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Newton Emerson: Academic rhetoric on NI is more dangerous than declined invitation

It is now common to hear the North referred to as a colony, with little care for what that implies

The four main churches say they only found out through the media last week that President Higgins will not be attending their Northern Ireland centenary service. This seems at odds with earlier statements that organisers were spoken to months ago. Whatever the exact nature of communications, it should surprise nobody that the President had intellectual issues with his invitation.

Under his Machnamh centenary programme, described as “inviting reflections on the War of Independence, the Treaty Negotiations, the Civil War and Partition”, the President has spent a year hosting academic seminars on contested commemoration, ethical remembering and, above all, on colonialism as the overriding context for the centenary.

It is easy to imagine him taking a dim view of the “both sides” cliches of the church invitation as it landed on his mat.

The rarefied content of the seminars has rendered them low-profile, but attention was sharply drawn to them in February when the President condemned journalists and academics for “feigned amnesia” over British imperialism as the key shaper of Irish history.


He alleged a “disinclination” to consider this alongside critiques of nationalism, by which he meant Irish nationalism. The view of unionism as a parallel British nationalism is apparently another “both sides” cliche.

The President’s comments were widely reported in the British and Irish press, although they caused some bemusement. There is no shortage of post-colonial theorising from academia and it seems unrealistic to expect the same from mere journalism.

News reports will hardly say "there was trouble in Belfast last night due to the legacy of imperialism". The media only works like that in Cuba.

Sectarian crutch

Post-colonialism is a perfectly respectable academic pursuit. Unfortunately once out in the wild it becomes a sectarian crutch for calling unionists colonists and occupiers, as the past week has amply demonstrated.

It is now commonplace to hear Northern Ireland referred to as a colony, with little awareness or care for what that implies. In contrast to Machnamh’s high-minded deliberations, much of Ireland has begun sounding like a character from Father Ted, shouting “good for you, President Higgins, you tell ‘em!”

The “them” in this case are unionists, although they had nothing to do with the church service and gave the President the benefit of the doubt when they learned he had declined the invitation, given his record on reconciliation.

Even DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose speculation on boycotts provoked most outrage, initially suggested the Irish Government must be to blame.

Former taoiseach John Bruton has claimed non-attendance will undermine the Belfast Agreement by rejecting the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. Many unionists share this view.

However, there is a considerable difference between saying Northern Ireland was a colonial creation a century ago and saying it remains so today. The President is entitled to his historical analysis; unionists can argue the reverse. What undermines the agreement is forgetting this analysis was dropped at the outset of the peace process.

Bringing post-colonialism back into our politics confers a responsibility to at least mention that it was excised from the late 1980s

Sinn Féin ceased defining the Troubles as a “colonial conflict” and demanding “a process of decolonisation”, including “resettlement grants” for unionists. The party recognised this rhetoric was politically unacceptable and would obstruct any progress.

That cleared the way for John Hume's framing of Northern Ireland as a modern European dispute of competing nationalisms and contested sovereignty, such as Saarland or the Tyrol, to be resolved through treaty, devolution and plebiscite. Former DUP leader Peter Robinson favoured a comparison with Schleswig-Holstein.


Bringing post-colonialism back into our politics confers a responsibility to at least mention that it was excised from the late 1980s. Ideally its removal should be explained and debated. Was nationalism’s “de-colonisation” of the Troubles a diplomatic fiction to get the peace process under way, or was Hume making a much better point than perhaps even he intended about Northern Ireland being relatively normal in European terms?

There should be space in Machnamh to ask. In February, two weeks after he scolded the press, the President hosted a seminar entitled “Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power and Resistance”, which considered events and culture in Ireland after the first World War in terms of all European empires.

If it is too simplistic to consider the Belfast Agreement as marking an expiry date on post-colonialism, it must still be a landmark in its declining relevance.

The amnesia over this is due to how unfashionable it is within academia, how at odds it is with Ireland’s perception of its history as uniquely awful and how unflattering it is to Northern Ireland’s political class, which fancies itself as a global inspiration.

Donaldson has set up consultancies with colleagues from the SDLP, Sinn Féin and Alliance offering peace process lessons to countries such as Afghanistan and Bahrain. It would never occur to anyone at Stormont to go to Alsace-Lorraine to humbly study how the inhabitants resolved a nationalist dispute at the fulcrum of two world wars. It looks like it would not occur to President Higgins either.