SDLP leader Colin Eastwood MP is just as entitled to express an opinion as any other politician. However, whether his passionate, if not irritated, claim that the NIO’s use of Seamus Heaney’s portrait was due to an admittedly lazy binary view of culture at the start of the NI Centenary is very open.
In reality, such a motive claim is very difficult to prove or disprove; but is perhaps an indication of a lack of enthusiasm for the 100th anniversary of Northern Ireland. But is his or a similar “grumbling” due to “intolerance and blind bigotry”, as suggested by Peter Robinson in this week’s newsletter?
Seamus Heaney’s poetry is surely celebrated by all opinions in Northern Ireland, and there are many who would be quick to see that his contribution to the cultural life of what Seamus Mallon called home together is inadequate and negligent.
Colum, like many of us, could benefit from the words and advice of Rabbi Yordan ben Yosef (as quoted in Dear Zealots by Amoz Oz) in writing on the Sabbath: “It is committed to your hands; not you at his hands ”
The same would serve as a useful reference for the former First Minister. But not all of us are bound by a binary view of history and heritage, as the comments of a local friend and author in Derry show:
“As a nationalist, I won’t be celebrating NI’s 100th anniversary, but at the same time I must acknowledge that while there have been painful experiences for my co-religionists, my family has benefited from a good home in Creggan, the NHS, education and regular employment . Northern Ireland has been a better place to live materially than the Republic of Ireland for much of my life. ‘
This is a direct contradiction to that of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’neill MLA, speaking at the online event in Queens: Reflections of the Government of Ireland Act, parried the strangely formulaic and seemingly endlessly repeated party line in which it rejected the NI anniversary as follows:
“The division of our country is not being celebrated. The division is at the heart of many of our departments here in the north and between the UK and Ireland. “
Speak on the same occasion Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney TD advocated a more inclusive and ethical approach:
Just because we don’t celebrate an event in history ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t give space or respect to others who matter. Just because we don’t share the experience of losing another tradition doesn’t mean we can’t give the space and compassion to those who feel it.
Indeed, it is our job to ensure hospitality for all of these narratives. We don’t lose anything as a result – neither our beliefs nor our sense of identity or our narratives. If one of us reaches the end of next year without respectfully listening to a story or perspective from someone else’s tradition, then I think we will have come up short.
Referencing President Michael D HigginsMr. Coveney urged political leaders “to create a comprehensive ethical framework in which memory, history and forgiveness can all be considered”.
Those words would surely resonate with Archbishop Eamon Martin, who quoted in an interview for the Irish Catholic and on the Irish news, Criticized nationalist politicians for refusing to commit to NI 100th Anniversary, seeing:
… 2021 100 years as an opportunity for better mutual understanding, for opportunities to build new reconciliation and peace.
More full consideration of comments by President Higgins indicate a confirmation of the need to live in good neighborly relationships first, even with those with whom we may have profound differences. For him, as for many, the polemical and strategic manipulation of narratives seems to have reached its expiration date.
His words advocate understanding, inclusion, respect, and compassion, and are characterized by his encouragement of moral responsibility and ethical remembering when dealing with the past and interpreting the past.
Without exception, they serve to invite those who are anchored in a firmly rooted and stale dogma to rethink together. look for a proven and open-minded analysis to discover how we can envision our history and heritage beyond rituals and symbols.
The implication is clear. In order to shed light on the past and 100 years of NI, it is imperative to recognize that there is not one light, but many.
This applies to the division and creation of two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. We have to try to understand from within and not just look into the window, as political nationalism has decided.
Unionism also has a responsibility to challenge its narratives beyond the binary caricatures. As Peter Robinson points out, great achievements have been made in a variety of areas in and within different communities, and these deserve celebration and recognition, but celebration without reflection and reconciliation will not address the problems we face.
The judgment as a consequence of intolerance and bigotry only exacerbates the problem and reveals all of the features of the policy of denial under Peter Robinson’s watch, the legacy of which is preserved. When you’re designing a system for a purpose, you shouldn’t be surprised when it delivers the goods.
When referring to the mistakes and failures in a unionist-controlled Northern Ireland as a failure to build a utopia, it means fewer groups, not least women, LGBT and politically, socially and economically vulnerable, need to be watched. Unionism cannot afford to be drawn into the vanity of its own imaginary past.
Not if Northern Ireland is to get where it needs to be; where, in the words of John Hewitt: “Anyone can take the hand of his neighbors as a friend.”
Photo from Pixabay is licensed under CC0
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities, works independently of one another to promote civic unionism.