tuesday night.

And more importantly they’re a lot cheaper to watch than the men. They take on England on 23rd October.

Let’s mark 100 years of Northern Ireland and get the Queen, Michael D, Michelle O’Neill and Paul Givan to Wembley.

Even if we lose it’ll definitely be better crack than a church service.

l Other articles by Tim McGarry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

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