Irish Examiner view: President addresses the 'feigned amnesia' of British imperialism

Irish Examiner view: President addresses the 'feigned amnesia' of British imperialism

President Michael D Higgins. Picture: Maxwell's

Had last week’s rugby game between Wales and Ireland been played in normal circumstances, then a minor military tattoo might have been offered as a stir-the-juices aperitif. 

The 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh, might even have paraded William ‘Billy’ Windsor, a cashmere goat that serves as a lance corporal and regimental mascot. The ball, as it has been, might have been delivered by a commando abseiling from an attack helicopter. 

That enthusiasm for matters military permeates British life, knowingly or subconsciously. Indeed, hardly an episode of The Antiques Roadshow can pass without a bundle of cherished letters from a faraway war, or colonial conquest, being offered for appraisal and tacit glorification.

This veneration of arms as a surrogate for a lost past is relentless and, from an outsider’s perspective, overblown and one-dimensional. 

Britain is, of course, right to remember its past and those who shaped it, but remembering, unless informed and complete, can be a disservice and dishonest.

It is not hard to argue — indeed, it is too easy and obvious — that Britain’s celebration of its past is based on deliberate cherry-picking as a national defence. 

The full, unvarnished story of British imperialism is as ugly as any of history’s subjugations. 

That realisation, especially around slavery, is gathering momentum. British schoolchildren might not be any more informed about their grandparents’ part in the Bengal famine of 1943 — 3m-plus dead — than they are about the Irish Famine a century earlier. 

The fact that these catastrophes were consequences of deliberate British policies is almost unknown outside of British academia, an ignorance all too disturbingly apparent during the Brexit campaign.

President Michael D Higgins addressed these issues this week, when, in an article in The Guardian, he offered a critique of British imperialism and the “feigned amnesia” of academics or journalists who refuse to address its legacy.

The President accused those groups, or at least some of them, of ignoring the toxic impact and legacy of British colonialism.

He said:

A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together.

He compared British forgetfulness with Irish reflections on our War of Independence and partition a century ago.

If President Higgins were presenting a bill for the past — he was not — those British voices who have dismissed his plea might be vindicated. 

However, as relationships across these islands change for myriad reasons, his plea for a better appreciation of the dynamics between Britain and any former colony is more and more relevant. 

Just as we are obliged to recognise horrors in our past, and the role Irish people played in painting the world red, Britain would be enriched by acknowledging the dark, dark side of ‘Rule Britannia’. 

Not to do so leaves it vulnerable to the wildest fantasies and undermines its place in our shared world. Not only are we again indebted to President Higgins, so too are our friends across the Irish Sea. 

Let us hope they take his advice in the spirit in which it was meant.

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