- 04 Oct 21
A controversy has erupted about the decision made by President Michael D. Higgins not to attend a service that aims to ‘mark’ the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland. But whose idea was the service? And what is its real purpose? Can it be that some people still believe that the establishment of a sectarian State in the North – one that sadly was mirrored in many respects in the South – was a good thing?
President Michael D. Higgins was absolutely right to decide not to attend the event being promoted by the Church Leaders Group in the North, to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland.
When the first conversations between the Church leaders and the President’s office took place, there may have been some room for discussion about the nature of the event; what exactly it might require of the President of Ireland; and how it could potentially be titled differently, in a way that would be neither compromising nor controversial for the office of the President.
With those considerations in mind, the President’s representatives might well have wanted to know who had initiated the idea? What was the thinking behind it? How could they be sure that it was not – and would not be – in any way politicised? And what might be done to guarantee that it would be run in a way that offered no hostages to fortune?
Even now, these are not easy questions to answer. The reality is that it would always have been extremely difficult to find an approach to this particular centenary that would work for everyone.
Here is my stab at the kind of title that might have worked: “A Meditation on the partition of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland, and the impact those events had on the people living on the island of Ireland.” That – or something along those lines – could have been potentially viable. But I am not sure it would have flown with any of the relevant parties.
So even if no one had jumped the gun, there is the possibility that the President might have had to decline the invitation.
After all, we are talking here about a pivotal moment in Irish history that led directly to a civil war in the 26 counties. The events being ‘marked’ have also since been the subject of fierce division – largely but not exclusively within the six counties of Northern Ireland – which itself led to a different kind of civil war, that erupted at the beginning of the 1970s and lasted for almost 30 years.
No matter. As it turned out, someone did jump the gun. On March 12, the Northern Ireland Office, a department of the British government, published a calendar of the events that it had organised for the year – and the ostensibly non-political church service was included. This calendar was seen by the President. Rather than being an event driven by the Church Leaders Group, the service had in effect been claimed by the British government. The fact that the current British administration is in the process of attempting to resile on binding international agreements in relation to Brexit and Northern Ireland would prompt most people to ask: is anything done by Boris Johnson’s government in genuine good faith? If you want an answer, ask the DUP.
But even that was beside the point. The event had been politicised. And there was an additional issue.
I don’t know about you, but the first time I read the title of the event, I thought: how could the President of Ireland possibly be expected to attend an event that can easily be construed as endorsing the partition of Ireland?
We now know that the President expressed his reservations on the title and, soon afterwards, made a decision that both the politicisation of the event by the Northern Ireland Office and the title given to it meant that he could not attend.
When the President put another event into his diary for October 21 – the date on which the religious event is scheduled to take place in the North – the die was cast.
Irretrievably Out of Touch
The most important question in relation to all of this now is not how, nor why, the President’s views were – or were not – communicated to the Church Leaders Group. There is a far more important question.
What was really going on in the first place with the commemoration? What was – or is – its real purpose? And how and why did the Northern Ireland Office claim it as theirs?
And, before answering that, we have to ask a supplementary: how could anyone possibly have imagined that an event of this kind could be non-political, since the occasion being marked was – and remains – entirely, and in certain respects at least, destructively, political?
How can you ‘mark’ the partition of Ireland in a way that is non-political? You can’t. Whatever way you approach it is a political statement in itself. Even my long-winded version is political in what it skirts around, or doesn’t say.
But the service was intended to be non-political, the Church Leaders Group insist.
In truth, it doesn’t matter how often they say it. Nor what emphasis is put where, in the title they have given to the event. It doesn’t matter what ecumenical line you advance along either. You simply cannot pretend that, while there was politics involved back then, there isn’t now.
Do the members of the Church Leaders Group really imagine otherwise?
They must have considered the fact that no events to mark the centenary of the establishment of the jurisdiction have been organised by the Assembly in Northern Ireland. This is for the very good reason that a huge number of people in the North do not see the establishment of Northern Ireland as worthy of celebration. This is what the deep fault line in Northern Irish politics and society is all about. Many members of the Assembly feel the same way. And so there has been very little in the way of ceremonial activity to date.
One commentator suggested to me that the event was organised by the Church Leaders Group as a way of providing the otherwise missing State ceremonials by proxy; of bringing the Queen into it; and of quietly giving the old guard something to satisfy them.
It was never going to play well, no matter how sotto voce everyone tried to be.
In newspaper coverage of the controversy, the line has been spun that perhaps the Church Leaders Group were ‘naive’ in their choice of title for the event. This has been said, in particular, of the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin. It was at his behest, apparently, that the reference to partition was included in the title.
