Unionist dismay at rejection of Seamus Heaney as image of NI Beyond 2021

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has urged people to promote more positive Irish/UK relations amid a row over Seamus Heaney’s image being used to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.

By Mark Rainey
Tuesday, 15th December 2020, 12:59 pm
Updated Tuesday, 15th December 2020, 3:21 pm
The image of Seamus Heaney being used to mark 100  years since the creation of Northern Irelrand
The image of Seamus Heaney being used to mark 100 years since the creation of Northern Irelrand

After Colum Eastwood posted an image of the poet on Twitter along with Heaney’s rhyming couplet – ‘Be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen’ – Mr Aiken tweeted a photo of Heaney shaking hands with the Queen in 2011. Mr Aiken’s response to the SDLP leader’s message said: “Despite colour of passport I do think Seamus did raise a glass to the Queen – far better days in Irish/UK relations...let’s get back to them (State Visit 2011).”

DUP MP Gavin Robinson branded the response of Colum Eastwood, and many other nationalists, as “deeply depressing”.

He said: “I think it is deeply depressing that there are those who are so opposed to the notion of NI 2021 celebrations that they almost claim individuals, and their memory, and eschew the fact that they are from Northern Ireland, and were proud of Northern Ireland.”

Heaney wrote ‘the passport’ verse in response to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982.

Although an Irish nationalist, Heaney had rejected attempts to have him speak out in support of republican hunger-strikers in the early 1980s, and reflecting on those turbulent times, he later wrote: “[Hunger-striker] Francis Hughes was a neighbour’s child, yes, but he was also a hit man and his Protestant neighbours would have considered him involved in something like a war of genocide against them rather than a war of liberation against the occupying forces of the crown.

“At that stage, the IRA’s self-image as liberators didn’t work much magic with me. But neither did the too-brutal simplicity of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘A crime is a crime is a crime.’”

The image of Heaney being used to promote ‘Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 2021’ is a painting of the poet owned by Queen’s University.

In a 2013 interview with The Times newspaper, at the height of the Belfast City Hall flag protests, Heaney questioned Sinn Fein’s drive to have the Union Flag flown on designated days only.

The Noble Prize winner said he thought there was “no hurry on flags” and that Sinn Fein “could have taken it easy” in addressing any issues with emblems.

Heaney branded the approach taken by republicans as “very dangerous indeed,” and added: “There’s never going to be a united Ireland, you know. So why don’t you let them fly the flag?”

Gavin Robinson said: “We want to celebrate all that is good about Northern Ireland – all the significant achievements and all of the notable individuals, and Seamus Heaney is one of them.

“There is no reason why he shouldn’t be incorporated in a reflection on all of the great things that come from this place.

“I think it’s really sad, that as we approach the end of the Decade of Centenaries, folks who may not want to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary have spend the last ten years indicating that people should have respect for others within our society, can’t give the space for people to suitably reflect on the centenary of the UK as we know it.”

The East Belfast MP added: “I do think that the failure of nationalism and republicanism to engage in the centenary in a meaningful or thoughtful way is deeply depressing. They have a story to tell, and they have a contribution to make if only they could do it respectfully in an engaging way.”

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said the negative reaction of so many nationalists showed that “they can’t cope” with having an inclusive approach to the centenary commemorations.

The East Antrim representative tweeted: “The celebration, commemoration and reflection of NI’s centenary needs to be positive and inclusive. It will shape the vision for the new century and new opportunity for us all. Nationalist complaints about inclusion show how they can’t cope with such an approach.”