- 11 Feb 21
President Higgins' comments in the Guardian today arrive in advance of his Machnamh 100 series on imperialism, scheduled to take place on February 25 in Áras an Úachtaráin. They touch on vital issues of our time, not just for Ireland, but for places all over the world that were brutally colonised and exploited...
President Michael D. Higgins has expressed his disappointment at the failure of many journalists and academics in the UK to address the dark legacy of British imperialism, while freely encouraging the critique of nationalism.
Writing an Op-Ed in the Guardian today, the President of Ireland described the unwillingness of some in these groups to target uncomfortable aspects of Ireland and the UK's history as "feigned amnesia".
Focusing on the "disinclination" of both academics and media organisations to critique empire and imperialism, President Higgins remarked that the critique of nationalism remains strong and open.
"While it has been vital to our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important and has a significance far beyond British/Irish relations," he wrote. "The mask of modernity has been used for cultural suppression, economic exploitation, dispossession and domination."
President Higgins added that, unless a more authentic interpretation of the past with diverse perspectives is facilitated, barriers will potentially remain for a post-sectarian future. Without an understanding of the impact which the British imperialist mindset had on Ireland's history, the current nature of the relationship of both the Republic and Northern Ireland, with Britain, cannot be fully comprehended.
In his Op-Ed, he also emphasised the need to establish a "hospitality of narratives" to acknowledge that different perspectives of the same historical events can, and do, exist. President Higgins has addressed the need for history to possess diverse viewpoints in his Machnamh 100 series.
Entitled 'Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power and Resistance', the series continues the President’s reflections on the context, consequences and continuing reverberations of the War of Independence, Civil War and Partition.
"While our nations have been utterly transformed over the past century, I suggest that there are important benefits for all on these islands of engaging with the shadows cast by our shared past," Higgins wrote.
"This journey of ethical remembering has entailed uncomfortable interrogations of the events and forces that shaped the Ireland of a century ago and the country we know today. Class, gender, religion, democracy, language, culture and violence all played roles, and were intertwined with British imperialist rule."
In his time as President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins has promoted reconciliation between Britain and Ireland, visited the Queen and acknowledged that Irish Republicans committed atrocities during and after the war of independence. In 2014, President Higgins made the first address to the British parliament by an Irish president; and he recently urged Irish people not to stereotype British people because of Brexit.
The reluctance among former imperial powers to engage with their past alongside the descendants of those who were previously colonised arguably allows the complex legacies of colonialism to live on within the ancestors of its victims. Injustices perpetrated in the name of imperialism left a "bitter residue of pain and resentment" and allowed inherited grievances to reignite violence through generations.
President Higgins - a poet, and a former sociology lecturer in UCG and columnist with Hot Press - also notes that the assumption of superiority of culture is omnipresent in those who dominate those deemed Other.
"From the perspective of the British imperialist mind of its time, attitudes to the Irish for example, were never, and could never be, about a people who were equal, had a different culture, or could be trusted in a civilised discourse of equals," Higgins said.
"From the perspective of the Irish, who had their own ancient language, social and legal systems and a rich monastic contribution to the world, this view had to be resisted. Some resistance was through an intensified cultural activity, others sought it within the domain of parliaments or through exerting political pressure. In other circumstances, the Irish found it through covert and overt violence."
In August 2020, President Michael D. Higgins performed a special version of Van Morrison's 'Rave On, John Donne', with music by the creator of Riverdance, Bill Whelan, as part of Hot Press' celebration of Van's 75th birthday, entitled Rave On Van Morrison.