Belfast Telegraph

The last thing Ireland needs is yet another way of sowing division

Politicians in the Republic are considering having a special national holiday to celebrate independence from Britain. Don't do it, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Madonna has been wrong about many things over the years. Her belief that "only love" can defeat terrorism, for example. Strong security definitely helps too.

Then there was her assertion last year that appearing at a charity ball in a dress that exposed her backside was a "political statement".

It really wasn't, dear.

But the US star has never been more wrong than when she sang, early in her career, that "if we took a holiday… it would be, it would be so nice".

If only that were true. Holidays are invariably a disappointment at best and a pain in the proverbial rear end at worst, and that goes doubly for public holidays.

There's something dispiriting about the idea of insisting that everyone enjoy themselves at exactly the same time in exactly the same way, which is why the wise advice for politicians in the Irish Republic deciding whether to approve a new holiday to celebrate the country's independence from British rule back in the day would be: don't do it.

Ireland already has its own national holiday every March 17. It's so successful that it's gone international, providing a global, if sometimes hokey, showcase for Irish identity.

The country no more needs another one than America needs a second Fourth of July.

That's not to say there aren't good arguments in favour of a specially designated national day.

Last year the country commemorated the centenary of the Easter Rising in 1916. With the dreaded "national question" still unresolved in many muddled individuals' minds, it was important that the event be as inclusive as possible, and it was. Warnings that it would unleash an ugly wave of nationalistic triumphalism turned out to be ill-founded. The date was marked with dignity.

That success led many down South to suggest they should do something similar every year.

Sinn Fein, predictably, was first out of the blocks, calling on April 24 to be designated La Na Poblachta, aka Republic Day.

That, equally predictably, was rejected by the government in Dublin. If there was to be an officially sanctioned annual knees-up, ministers didn't want any other party getting the credit.

Then a Fianna Fail Senator proposed January 21 as Declaration of Independence Day to mark the first meeting of the Dail in 1919.

That hit the buffers too.

Now a committee is hard at work in the Irish parliament weighing up the various recommendations. Since politicians always like to be seen to "do something", chances are that they will come down in the end in favour of a day to honour Irish nationhood.

They certainly wouldn't be the first. Plenty of countries have national days, often explicitly to applaud liberation from colonial misrule by the Great Powers of old, not only the United Kingdom but also Spain, Portugal, France and Belgium, even Russia in the case of the Baltic States.

Germany also set aside a date in the calendar to commemorate reunification in 1990. It may seem a bit odd to only start saluting independence from foreign domination a century late, but that's entirely the Irish people's business.

Once there is such a day on the other side of the border, though, pressure is bound to grow for the occasion to be formally recognised in Northern Ireland as well.

That's where it gets tricky, because it's hard to see many, if any, advantages in it for us.

There are already two similar tub-thumping, flag waving holidays in the local diary - St Patrick's Day and the Twelfth.

Neither is always a pleasant experience for the other side.

Both lead all too often to public drunkenness and disorder. Each brings the place to a standstill.

That has consequences for everybody, not least those who have to clean up the mess or, like hospitals and the PSNI, deal with the walking wounded.

Even if it was an entirely sober and dignified occasion, another day devoted to cheering the victory of one lot over another is the last thing we need, and that's what an Irish Independence Day, however well-meaning the intention behind it, could easily become.

Not merely once every 100 years, but every 12 months, on the dot and in perpetuity. There can be unintended consequences from stoking up partisan nationalism in this way.

The flag of St George used to be a rare sight in England. Now it flies above houses and in gardens and on lampposts in certain areas.

The Brits likewise thought we were mad for painting the kerbstones red, white and blue. In parts of Britain they're practically doing the same thing now. Brexit has accelerated the process.

It highlights how easily a natural, innocent pride in one's country can be warped into an inward-looking xenophobia.

Tony Blair's encouragement as Prime Minister of Scottish separatism had similarly negative side-effects. They may yet lead to the break-up of the UK itself before too long.

What's intended to defuse nationalistic tensions can wind up stoking them.

National days can hardly help becoming occasions for such bombastic self-congratulation.

In France Bastille Day is marked with military parades, and the fact that the Revolution which it celebrates led to the Reign of Terror that sent thousands to the guillotine in a short space of time is conveniently forgotten.

China observes its own National Day with posters of communist mass murderer Chairman Mao plastered all over public spaces. Britain once celebrated Empire Day.

These events involve taking collective joy in overly simple national myths while ignoring the unsavoury parts of what went in to each country's history.

Empire Day was actually promoted to remind children of "what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire". That idea would make many people very uncomfortable nowadays, and rightfully so. Empires are rarely kind, benevolent rulers.

Ireland has no imperial sins of which to be ashamed, but things were done to win independence which it's better not to glorify, in retrospect.

The country would be far better off raising a toast instead to its current incarnation as a modern, open-minded, liberal democracy, rather than obsessing over old gunmen, some of whose attitudes don't deserve admiration.

If there are to be new holidays they ought to be ones which everyone can enjoy, rather than just one half of the community.

Bermuda in the past held a holiday to mark Queen Victoria's birthday. Now it devotes the same day to lauding the island's rich cultural heritage.

Ireland could instigate something similar to encompass all the different traditions on this island.

Alternatively, it could just stick with St Patrick's Day.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Belfast Telegraph


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