If the President had gone to Armagh, Sinn Féin would have gone too

Pat Leahy: When statecraft stutters, a sense of the bigger picture is necessary

President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth at a banquet held at Windsor Castle in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth at a banquet held at Windsor Castle in 2014. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

President Michael D Higgins is not someone to act rashly or take an important decision without due, often protracted, consideration of the issue at hand. So we can assume that in refusing the invitation of the Christian churches to attend the ceremony of “reflection and hope”, due to be held in Armagh Cathedral next week, he considered the likely impact of his decision.

As someone who has been lauded by unionists for the efforts he has made to promote understanding and reconciliation, we can presume that he considered how refusing the invitation would have been interpreted by unionists as well as nationalists in the North, and by the public in the South. I wonder how much heed he paid to the impact on unionists.

The President no doubt surveyed – it is no secret to say the Áras keeps a close eye on all that is written about him – the results of last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll with some satisfaction. It found that 68 per cent of respondents supported his decision to stay away from the Armagh event.

Photos of the President and the Queen joined not just in prayerful remembrance of the difficulties of 100 years ago and since but in hope for a better future, would have led the newspapers and been hailed as example of his leadership

This does not mean it was the right decision. The popular course of action, the one that leads to short-term popularity, is very often in politics and government not the right one. And the best leadership decisions, especially those taken amid the tangled web of peacemaking and bridge-building, are often those which lead one’s own tribe into uncomfortable terrain. Michael D’s popularity – grounded in his extraordinary connection with all generations of Irish people – is such that he could, I suspect, do anything short of shooting the dogs and it would be supported by the public.

I’ll bet if he had attended the Armagh event, it would have passed without much comment, and any comment there was would have been overwhelmingly positive. It would not have come as a surprise or an affront to many people to recognise and mark the existence of 100 years of Northern Ireland, especially in a church-run event devoted to reconciliation. After all, it is quite some time since the voters of the Republic voted to recognise the fact of Northern Ireland and the necessity of the consent of its people to any constitutional change.

In fact, I’m also willing to bet that the photos of the President and the Queen, joined not just in prayerful remembrance of the difficulties of 100 years ago and since but in hope for a better future, would have led the newspapers and been hailed as example of his leadership.

We can’t know that either way, of course. But we can observe some of the consequences of the decision the President did make. They are polarisation, tension and alienation.

His refusal to attend meant immediately that Sinn Féin would not take its place at the ceremony, despite the rather glaring fact that its deputy leader is the joint leader of Northern Ireland and – more to the point, perhaps – its representatives had previously attended similar events.

There was telling moment recently on the Late Debate, the nightly politics show hosted by Katie Hannon on RTÉ radio. Hannon read out the invitation to the Armagh event to the Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy. He misinterpreted her question, believing the words she quoted referred to another event marking the centenary of Northern Ireland, run by the Presbyterian church, which party representatives had attended.

I know what senior figures in the Irish Government say about the British government’s actions, and some of its personnel, and it is not pretty

“That’s absolutely completely different from the event that’s taking place in Armagh!” Carthy insisted.

“That is from the invitation to Armagh!” Hannon explained. It was unintended gotcha moment, of significant revelation.

“Apologies,” replied Carthy. He went on to insist there was a fundamental difference between the two events. There wasn’t, really. I suspect if the President had gone to Armagh, Sinn Féin would have gone too.

All this matters more than usual right now because of the perilous state of the complicated triangular relationship between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. The Irish Government and the EU must deal with a British government that has acted with quite remarkable duplicity and bad faith. This angers Government Buildings, but it also scares them.

This week, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings claimed that lying to the EU and signing the Withdrawal Treaty in bad faith was a deliberate strategy of the Johnson government. “Cheating foreigners,” he explained helpfully, “is a core part of the job”. I am afraid that this did not come as a great shock to many people in Brussels or in Dublin. One senior official told me this was what many people had assumed all along.

I know what senior figures in the Irish Government say about the British government’s actions, and some of its personnel, and it is not pretty. It is considerably more colourful than the very direct criticisms made by Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar of the Johnson administration during the last week. Coveney berated British negotiator Lord David Frost in a late-night tweet. Varadkar basically warned anyone thinking of doing a trade deal with the British that you couldn’t trust the hoors as far as you’d throw them.

The criticisms made by Varadkar and Coveney are largely justified. But that does not mean it is wise to make them in public. When statecraft stutters, a sense of the bigger picture is necessary.

And gestures like attending at Armagh – recognising that while partition may be a tragedy for many people of the nationalist tradition, it is something very different for unionists – assume even greater importance now. Surely we can remember events, even if we might – as Queen Elizabeth said when she visited here in 2011 – wish they were done differently, or not at all. The successes of the great Anglo-Irish rapprochement of the last 30 years have shown that political leaders in these islands, and the officials who serve them, can achieve great good when they put themselves in others’ shoes. But that requires the humility to take off their own shoes first.

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