History can light the way, but it’s what we bring to the question today that really matters… 


It’s hard to believe that in the wake of their boycott of the Queen’s visit to the Republic in 2011, Sinn Féin’s First Minister Martin McGuinness petitioned to meet her on a subsequent visit to Northern Ireland.

As we’ve come closer to the anniversary of partition attitudes have not just hardened, but got more slapdash and careless. As Tony Horwitz writes of the remnants of the American civil war he found in the 1990s:

Everywhere, it seemed, I had to explore two pasts and two presents; one white, one black, separate and unreconcilable. The past had poisoned the present and the present, in turn, now poisoned remembrance of things past.

This is not a luxury we can afford. The surprising thing to me is that the agent of such thoughtless dissolution should be someone of the personal stature and position of President Higgins. In the Irish Times, Stephen Collins explains:

All of the fine talk about respecting the British identity of the unionist population in a future united Ireland appeared to go out the window in the furore which followed the President’s demarche. It is as if the Belfast Agreement, and the principle of consent around which it was framed, never happened.

The President has had many good people declare their support for him (including in Slugger’s comment zone), based on their experience of him as a polymath and man of letters. But that misses the deeper implications of his démarche.

That it comes from Higgins rather than the usual subjects (all of whom applauded the President to the rafters) is all the more dangerous, making it important to take the time to allow how he has mishandled this affair to sink in.

The president’s retreat into the alienating language of political abstraction, away from the business of learning from the experience of communal strife belies an arduous journey undertaken (but not completed) long before he took office.

As Collins notes:

It took a very long time for nationalist Ireland to get to grips with the reality that partition was not simply imposed by the British government on an unwilling population in 1922, but arose from the fact that one million unionists in the North were prepared to resist by arms incorporation in the new State.

Following partition the Northern state became a sectarian entity, which as David Trimble acknowledged in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech was “a cold house for Catholics”. The other side of the coin was that the Southern State was dominated by a Catholic ethos and was for a long time hardly a warm house for Protestants.

Higgins’ use of the abstracted language of anti colonialism runs directly against the advice William Gerhardi’s Historian’s Credo in his book on the Romanovs:

‘History must at last convince of the uselessness of insensate mass movements riding roughshod, now as ever, over anonymous suffering and claiming priority in the name of some newly clothed abstraction. If it does not teach that, it does not teach anything.’

In the hasty (and sometimes intemperate) rush to defend Higgins, it has been too quickly and too conveniently forgotten that all along the leading churchmen had been acting in good faith. Collins again:

The commemorative event in Armagh organised by the churches attempted to reflect the complex reality of what happened a century ago, and the differing contemporary views of it, by referring not simply to the founding the Northern state but to partition. It was clearly an effort to be as all-inclusive as possible.[Emphasis added]

Now it is possible (though the President has yet to give any account of his contact with the secretariat of the Heads of the churches) that Higgins had appraised the clergy of his misgivings, but they are clear they did not receive them.

It all gives a distinct impression of a arbitrary dispatch of an idea which is in perfect alignment with the drift of the Irish political consensus from Jack Lynch, through Liam Cosgrave, Garrett FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern.

The apparent public support for the President’s stance raises troubling questions about whether the majority of people in the Republic are more comfortable with the old pre-Belfast Agreement version of aggressive nationalism than they are with the more nuanced “shared island” approach of the Taoiseach and the Government.

Back in 2005 (when Facebook was a baby and news flows were still noticeably slower and more nuanced than they are now) Pete Baker noted the following:

…it’s a question of whether the destructive appeal of the savage logic of ethnic and sectarian strife in the midst of a cultural chaos, encouraged by the increasing speed of information flow, risks overwhelming the attempt to imaginatively engage in the historical lives of others.

The head of state’s decisions may not affect the substance of government policy per se but it does nevertheless have a huge impact on the semiotics of the settlement of 1998, and in ways I’m really not sure he actually intended.

The outworking of that settlement is not an historic artefact but in fact is ongoing. It’s why NI has a separate Brexit settlement from the rest of the UK and why the EU are currently looking at significant modifications to the protocol.

Putting the decade in the hands of historians has negated this important contemporary aspect of examining in the context of where our history has taken us and what new opportunities have opened up to us as a result.

Do we choose one where people of different cultures and histories, working together, getting along in partnership to make something of their lives through cooperation, or turn back to our post colonial, and sectarianised past?

History can light the way, but it’s what we as a society choose to bring to the question today that matters.

“Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.” – Adam Tooze



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