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Are we enjoying the Brit-bashing just a tad too much?

England has long been a haven for our loved ones needing to escape social shaming or seeking a decent life

Is there anyone out there who understands England’s plight in a way that evokes sympathy as opposed to slack-jawed eye-rolling? Anyone?

I ask in a spirit of self-questioning prompted by President Higgins’s latest appeal to our better angels. Is it within us to take a step back and consider how we might help to quench the fire rather than pile on the kindling ? Are we enjoying the Brit-bashing just a tad too much (yes, I include myself in that). And where does it end?

Higgins’s address last week wasn’t the first to deal with the dangers inherent in the Decade of Commemorations but it seemed particularly pointed, landing as it did in the vortex of the Brian Stanley gloat-tweet storm about IRA massacres and Westminster’s agonising struggle to alienate its entire stock of European allies.

It takes a lot of delicacy and multiclause sentences to make the case for “ethical remembering” while urging people not to “censor memory of painful events”.


Strategic or not, a clear considered tweet from a politician is not 'just a tweet' as some supporters suggest

Underneath the verbiage Higgins never flinches from the need to observe memory, however painful. A previous speech to mark the centenary of the drunken Black and Tans’ sack of Balbriggan, replete with details of the human and economic carnage, doubtlessly resurrected old pain and rage, but he knows the risks and knows that balance is key.

Any attempt to erase painful memories “would be, at best, amoral”, he says. For example, exemplary collective punishments and reprisals conducted during the War of Independence by British crown forces “would be contrary to the modern-day Geneva Conventions and would be considered illegal under international law”.

The British parliament wasn’t blind to this despite a popular notion that they were all the same. HH Asquith, the former prime minister and then leader of the opposition, compared the Balbriggan reprisal with the actions of the imperial German army during the “rape of Belgium”.


This bent for imperial savagery required a diagnosis and Higgins provided it. The root of it lay in “ideological assumptions of superiority and inferiority in terms of race, culture or capacity”. It lay in the notion of the collective as a disloyal, hopeless or threatening version of the “other”. And it was this “othering” that served to rationalise those acts of violence.

For most of us these truths are self-evident and universal. But Higgins has harnessed them now to challenge how we see ourselves in 2020.

Having been “othered” for centuries by the English, many of us now take joy in stereotyping the English as “the other”. To this day that suits certain nationalists’ purposes as a means of sustaining a form of Anglophobia, he says, and that hostility has in turn been fuelled by the worst aspects and feared consequences of Brexit.These truths are also self-evident.

There are many reasons to treat the current Downing Street regime with suspicion, mockery and dislike. But as a country England has long been a haven for our loved ones needing to escape social shaming or seeking a decent life.

Now as the rift deepens and our fear and anger rise, we have a choice to make.

Will we take the narrative that views us as the bitter, oppressed victims of British imperialism (actually a rather moth-eaten empire of nostalgia now)?

Or the narrative that sees this country as a strong, proud member of a European Union with decent, peaceful, pluralist values at the core, one capable of magnanimity and generosity to the hugely diverse English public who were misled and manipulated?

Who stands to gain from either case?

How we remember in this Decade of Centenaries will provide part of the answer. How Brian Stanley chooses to explain his deliberate conflation of Kilmichael – the trigger for the War of Independence – and modern IRA atrocities conducted without a mandate will be revelatory.

Strategic or not, a clear considered tweet from a politician is not “just a tweet” as some supporters suggest. Nor is a tweet ever “all about the tone”, as the Sinn Féin leader declared this week; the 280-character limit makes it almost all about the words. Twitter is a powerful tool that gives politicians a direct, unvarnished line to their base. They usually know precisely what they’re doing.


The issues raised by Stanley’s tweet could hardly be more reflective of the crossroads where Sinn Féin now stands. This is probably no coincidence.

How would 30 years of violence be reflected under a Sinn Féin government? Would the 50th anniversary of Warrenpoint, for example, be ordained a national commemoration by 2029? How does the party propose to calm genuine fears about a united Ireland shrouded in selective memory and the hero narrative of a small minority?

Remembering ethically is a major theme of Higgins’s speech. It is defined in a quote he uses from Ethics and the Easter Rising, by Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins: “Remembering ethically is not just about remembering inclusively, honouring all the dead in the mystery of their humanness, it is about taking responsibility ourselves for the present and the future. We cannot afford to be controlled or dictated to from the grave, but as human beings, take responsibility ourselves for our own distinctive time, place and world.”

When Stanley rises in the Dáil next week the only useful statement would be a declaration that the time is long past for using the murdered dead as a means to an end.