There are few politicians can hold a candle to the eloquence of our President Michael D Higgins. His use of language to express complex and multi-layered ideas is breath-taking.
When he spoke in Westminster in April 2014 the following words set a tone regarding commemoration:
“As both our islands enter periods of important centenaries we can and must,
reflect on the ethical importance of respecting different, but deeplyinterwoven, narratives. Such reflection offers an opportunity… to have respectful empathy for each other’s perspectives.”
He went on to deliver a most generous speech of acknowledgment of the loss and pain associated with the First World War.
Later in the same speech Michael D spoke of relationships on and between our islands in the present when he said:
“we have a fresh canvas on which to sketch our shared hopes and to advance our overlapping ambitions”.
For that to be true then we need to believe that, post Good Friday Agreement, Irish people living on all of the island, hold equal citizenship, that their aspirations, commemorations and citizenship will be valued in their own right, no matter which city they live in.
In 2005 then President Mary McAleese came under huge public pressure and media spotlight when she caused ‘offence’ to some in the Unionist community by saying that,
“the anti-Semitism that existed for decades had been built upon by the Nazis. They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred… of Catholics”.
Within days, her office issued an apology, and made steps to redress any hurt caused.
What has been remarkable since last week is that despite the snub of political Unionism deciding not to attend the Easter Rising Civic Dinner in Belfast City Hall, and the subsequent hurt caused by the decision of the President not to attend, that no one is under any public pressure. Not any unionist party, and particularly, not Michael D Higgins.
How is that disparity in concern for the interests of the two communities so permissible? Are the concerns of Irish citizens in Belfast today so easily dismissed by comparison to the concerns of Unionists in 2005?
For us to “sketch shared hopes and advance overlapping ambitions” this inequality must be rebalanced.
When the British queen engaged in making space for peace, she gently nudged Unionism in its place of intransigence. This week the Irish President did the opposite. And that has hurt Irish people caught on this side of partition trying their best to build an inclusive shared future. The President should have seen the incredible lack of generosity from political unionism, understood how this affects Irish citizens, and stood with them.
There is a widespread feeling in our community that brave steps towards reconciliation and acknowledgement are simply not reciprocated and are undervalued. Non-reciprocation should not deter us from doing the right thing. But it does become problematic when progressive gestures are a perpetual one-way street and are taken for granted.
The apparent rewarding of Unionist insult and lack of engagement by the Irish President has reawakened the feelings of abandonment that many have felt since partition. Coming from such an eloquent and progressive President, who understands the impact of marginalisation and isolation, this was particularly disappointing.