This is familiar territory.
The Catholic Church hierarchy likes to invoke ‘naivety’ when it suits them. We have heard over and over again the same kind of rationale being used to explain away the complete failure on the part of the Church authorities to deal properly with cases where children were being sexually abused by members of the clergy. “Oh, but we didn’t understand,” they have said on countless occasions.
Do you believe that?
Priests were moved from one parish to another. They were shipped to a different school run by the same order. The institutional Church facilitated them in committing, afresh, tens of thousands of the most appalling crimes against innocent and vulnerable children.
‘Naivety’ is the standard get-out clause – but it doesn’t stand up. As a 13 or 14 year-old kid, I knew that the brutal beatings meted out in religiously run schools, most often by members of the clergy themselves, were abhorrent and wrong. I also knew that priests or brothers molesting children they were supposed to be educating was vile and indefensible – and that it should be stopped. The idea that, at the same time, fully grown men somehow didn’t understand this is impossible to credit.
Either they were grossly, irretrievably blind to the truth, or they knew, and decided to put the financial and reputational interests of the Church first. Which do you think is more likely?
Well, the controversy around the commemoration has to be seen in a similar light. And the only conclusion you can reach is that ‘naivety’ really doesn’t do it justice.
No matter how much I kick this one around, I keep coming back to the same thorny question: what was this really supposed to be about? Will anyone at the service, for example, acknowledge the grim truth about the effect of partition on both sides of the border?
I have already mentioned that the partitioning of the island led directly to a brutal and bloody civil war. But that was not all.
The trouble with commemorations is that you have to think hard about what is being commemorated. I know that people don’t much like this being mentioned in polite company, but in 1921, a deeply prejudiced, sectarian State was engineered in the North, against the will of the majority of the people on the island. Northern Ireland was characterised by the first Prime Minister, James Craig himself, as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people.” And that was how it rolled. Electoral areas were gerrymandered. Roman Catholics were systematically discriminated against in education and employment. The cards were stacked in every conceivable way against them. What was created was a corrupt and deeply prejudiced, segregationist regime. I have heard the word ‘apartheid’ used to describe it.
Is this what people want to mark? And if so, will someone make the case for it from the altar?
Here’s something else that the Church Leaders – and particularly Archbishop Eamon Martin – need to bear in mind. The creation of a sectarian state in Northern Ireland was eventually mirrored south of the border, with the gradual emergence of a grossly sectarian, Catholic-dominated, theocratic regime in the Free State, with control of education and health handed over to the religious orders and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
In fairness, things were, and remained, more extreme in the North, but the two jurisdictions were effectively comparable flip-sides of the same tainted coin.
Any attempt to ‘mark’ the occasion on a religious basis should surely begin with an admission to that effect. Is that what the Church Leaders Group had in mind? Is anyone among them prepared to finally acknowledge their contribution to the history of discrimination we have had to endure in so many respects across the island since 1921? Or did the Church Leaders Group think that by ignoring that particular herd of elephants in the room, they might make them go away?
On mature reflection, as the fella said, it would have been better, I suspect, to have left things as they were and done nothing. It’d be interesting to hear who exactly felt otherwise and why?
What good did anyone think might emerge from the idea? It really is hard to fathom.
Sectarianism And Bigotry
Anyhow, if the Church Leaders Group now genuinely want to make a contribution to the future integration of the communities in the North, then I have – in honour of the great writer and satirist Jonathan Swift, an Anglican cleric and one of the greatest Irish Protestant minds we have known – what might be called A Modest Proposal.
Why don’t the Church Leaders Group use the upcoming service to acknowledge the terrible damage caused by sectarian education in the North – and in the South alike? Why not announce a commitment, jointly and severally, to get out of education entirely, leaving the State free to introduce a mandatory Educate Together policy that would mean no more funding for religiously controlled and run schools?
If we want to eliminate sectarianism – and the bigotry that goes with it – effectively, this really is the key. It is a simple, straightforward measure – and it will work in the same way North and South. But I suspect that the commitment of the Church Leaders Group to alleviating sectarianism is all words and very little action. They will put their own institutional interests first. It is what they do.
Or to put it starkly: it is far more important for them to hold onto what they have, and to keep control of education – even if it means that the North remains, and will continue to remain, a deeply divided place where religious intolerance is still an everyday fact of life. Same as it ever was.
The only possible conclusion is that the President was indeed right to let them at it. And what’s encouraging is that, according to the polls, an overwhelming majority of the people in the Republic agree. Maybe there is some hope after all.