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Diarmaid Ferriter: Armagh controversy vindicates independent presidency

Controversy a reminder of changes in perception and style of presidency

In May 1974, the president of Ireland, Erskine Childers, wrote a private letter to the taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. He had recently officially opened a swimming pool in Tipperary town named in honour of Seán Treacy, one of the local leaders of the IRA during the War of Independence: “We do not do half enough to commemorate the lives of those who worked for Ireland in the social, political and cultural fields in the 19th and 20th century to arouse the self-confidence of Irish people. When I opened the swimming pool in Tipperary, I found a museum commemorating the life of Seán Treacy... The museum contained nothing but guns.”

Childers had strong views on commemoration, hardly surprisingly given that his father was executed during the Civil War, but they had to remain largely private. In keeping with the contemporary perception of the presidency by governors and the tradition of partisan politics, Childers, who had stood for election as Fianna Fáil’s nominee, was rigorously censored when it came to his presidential desires and freedom of speech by a Fine Gael-led government. He was forbidden from hosting the “think tanks” he desired and his talk of “expanding” the role of president was dismissed by those who wanted the office to remain largely ceremonial.

It is not difficult to see how commemorating partition is problematic for the head of state

Two years later his successor, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, resigned after the minister for defence, Patrick Donegan, characterised his decision to refer the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court, after advice from the Council of State, as a “thundering disgrace”. In a display of striking immaturity and partiality, Cosgrave refused to sack Donegan. For some time Ó Dálaigh had felt sidelined by the government; the Department of Taoiseach delayed relaying correspondence addressed to him through that department “for the purpose of preparing a substantive reply”, and Cosgrave failed to keep him informed of government business, a mandatory requirement of his office. Ó Dálaigh also felt vulnerable as he had been “invited” to take up the role rather than being elected: “I didn’t seek this office”, he wrote privately, “I shall retain it only so long as I can do so with dignity.”

The recent Armagh controversy has provided a very public reminder of how the perception and style of the presidency has changed. Former taoiseach John Bruton’s version of the “thundering disgrace” accusation – that the President was in breach of his constitutional obligations, a charge from which Bruton subsequently backed down – was derided publicly by the President, who also invoked his mandate from the people to think and act independently. The President has also repeatedly addressed thorny issues of commemoration publicly, in a manner denied to Childers.


It is not difficult to see how commemorating partition is problematic for the head of state. Partaking in a “service of Christian worship” to “mark the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland” might legitimately be seen as an endorsement of the blessing of partition, a move bound to be divisive and offensive to many in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Commemoration of the revolutionary decade needs to include the choice to opt out of events that are regarded as antagonistic. It was hardly surprising DUP leader Arlene Foster declined an invitation to attend the state’s 1916 Rising commemoration in 2016. People by and large understood and accepted why she would not. Likewise, the idea mooted in advance of 2016 that a senior member of the British royal family might attend a State event was ultimately seen as problematic and inappropriate. The absence of a royal did not vitiate the significance of the 2011 royal visit or damage Anglo-Irish relations.

Soft-centred aspirations to please everybody are not conducive to honest confrontation with difficult historical legacies

When the expert advisory group on commemorations (of which I am a member) was established in 2012 some of its members bristled at the assertion of one minister that our job “is the job of the peace process”. It is not. As we outlined in our initial mission statement, it is necessary to try “to ensure that significant events are commemorated accurately, proportionately and appropriately in tone”, but “there should be no attempt to contrive an ahistorical or retrospective consensus about the contemporary impact and legacy of divisive events”, and that “the State cannot be expected to be neutral about the events that led to its formation”.

Historian Brian Hanley has rightly raised the problem of “shared history leading to commemorative trade-offs that ignore questions such as imperialism, power and inequality”. Soft-centred aspirations to please everybody are not conducive to honest confrontation with difficult historical legacies. Discussion about these questions needs to be vigorous and uncomfortable, and in making his decision, the President has acknowledged that, and continues to engage in historical deliberation. Perhaps we should see this controversy as a vindication of an independent presidency, a reminder of the limitations of “shared history” and a measure of the divisions, historic and contemporary, that we still must confront with debate rather than prayer.