Michael D Higgins’ shifting stories indicate a weakening defence of the Belfast Agreement

II’m glad I put yesterday’s blog out before President Higgins gave his ‘explanation’ about why he wasn’t coming to this joint service, because in its absence I preferred to focus on the bigger picture and why it is important to move on.

When it did come out, many people, including here in the Slugger comment zone and elsewhere found  they had argued in the belief the President had been snubbed he was entitled take umbrage and refuse to come north.

This is the position historian Diarmaid Ferriter took on Talkback pushing at Gregory Campbell for having had the temerity to push back in the first place and ask for an explanation. But then the President’s story didn’t add up.

The Church leaders group (Ireland) had clearly put a lot of thought into their invitation. Why would they not? As they point out in their letter they are (just one of 147) all island bodies. They represent faith groups from Tralee to Portavogie.

They are not the kind of body that would get something as basic as the president’s official title wrong. Even so though they all had to endure a Twitterised day of scorn and derision for something they were never likely to do.

In fact you can see for yourself the tone of the letter is pretty sober and the focus was certainly not one of celebration but of contemplation. What on earth Mr Higgins found to object in this remains a complete mystery to me:

…the opportunity for honest reflection of the past one hundred years, with the acknowledgment of failures and hurts, but also a clear affirmation of our shared commitment to building a future marked by peace, reconciliation and to the common good.

Now Higgins claims the title of the events is unacceptable: “A service of reflection and hope to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. Again any obvious logic here escapes me.

All I can see is the mention of Northern Ireland. And yet there’s nothing in the constitution that would give substance any such objection. When people talk about the Belfast Agreement, Ireland is only of two confirming NI’s existence.

The Good Friday Agreement i an international treaty (endorsed by a multiparty agreement with limited standing in law) between the Irish state and the United Kingdom. Ireland’s constitution was amended by it to give NI formal recognition.

Article 2.1 says this:

It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.

I’ll leave it to others (civilly and within the rules of commenting here on Slugger) to tease out where they believe this second explanation sits with this particular clause and how it might condition the President’s legal ability to attend.

As for the event organisers, it includes the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, who spoke to RTÉ about pains they had gone to in developing their approach, saying that it..

…certainly hasn’t been politicised by the church leaders. We’ve been explaining and discussing this event now for maybe six to nine months with all of the various parties and we have always insisted that it will remain apolitical and we hope to try to keep it that way, but we can’t rely on others to do that but we will be keeping this as a moment of prayer and reflection.

Higgins now says his first response was a knee jerk reaction not the event, but to the DUP’s (entirely independent use of the President of the Republic of Ireland (a turgid academic argument over nomenclature, smouldering since 1949).

In Northern Ireland, the North, the Six Counties, the Wee Six we have largely settled our differences on nomenclature. Each signals (to a greater of lesser degree) some class of political angle, but most are broadly accepted these days.

If the President was not constrained by office, but took a political decision, which he is entitled to do, in doing so (boosted by a complacent media over-doping on the hectic psychodrama that’s Twitter) he lit a very nasty fuse.

And one in which he managed to make the DUP’s Derry firebrand sound reasonable, as Gregory Campbell said yesterday’s talkback, the President had never put a foot wrong on Northern Ireland since taking office in 2011.

Eoghan Harris used to quote the old IRA leader Cathal Goulding who said, ‘a man who would once give up a bullet will eventually give up the whole dump” (Harris was always martial mode in his long campaign against Provisional propaganda).

I’m reluctant to give this event the serious legislative force it’s tempting to ascribe to it. Higgins’ predecessor would not have passed up the opportunity and would have played it for the huge diplomatic value it undoubtedly had.

So what standard of reconciliation would meet with the approval of the current president? And if an event run by these religious institutions (who during the Troubles helped keep us from ripping each other apart) can’t meet it, who would?

It feels very odd to be accusing a man of the stature of Michael D Higgins of betraying the Good Friday Agreement, but that’s the way it looks this morning. If reconciliation is the bullet, the Agreement itself is the whole dump.

We should move on (although ‘when’ is in the hands of the President himself). But we should take a moment to reflect on whether the south is as ready to ‘cherish all the children’ of an expanded nation many would have us believe.

You might one day be offered to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them. – Tim Snyder

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