President Michael D Higgins (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Bad manners come in small packages

The new Ireland dislikes Unionists as much as the old one

Despite his diminutive stature and quiet speaking voice, Michael D. Higgins, sometime poet and current president of the Irish Republic, is an unbending, discourteous, republican ideologue. This should surprise nobody. We knew it already but it’s a useful reminder for anyone foolish enough to believe that southern Ireland is really a modern, inclusive state, capable of being generous to its northern neighbour. 

Mr Higgins has spent the most recent years of his presidency lecturing this country about our “legacy of colonialism” under the guise of “remembering” the shared history of the British Isles. This project was carried out in a way that blamed most of his country’s problems, past and present, on the United Kingdom and explained away the bloodshed caused by Ireland’s separatist fanatics as a symptom of “occupation”. 

Southern political leaders continue to act as if their remit extends to the British part of the island

Last week, we learned that he had also refused an invitation to a multi-denominational church service organised to reflect upon Northern Ireland’s centenary. His mean-spirited decision delivers a snub to the Queen, who plans to attend the event.

Defending this course of action, Higgins alleged the title of this service “of reflection and hope”, which will mark “the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland,” is a political statement. “I have the right to exercise discretion as to what I think is appropriate,” he claimed.

In fact, the Irish constitution determines that the president acts at the direction of his government — and his views on the appropriateness or otherwise of the event betray contempt for unionism in Northern Ireland and the province’s British status. He was supported in this stance by, among other nationalists, Mary-Lou McDonald, the southern leader of Sinn Fein, who claimed, “the partition of Ireland was a catastrophe for our people and our country.”

Higgins seemed to object most strongly, and completely wrongly, to being referred to as the “President of the Republic of Ireland” rather than the “President of Ireland” on the invitation. He later clarified that DUP politicians, rather than the organisers, had used this terminology. But his reaction was revealing as it reflected perfectly the pretensions of office holders in the Republic to speak for both parts of Ireland.

Politicians in southern Ireland are not likely to suffer unpopularity for treating unionists with disdain

When the Dublin government signed the Belfast Agreement, it supposedly accepted that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless or until its people decided otherwise through a border poll. However, its political leaders continued to act as if their remit extended to the British part of the island. Officially, the Republic relinquished its claim on the territory by changing Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish constitution, but the annexationist mindset seemed to remain. Higgins’ deliberate insult to the Queen is only one high profile example. 

Higgins presumably wants to avoid being treated like a visiting dignitary when he visits this part of the UK. His attitude mirrors the approach of the former taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and his sidekick Simon Coveney, who dropped into Northern Ireland without invitation or formality (or objection from own sovereign government). While they notionally accept the “principle of consent” explicitly at the heart of the peace process, in everyday practice they use irredentist language that assumes the Irish “nation” properly encompasses the whole island. It does not. 

Sadly, the President’s decision is not only consistent with much of his previous behaviour, but it also reflects accurately prevailing anti-British sentiment in the Republic, which has increased in intensity over the past five years. In a poll for the Irish Mail on Sunday, 81 per cent of voters supported Higgins’ rejection of the invitation. Politicians in southern Ireland are never likely to attract unpopularity for treating unionists with disdain. Ultimately, they have no responsibility for any repercussions of their actions north of the border, so there is little incentive to avoid self-serving populism and “cute hoorism” of the kind Higgins is indulging in. 

Perhaps the only funny element of this furore is the reaction of various sanctimonious bores, who were shocked, shocked I tell you, by the President’s discourtesy. Northern Ireland’s execrable Alliance Party appealed to Higgins to reconsider. Its sentiment was endorsed by Northern Ireland Protocol fan, and Northern Ireland Select Committee chair, Simon Hoare. “This event builds on the acts of reconciliation that Irish presidents and the Queen have led over recent years,” tweeted North Down MP, Stephen Farry.

The problem is that reconciliation was always, largely, a one-way process

The key moment in this process of reconciliation, of course, was Her Majesty’s visit to Dublin in 2011. On that occasion, the Queen laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, which commemorates violent, sectarian, blood and soil nationalists who murdered their fellow countrymen, “in the cause of Irish freedom”. The Queen nevertheless told a state dinner at Dublin Castle, “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all. But it is also true that no-one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations, the spirit of partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us.” That is what reconciliation sounds like. It’s not what you’ll hear from Michael D Higgins.

The problem is that it was always, largely, a one-way process. Many nationalists and republicans in the Irish Republic — never mind those who, like Sinn Fein, glorify murder in Northern Ireland — have felt no need to reciprocate this kind of generosity. Their idea of “remembering” and “reconciliation” involved Britain self-flagellating forever in the teeth of Irish self-righteousness. Rather than reflect genuinely upon the barbarity of IRA violence, whether in the early part of the century, or during the Troubles, they contextualised these campaigns with ahistorical guff about colonialism.

The Queen marked the deaths of extremists who rebelled against the Crown, but the nationalist equivalent is meeting her with relative courtesy or doing something to partly redress the shameful repudiation of young Irish men who died in the First World War. Last year, even an event organised to remember Ireland’s pre-partition police force, the RIC, had to be cancelled because it attracted so much controversy. 

Michael D. Higgins reveals that the “new Ireland” is much like the old one but smugger

There is a growing group of people in Northern Ireland that seems to think unionists and nationalists can talk away their differences until a change of sovereignty becomes as easy and seamless as changing one’s socks. To this end, they open themselves up to all kinds of nonsense about a “new Ireland”, where Britishness will be one of a range of identities that are respected and cherished. For them, Higgins’ behaviour is a shock and a blow. One pundit described it as a “catastrophe”.

For genuine unionists, it is actually a useful and instructive moment. The complacent and naïve “persuadable” people who want to talk about constitutional change need to know about this stuff. For those of us who have been paying attention, it’s no surprise that the Irish republic is as mired as ever in its foundational myths and hatreds. I’m what they hate: I’ll notice when they stop and will let you know.

Keep listening to Michael D. Higgins. He reveals that the “new Ireland” is much like the old one but smugger. It retains the same attitudes, even if its anti-unionist, anti-British prejudices are cloaked in condescension and bad poetry.

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