Emma de Souza: No place for rancour in debate over President’s service stance

Michael D Higgins has made the correct decision not to attend a service commemorating partition and those criticising him are the ones who have trouble reconciling the past
Emma de Souza: No place for rancour in debate over President’s service stance

President Michael D Higgins: Despite a long-recognised propensity for acute political acumen, consistency and integrity, his decision not to attend a service to commemorate partition has been met with volleys of criticism from unionist politicians in the North.

President Michael D. Higgins has stood firm in his choice to respectfully decline attendance of next month’s religious service of Ireland’s partition, citing his concern that the event had become politicised, and his presence would be inappropriate. 

Slated to take place next month, “The Centenaries of the Partition of Ireland and the Formation of Northern Ireland“ - as it is titled - is expected to commemorate a century of division on the island, and the resulting installation of Northern Ireland. 

Despite a long-recognised propensity for acute political acumen, consistency and integrity, the President’s decision has nonetheless been met with volleys of criticism from unionist politicians in the North, serving as yet another in a long line of entirely manufactured grievances for the express purpose of cheap political point-scoring.

Forced to clarify his position, the President elaborated further by stating that “What [had started out as] an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement.”, adding that the title was not “neutral.” 

A difficult position

Ignoring even the more glaringly politicised aspects of the ceremony, the decision to go forward with the event under the currently worded title alone is, in itself, political in nature. In conflating the island’s partition with a cause for celebration, the event coordinators have drawn a correlation where, for many, none such correlation exists. 

This placed the President in a difficult position, as many nationalists - including both the SDLP and Sinn Féin - have made clear that they will not be marking or celebrating the partition of Ireland.

Former Taoiseach, John Bruton was fiercely critical of President Michael D Higgins. File Picture
Former Taoiseach, John Bruton was fiercely critical of President Michael D Higgins. File Picture

Despite what some within political unionism would purport, the President’s aspiration for apolitical participation isn’t a nefariously disguised vehicle for exclusionary sectarianism, but his job. 

In 2016, the President withdrew from a commitment to attend a dinner at Belfast City Hall marking the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, reasoning that there was no longer cross-party support for the event, as unionists would not be in attendance, and he, therefore, did not wish to become embroiled in “political controversy.” 

Unionist representatives also refused to attend a commemorative service marking the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin that same year, Ulster Unionist Parades Spokesman Michael Copeland said at the time that they viewed the events of 1916 as “an act of terrorism”, the DUP’s Christopher Stalford described the legacy of the Easter Rising as “a poisonous one.” 

Regardless of the President’s consistent position, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson seized upon what appeared to him to be - through either ignorance or bad faith - a golden opportunity to condemn the President by positing that he was making it “difficult to build a shared future”; a galling claim given the man’s own party is actively boycotting strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement, and that he can’t even bring himself to respectfully address the Taoiseach by his Irish language title.

Past reconciliation

Everybody from Jim Allister to John Bruton was out in force with hot takes on the constitution and the Good Friday Agreement. Constitutional experts have since discredited John Bruton’s claims that the President was breaching the constitution when he turned down the invitation

The ensuing discord surrounding the President’s decision laid bare a trauma that has always festered just below the surface, oftentimes obscured by more apparent societal scarring - we have not, as a people, reconciled with our past. 

Everything from the name of the state to the right to vote, to the act of partition itself was furiously debated across social media platforms. We are a post-conflict society still grappling with grief, loss, and abandonment - and there remains a gulf in understanding the effects of partition and its long-term impact. 

The South must reconcile with its past too, writes Emma de Souza. Picture: PA
The South must reconcile with its past too, writes Emma de Souza. Picture: PA

This was always going to be a challenging period on both sides of the border and would necessitate a great deal of sensitivity and understanding on the part of both the public, and public representatives. 

For it isn’t just the North that has to reconcile with its past but the South too.

There exists a potent aspiration for a shared future, rooted in reciprocity and respect rather than tribalism. However, in order to achieve it, the communities still entrenched deepest in learned sectarianism will have to instead learn to approach one another with a genuine goal of mutual understanding, in acceptance that there exists multiple narratives of the past. 

We all need to be capable of transcending the boundaries of our own beliefs and perspectives in order to inform ourselves with the knowledge one can only glean from the lived experiences of others. In doing so, we not only enrich our relationships and our lives, but we begin the most crucial steps toward reconciliation.

The President has dedicated much of his time while in office to building understanding - ever striving for peaceful reconciliation across the island, his decision not to attend should be met with generosity and understanding, not rancour and animosity, for in the words of John Hume, “The answer to difference, is to respect it.”

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