This civility has many authors
Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30
LITTLE in the outward persona of Michael D Higgins suggests he is a devotee of the politics of 'speak softly but carry a big stick'. In fact, our flamboyant President has invented a subtle variant, where he uses soft language to usher harsh truths into the national consciousness. The President's sharp message about the superior virtues of that school of nationalism that is founded on the ballot box was certainly welcome last week, for there was a need for some steel to balance the Windsor house rodomontade. In fairness, the latter may have been informed by relief at the rare sight, in an age of public rot, of a politics of wisdom and honest authenticity. After the squalor of recent controversies, we need to hear untainted public voices.
Last week, this occurred when, in a similar display of straight talking to his previous challenge to the "limits of austerity", the President spoke of Daniel O'Connell's belief that freedom is best "attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men".
Outside of the critique that wise women are equally necessary for good governance, it was a necessary reiteration of the often-forgotten fact that despite the ongoing strange seductiveness of the miserable concept of blood sacrifice, progress in Ireland has always been secured by constitutional democracy, buttressed by no sharper sword than the assent of the people.
In an age where Sinn Fein, in particular, confuses reconciliation with the drawing-up of lists of historical grievances, it was a point worth making. These may be soft-slippered times for celebrities such as Martin McGuinness, but we should remember that the currently reviled Bertie Ahern, the forgotten David Trimble and the discarded SDLP walked many hard miles too before these slippers could be placed on the feet of Sinn Fein. Reiterating the virtues of constitutional nationalism was no academic treatise either, for historical spite and ancestral hatreds, as we see in Crimea, can still thrive if they are not confronted by progressive political leadership.
That said, we should not price the consequences of the trip more highly than its actual worth. The hard ground broken in 2011 meant that last week was more of a confirmation of a new politics of civility and the end of our hostility to those English who talked down to the Irish "with their damned superior smiles".
Ultimately, the most positive lesson was that old ways of doing things, even when followed over eight centuries, are not set in stone. Michael D's own political journey in a Catholic country that was a cold house for those of its citizens who were poor, gay or illegitimate and who sent its sons to be the hod carriers who built the mansions he glided through last week, is living proof of that.
Indeed, it is a measure of how the world changes that up to a decade ago Michael D Higgins taking tea with the Queen would have been dismissed as representing the politics of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, whilst the presence of Martin McGuinness would have represented a scenario that went beyond satire.
Happily, such things are now normal, in a manner of speaking. The Guernica of what went before suggests that all, and particularly Sinn Fein, should work to keep it that way.