President made right decision to decline church service invitation
I welcome President Michael D Higgins’s decision to decline an invitation to attend the commemorative church service alongside Queen Elizabeth II marking the centenary of the partition of Ireland.
In Northern Ireland a minority section of the population suffered 50 years of oppression in various, well-documented forms. It began with an attempt at ethnic cleansing – thousands being put out of their jobs and homes during 1920-22. The dominant, contrived, majority justified the discrimination that maintained its privileged position. In 1955 Thomas Wilson, economic adviser to the Stormont government, explained that Roman Catholics were made to feel inferior because “they often were inferior”. In 1960 the ruling Unionist Party debated whether Roman Catholics could join and concluded: No. Ian Paisley articulated nakedly sectarian views unionists had promoted, which led to the forced resignation of Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill in 1969 when he looked favourably on the political accommodation of Catholics. A sectarian force policed this sectarian system.
Notwithstanding the fact that Stormont was a subordinate parliament to Westminster, a British government blind eye was turned to a unionist monolith ploughing its own exclusive furrow.
Civil rights demands from people like John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Austin Curry, aiming to bring about by peaceful means equality of treatment throughout the north, were rejected by a recalcitrant unionism. If unionists acted at that juncture with a modicum of common sense and political integrity the nightmare of the armed struggle might never have evolved and this island may well have been spared the horrors of the following 30 years. Rarely has a community acted more purposefully against its own interests than unionism.
For half a century, Catholics were imprisoned in politically constructed ghettos, were denied equal access to jobs and housing, and to ensure the continuation of this policy were denied the right to vote themselves out of their predicament. Northern nationalists do not require knowledge of what happened during 1916 and the War of Independence to sustain hostility to the Northern Ireland state, their lived experience was justification enough. For President Higgins to accept an invitation to commemorate the centenary of Northern Ireland is to endorse the fact that from partition in 1921, with its carefully cultivated territorial and demographic carve up until Stormont was prorogued in 1972, unionists enjoyed the exclusive trappings of economic and political hegemony. By refusing to concede the democratic principle of power sharing over majoritarianism, It was clear that unionism preferred ‘no power’ than ‘shared power’.
Irish National Congress, Dublin 2
In the search for peace and reconciliation, heads of state as well as elected politicians have also made important gestures to assist progress.
As president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, on a visit to Northern Ireland in 1993, shook the hand of Gerry Adams – this was regarded as a ‘historic’ gesture in the search for peace.
As the United Kingdom head of state, Queen Elizabeth has also made courageous gestures.
In 2011, she attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance on the first day of her historic state visit. In what was described as a hugely symbolic gesture reflecting a new era in relations between the countries, the British monarch bowed her head as she laid a wreath at the memorial for those who died fighting for Irish freedom, before observing a minute’s silence.
Then in 2012, in a further spirit of reconciliation, she shook the hand of the former commander of the IRA, Martin McGuinness, despite the fact that the IRA had murdered Lord Mountbatten who was a member of the royal family.
They shook hands at a private meeting at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, involving a group of seven people, including President Higgins and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson. They later shook hands in public.
In 2015, her son, Charles, heir as head of state, shook hands with Gerry Adams who has always unapologetically justified the murder of Lord Mountbatten.
Gestures are important and all these gestures were warmly welcomed throughout Ireland at the time.
By accepting the invitation to attend a religious service organised by all the four main Churches in Ireland, President Higgins would have added to the many gestures he has already made in the search for reconciliation.
Lisnagry, Co Limerick
What an impertinent and insulting thing it was to invite the head of the Irish nation to ‘come celebrate with us our victory over you, in persuading the British to rupture your country at the point of a gun, and create a truncated statelet in the north, the sole purpose of which was to advantage us, and disadvantage you.
‘Come celebrate with us the creation of this entity, which was highly successful in erecting an unjust political system which engaged in shameless gerrymandering, and discriminatory employment and housing practices, and created a policing system designed to suppress your dissent.
‘Come celebrate with us, and with the head of the British state which presided over this malevolent political vandalism - and which adamantly refused for decades to intervene to protect the rights of your fellow Irish citizens inside the six county state, until the civil rights movement shamed the lot of you in front of the whole world, and precipitated a slow trickle of begrudged “reforms” which are not even yet complete, over a half century later.’
Thank you Mr President, for maintaining the dignity and self-respect of the Irish national community North and South.
Cookstown, Co Tyrone
Furore over president’s non appearance
The furore over the non appearance of President Michael D Higgins at an interdenominational service to commemorate the founding of the Northern Ireland state seems to have annoyed Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP. He kept referring to the president incorrectly as the ‘president of the Irish Republic’ instead of ‘president of Ireland’ which is his official title. You would think that a man of his stature would know that, before repeating the mistake. When asked on a radio programme ‘Are you asking the president to commemorate a centenary of what unionists stated was its right to create a Protestant state for a Protestant people... where hundreds died and thousands were forced from their jobs?’ Jeffrey replied, “I could easily talk about the Irish Civil War where republicans slaughtered each other in their hundreds and thousands...”
Jeffrey should remember that the Civil War took place because of the founding of the northern Irish state.
Let us hope that Jeffrey, or whoever is in power, will someday write to the president of Ireland and address it to the ‘president of the Irish republic’ and be correct.
Newry , Co Down