Wednesday 19 June 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Higgins can be a steward to heal the wounds of Irish history - but he needs a broader scope of sympathy'

Michael D Higgins makes his victory speech after he was announced as the winner of Ireland's presidential election at Dublin Castle. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Michael D Higgins makes his victory speech after he was announced as the winner of Ireland's presidential election at Dublin Castle. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

It was really pragmatism more than principle that saw the combined forces of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil unite to support the re-election of a popular President who spent most of his Oireachtas career opposing their policies. Neither party was keen to deplete their respective war chests when a general election could come at any time.

The poor showing of Sinn Féin's candidate Liadh Ní Riada certainly vindicated the approach taken by the two big parties. While Mary Lou McDonald was keen to put a brave face on the outcome, there's no doubt that Ms Ní Riada winning almost 150,000 fewer votes than Martin McGuinness seven years earlier is a considerable electoral setback - not to mention the wasted expense.

The resounding mandate received by Michael D Higgins showed that most people think he has done a fine job as first citizen.

The surprise jump for Peter Casey from 2pc in the polls to more than 23pc on the day notwithstanding, allegations about the use of Lear jets and claims about spending at Áras an Uachtaráin did little to dent enthusiasm around the Higgins campaign.

Most voters live by the intuition that if something isn't broken, don't try to fix it. That's why, despite falling party membership, many voters who wouldn't class themselves as part of the 'gene pool' were content to continue voting Fianna Fáil during the boom in the hope of more of the same.

In fairness, Mr Higgins has rarely put a foot wrong.

Even if he sometimes appears to be delighting in the glory of his office a little more than is decent, his only major misstep that jarred with a lot of people was his response to the death of the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

At the time in 2016, Mr Higgins referred to the communist leader as a "giant among global leaders".

He made just a passing reference to the fact that "the economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics".

Notably, Mr Higgins did not align himself with any of the critics.

During the recent campaign, he did seem to pull back a little - but only a little. When he was speaking to reporters at his re-election campaign on the issue, he admitted: "If I was reissuing the statement now I would probably expand the sections on human rights." Probably?

It is certainly far from a repudiation of his original position. And herein lies Mr Higgins's blind spot.

He has spent his entire political career unashamedly as a man of the left with very little to say about human rights abuses perpetrated by left-wing regimes and much to critique about the excesses of capitalism.

Mr Higgins has spoken about the need for an "ethical remembering" of the past. This will be particularly important in the sensitive commemorations that he will preside over in the coming years.

These will include the War of Independence, the partition of the island of Ireland and the Civil War.

But, remembering the past ethically means remembering it in an inclusive way.

Can the President rise to this?

There was another blind spot evident during Mr Higgins's various remarks at the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Despite the fact that the Rosary has been described as the "soundtrack of the Rising", Mr Higgins never mentioned in his public utterances the deeply held religious faith of those who fought for Irish freedom at the time.

Catholicism was also absent when he listed "the influences of the Enlightenment, romanticism, mysticism, suffragism, socialism, pacifism".

EVEN a casual look at the records of the Bureau of Military History reveals the religious sensibilities that the rebels had and the fact that many of them felt motivated to fight by this same faith.

It was no accident, for example, that the event that was to be for the leaders the Rising of a Republic, was linked to the Christian festival that commemorates Christ's resurrection from the dead.

Piety punctuated the Rising.

They prayed before they went out on that Easter Monday morning, they prayed as they sat on the roof of the GPO awaiting their fate, they prayed after the surrender on Moore Street, and they prayed in their cells as they prepared for death.

Centuries of oppression of the Church meant that freedom to be Catholic had become a vital part of the national struggle for freedom in Ireland.

For good and for ill, the movement for independence had become a symbiosis between nationalism and Catholicism.

It is impossible to do justice to history unless one is prepared to acknowledge this fact.

Without doubt, the virtual merging of Irishness and Catholicism had negative as well as positive elements.

If we want to ethically remember the past in order to better understand it, we must acknowledge all of it and recognise the various factors that influenced the emerging Free State on this island.

Anything less than examining all the various strands does a deep disservice to the different ideas and traditions at work in the events of the seminal years in modern Irish history.

President Higgins, whose own family was deeply wounded by the Civil War with brother set against brother on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, is well-placed to be a steward to heal the wounds of Irish history.

But to do justice to that complex history he would do well to broaden his scope of sympathy and be more inclusive of the various traditions that have brought us to where we are.

Anything less than this would not be ethical remembering and would run the risk of leaving future generations with little more than a caricature of the emergence of independent Ireland, and no real insight into all the forces that shaped it.

Michael Kelly is editor of the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent

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