News Analysis

Tuesday 23 September 2014

President Higgins must leave behind 'past gods'

The state visit to Britain is an opportunity for the President to begin a new political discourse

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

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Queen Elizabeth II talks to Louis Walsh (2nd left) at a reception for the Irish community at Buckingham Palace
Queen Elizabeth II talks to Louis Walsh (2nd left) at a reception for the Irish community at Buckingham Palace

Last week Queen Elizabeth threw a reception in Buckingham Palace to mark the contribution of Irish immigrants to British life and society.

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To watch her chat with her guests was to be reminded that we have come a long way from Donall MacAmhlaigh's experience of being called "Chang and Wong" for speaking Irish amidst the didicoys of the Edgware Road.

These scenes raise an important question.

What is the appropriate register for this happy equilibrium in Anglo-Irish affairs?

Even the most determined romantic must admit that incantations about "these islands" and "hope and history" have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Nobody has ever really come close to matching the eloquence and intensity of Jack Lynch's television address at the height of the marching season in 1970 when he insisted that we "must not appeal to past gods as if past generations had said the last word about Ireland. We have our opportunity to say for our generation what is in our hearts and minds. I think that there is in us an instinct for good, for enjoyment, for beauty, and above all, for peace with our neighbours".

President Higgins cannot hope to match these kinds of insights during his state visit to Britain next week, nor should he try. The fates have given him a different task, one that requires him to do justice to the normalisation of Anglo-Irish relations.

One wonders what he will say. President Higgins is an uneven advocate in many ways. He has a tendency to repeat banalities in august language, or to insist on distinctions that have been in place for a long time.

In the sphere of Anglo-Irish relations then, President Higgins has two voices. The first offers a benign, if occasionally incomprehensible, emphasis on the need for openness and sharing.

In Sao Paolo in 2012, this comes out as a call for a sense of Irishness that "is imagined as possibility, and capable of being brought to fruition, respecting the frames of experience and values to which our words and policies are directed".

His other voice then is what we might call the Field Day voice, Field Day being a Haughey-era thread in Irish letters that was preoccupied with post-colonial theory and psychiatric approaches to Irish history. For all its self-conscious newness, large parts of the Field Day enterprise were dismissed at the time as "nationalism with footnotes".

Now, President Higgins is not really all that interested in nationalism, but one can detect a certain paranoid tone in several of his speeches that echoes the Field Day's sensitivity to the iron heel of imperial oppression.

President Higgins spoke in America in 2012 of English as "the state language of the coloniser", and reflected on the "imperial degradation" of the London Times and the mean cartoons in Punch.

His myriad references to the philosopher Richard Kearney's notion of a "pardon of memory" may be designed to draw the sting from the Punch stuff, but they do help us place him in time all the same.

How to avoid sounding like someone who was formed in the Haughey-era so?

One radical approach would be to keep the Northern Ireland material to a strict minimum during the state visit and to emphasise the normalisation of relations by simply assuming it.

Why not throw out a few questions for discussion such as the following:

Did the EU's treatment of the Republic in the run-up to the bailout not vindicate Mrs Thatcher's dire warning to President Mitterrand at the Rome summit in 1989 that a single European currency would force the smaller economies to structure their economic life around the dictates of a united Germany?

Are we here, in our agony and penury, all Thatcherites?

Have we anything to teach the British then on the matter of coalition government?

We have seen them come and go since 1948, whereas the Cameron-Clegg ministry is the first coalition in the UK since Churchill and Attlee's.

What about the positive aspects then of Britain's own IMF experience in 1976, one that forced the then Labour government to fundamentally rethink the limitations of the Keynesian consensus.

Can we here learn anything from that experience as we struggle not to "waste" our own economic crisis?

President Higgins could speak, too, about our common civil service culture, and about the way the British have been more willing to innovate than we ever did. There are many other topics that spoke to the idea of normalisation should he be brave enough to leave hope and history at home.

Sunday Independent

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