President Higgins visits Iona to make enduring link with St Colmcille

History must not be ‘abused’ by those who want to poison UK-Ireland links

History must not be "ransacked, or abused" by those who want to poison future relations between Ireland and Britain, President Michael D Higgins has said during a visit to the island of Iona in Scotland.

Marking the 1,450th anniversary of the arrival of Ireland’s most famous emigrant to Scotland, St Colmcille, the President said later generations of Irish clashed with poor Scots because of poverty.

“This competition for what was often low-paid, casual and often exploitative work was little less than a contest among the poor, sourced in an economic relationship,” he said.

Past of suffering
The past, he said, is littered with such suffering: the drowning of 26 returning workers in Clew Bay in the 1920s; or a 1937 fire which killed 37, with 10 bodies returning to Achill unidentifiable.


"I think of Peadar O'Donnell's words, 'Some say it was a fire, some say it was a match; it was emigration, it was economics that drew the tattie howkers to their death," said the President.

Migration can benefit society, though, too often, it brings sectarianism; but there are “no benefits” to be won from hate or intolerance based “on an abuse of myth and history”, he said during a speech on migration.

“While we must not fall for any false amnesia, as well as celebrating what we value, we must reflect on what holds us back.

“A shared story after all can be the repository and place of diverse and ever-changing narratives,” he said.

The past holds many “fine and good lessons”, he said, but, equally, it “can be ransacked and abused” to create stereotypes “which obstruct us, which hurt us and deplete, or even poison our future”.

Sectarianism or xenophobia “may be a symptom of its members feeling themselves ignored, rejected by those in power or under threat from wider socio-economic pressures”, he said .

However, though the possible sources of both should be understood, “their manifestation or the endorsement of any call to hatred of the other” can never be condoned, he told several hundred people in Iona’s community hall.

Taking questions later, Mr Higgins complained that the European Union’s focus on its regions and the need for cohesion between all parts of the EU has been “put on the back-burner” in recent years.

"I think there are questions to be answered about that because frankly it was a very rich debate, a debate about effective representation and cohesion. It is a far more important debate than a debate about competitiveness in the narrow sense," he told The Irish Times.

Progress on both would, he said, protect "the generous version of Europe, committed to achieving things that will make Europe a secure, diverse tapestry of a place".

“The most important blockages in Europe are not administrative, they are not ones of exchanges between people on a very narrow version of economics; the debates that are missing are debates about alternative intellectual paradigms.”

Scottish and Irish powerhouse
Here, Mr Higgins said, there are lessons for Irish and Scottish universities "to be intellectual powerhouses, rather than to be imitating places" delivering "neo-utilitarianism and models that are failing".

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is News Editor of the The Irish Times