Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Not just rhyme but also reason from Heaney on flags

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

Politicians, even presidents, represent the people for a certain time but the poet represents the people for all time.

Shelley once said that "Poets are the unknowledged legislators of the world". Which means that they are ahead of the curve, already thinking of (and feeling) what lies beyond the 'now' of political, social and cultural reality.

Seamus Heaney's intervention in the flags row lies in that area.

True, it's expressed with a Co Derry-ish sense of pragmatism and disarming charm: loyalists, he says, "perceive themselves as almost deserted. And right enough. I think Sinn Fein could have taken it easy. No hurry on flags".

He continued: "What does it matter? But it matters utterly to them. And now there's no way they're going to go back on it, of course."

When you think about it, both statements go right to the nub, not just of the flags issue, but to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

You see, that word 'perceive' matters utterly. While the wider world thinks the flags issue is a subject of dark humour, to those who perceive it an act of cultural wounding, it matters utterly.

And as comforting as we sophisticates find the idea of symbols as the playthings of fools, the truth is they are an expression of life itself, the physical manifestation of an idea, a belief, a sense of belonging.

As we've learned over almost half a century of civic barbarism, how your neighbour 'feels' – much more than how they vote or don't vote – is important to the development of peace.

Simple majoritarianism cannot take account of such powerful things as feelings. Peace means, at root, a change in how we think, imagine, dream. And when Heaney talks, we should listen. He's always walked the line.

Arguably our most famous figure, he's felt it incumbent to speak clearly for northern nationalists and so has suffered at the hands of unionist cultural commentators, happy to paint him as an all too fluent spokesman for our darkest atavistic impulses. (Of course, the fact that he's drawn the ire of republicans for failing to lend his talents to the 'cause' must mean that, roughly speaking, he was 'right'.)

He frankly acknowledges in his poems to never toasting the Queen; he's believed to have made it clear that he wasn't interested in being Poet Laureate because he is Irish and famously objected to being in an anthology of contemporary 'British' poetry.

He's a man who deeply respects the power of symbols, and the power of belonging, but he's also one aware that – however awkward it may be – we have to accept the 'reality' of the other. In other words, our primary duty lies with business of getting on with getting on.

Hence, Seamus Heaney was among the few at the Queen's table in Dublin Castle alongside the President, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. Heaney, from Bellaghy, recognised more than most the tensions between the two islands; his presence put the stamp of the ordinary person on the event. It was about common sense, accommodation, moving on.

Which is also what his comments on the flags dispute are about – a nod to the wee eccentricities of the other side, a political sophistication (why start that up now?).

If only our politicians showed the same maturity.

In his Nobel address, Heaney related the story of the Kingsmill massacre. The sole Catholic on the minibus doesn't know whether to step forward when the gunmen demand if there are any Catholics on the bus: "It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said 'No, don't move, we'll not betray you' ... The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate ... "

Our politics should be of the squeezed hand, not the cold shoulder.

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