Belfast Telegraph

Michael Kelly: Higgins' re-election was a tribute to his popularity, but he will have to work on being more inclusive

Life on the left: Irish President Michael D Higgins did not endear himself to the public after the death of left-wing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro
Life on the left: Irish President Michael D Higgins did not endear himself to the public after the death of left-wing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro

By Michael Kelly

It was really pragmatism more than principle that saw the combined forces of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail unite to support the re-election of a popular Irish President who spent most of his role to date opposing their policies.

The poor showing of Sinn Fein's candidate, Liadh Ni Riada, certainly vindicated the approach taken by the two big parties. While Mary Lou McDonald was keen to put a brave face on the outcome, there's no doubt that Ms Ni Riada winning almost 150,000 fewer votes than Martin McGuinness seven years earlier is a considerable electoral setback.

The resounding mandate received by Michael D Higgins showed that most people think he has done a fine job as Ireland's First Citizen. The surprise jump for Londonderry-born Peter Casey, from 2% in the polls to more than 23% on the day, did little to dent enthusiasm around the Higgins campaign.

In fairness, Mr Higgins has rarely put a foot wrong. Even if he sometimes appears to be delighting in the glory of his office a little more than is decent, his only major misstep that jarred with a lot of people was his response to the death of the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

At the time in 2016, Mr Higgins referred to the communist leader as a "giant among global leaders". He made just a passing reference to the fact that "the economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics."

Herein lies Mr Higgins's blind spot: he has spent his entire political career unashamedly as a man of the left with very little to say about human rights abuses perpetrated by left-wing regimes and much to critique about the excesses of capitalism.

Mr Higgins has spoken about the need for an "ethical remembering" of the past. This will be particularly important in the sensitive commemorations that he will preside over in the coming years. These will include the War of Independence, partition and the Civil War.

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But remembering the past ethically means remembering it in an inclusive way. Can Mr Higgins rise to this?

There was another blind spot evident during Mr Higgins's various remarks at the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Despite the fact that the Rosary has been described as the "soundtrack of the Rising", Mr Higgins never mentioned in his public utterances the deeply held religious faith of those who fought for Irish freedom at the time.

Even a casual look at the records of the Bureau of Military History reveals the religious sensibilities that the rebels had and the fact that many of them felt motivated to fight by this same faith.

For good and for ill, the movement for independence had become a symbiosis between nationalism and Catholicism.

It is impossible to do justice to history unless one is prepared to acknowledge this.

Without doubt, the virtual merging of Irishness and Catholicism had negative as well as positive elements.

If we want to ethically remember the past in order to better understand it, we must acknowledge all of it and recognise the various factors that influenced the emerging Free State on this island.

Anything less than examining all the various strands does a deep disservice to the different ideas and traditions at work in the events of the seminal years in modern Irish history.

President Higgins, whose own family was deeply wounded by the Civil War, with brother set against brother on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, is well-placed to be a steward to heal the wounds of Irish history.

But to do justice to that complex history, he would do well to broaden his scope of sympathy and be more inclusive of the various traditions that have brought Ireland to where it is.

Anything less than this would not be ethical remembering and would run the risk of leaving future generations with little more than a caricature of the emergence of independent Ireland and no real insight into all the forces that shaped it.

Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic

Belfast Telegraph


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