Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

No better man to help Republic find its true identity

Michael D Higgins

After 21 years in the care of two outstanding women presidents, the Irish presidency is assuredly safe in the hands of Michael D Higgins after a campaign of unprecedented asperity and swings of fortune in which he kept his head when all around were losing theirs.

An erudite, civilised and articulate man with respect for the responsibilities of the post and the limitations imposed by the Irish constitution, Higgins will fulfil the role's requirements with dignity, grace and not a little charm.

Apart from his personal qualities, he has won out in what was an examination of character and personality, rather than an assessment of competing policies.

After months of debate, the Irish public is still no nearer clarity about the nature of the office than a warm feeling of motherhood and apple pie.

Some things are clear: it is not a job-creation agency nor a high-class commercial traveller for inward investment.

It is not a centre for criticism, constructive or otherwise, of government policies. While it should reflect the cultural values of the Republic, it does not create a zeitgeist for the nation.

The promised constitutional convention offers the opportunity to examine the office in greater depth and, if necessary, to redefine the role of president in 21st century Ireland.

But the fallout of the election goes much further than that. There are other, more important, matters left for discussion and clarification, which concern the origins of the state itself and national identity.

The Republic needs to talk about what it means to be Irish in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement and the series of important centenaries which occur in the next five years.

The candidacy of Martin McGuinness and the public, political and media reaction to it has interrogated the foundation narrative of the state in ways that are uncomfortable for many.

Most states and dynasties legitimise themselves by means of a foundation myth, in which those involved become invested with iconic stature and purity of intention and act. The historic reality is generally far otherwise.

The Irish story is of the triumph of violence, canonising the physical-force element in modern Irish politics at the expense of the parliamentary tradition.

Little wonder that young men under stress in the north saw themselves as heirs to a tradition, their actions legitimised by history.

It was different in the south, where these events became remote, seen through the soft focus of The Wind that Shakes the Barley, filtering out all brutality but that of the Brits. Then McGuinness brings it all into question with the awareness of his involvement and the reality behind it.

There is a current rewriting of history, too, which needs to be challenged: armed conflict in the north was not inevitable. John Hume and Dana (and thousands more) experienced the same discrimination and disabilities as McGuinness and his colleagues without feeling the need to resort to the bomb and the bullet. While Adams and McGuinness are rightly commended for their efforts to end the conflict, the IRA bears a heavy responsibility for prolonging it. The difference between the Good Friday Agreement and Sunningdale is not worth a single life, much less the two-and-a-half thousand who died violently in the interim.

The campaign disclosed an attitude in the south, in contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement, that the nation was a 26-county entity, with the worldwide diaspora being embraced in the Irish identity more easily than northern nationalists, and that murdered policemen in the north somehow matter less than their counterparts in the south.

Plenty of transformation there for the new president. And no better man to handle it.

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