Seamus Heaney's intervention in the flag debate in Northern Ireland made for bracing reading at various levels. His statement that there was "never going to be a united Ireland" cuts across our Constitution's rather pious declaration that Irish unity remains "the firm will" of the historic Irish nation.
Heaney's statement may well rank in time alongside Liam Cosgrave's public declaration in 1975 that nationalist violence was basically "killing the desire for unity".
Cosgrave could not afford to wait for academic cover though, and had to fend largely for himself at the time.
Heaney went on to draw a line between the unity issue and the problems of symbols, reasoning by implication that since Irish nationalism lost the basic argument about sovereignty, "why don't you let them [loyalists] fly the flag?"
The point here seems to have been an argument about consequences.
If Justice Brian Walsh was correct in the Crotty judgement in 1987 in holding that "sovereignty . . . is the unfettered right to decide: to say yes or no", then surely those who 'win' the basic constitutional argument, so to speak, get some practical benefits?
Heaney's analysis probably would have had a lot more bite if it had been publicly tendered when Brian Cowen was Minister for Foreign Affairs and Peter Mandelson was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
These two quarrelled mightily a decade ago about the practical implications of the sovereignty clauses in the Good Friday Agreement.
Cowen implied that "parity of esteem" was incompatible with State-sponsored symbols of Britishness.
Mandelson wondered how on earth the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs thought it could publicly yield on joint authority, yet act as if this concession then logically voided every symbol of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
Heaney's analysis tends, of course, to the Mandelson side of that argument.
Had he intervened earlier here, maybe the debate in the Republic would have become more nuanced. Better late than never, though.
Heaney's analysis of the flag issue should be read alongside a long and thoughtful interview he did with the mighty German broadsheet, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), a year or so ago.
Our European paymasters write elegantly about our little platoon, and they got Heaney to open up with some high-brow questions. In a piece titled, 'Can poetry save our souls, Mr Heaney?', the FAZ got him to reflect on the roots of his genius.
Heaney spoke amongst other personal matters about the death of a friend shortly after Bloody Sunday ('Blutsonntag'). He also told the Germans that in the Seventies and Eighties some of his poems emerged from what he called 'Gefühl sozialer Verpflichtung', that is to say, a feeling of social obligation or duty.
The argument about obligation here looks back to Heaney's reaction to the H-Block crisis of 1981.
As Professor Paul Bew recounted in his book The Politics of Enmity (2007), "the most distinguished Irish writers, men like Sean O Faolain and Seamus Heaney, who had refused to accept many nationalist pieties, were moved to sympathy and even a kind of moral support".
Heaney knew the family of one of the hunger-strikers, Francis Hughes, the second volunteer to die after Bobby Sands.
In a later essay published with the American Philosophical Society in 1994, Heaney described the repatriation of Hughes's body under police escort to his hometown of Toomebridge, and asked: "By what right did the steel ring of the defence forces close round the remains of one who was son, brother, comrade, neighbour, companion? The nationalist collective felt that the police presence was an assault on what the Irish language would call their duchas, their entire sense of community . . ."
Bew set these sentiments next to those of the RUC inspector Alan McQuillan who reminded people that Francis Hughes's dozen or so victims included a child.
"He was an extremely good terrorist," the policeman said. "He killed a lot of people. A terrible and ruthless opponent – and in some way brave. But I saw a lot of people he murdered, including a child, which gives a different perspective."
That 'Gefühl sozialer Verpflichtung', that feeling of social obligation Heaney spoke to the Germans about, works its way through the system in various ways, it seems.
After the Kingsmill murders, for example, Paul Durcan avoided "duchas" and wrote incandescent poems like In Memory of the Miami Showband – Massacred 31 July 1975 to vent his horror at the "vaudeville terror" that followed the murder of 10 Protestant workingmen en route home in their van.
And Carlo Gebler wrote a haunting book about the moral collapse of Irish nationalism post-Enniskillen.
Maybe the Heaney we are hearing at the moment is seeking polemical parity with these urgent contemporary voices?