President can and should attend service in Armagh

It would be an act of reconcilliation for Higgins to acknowledge he had no desire to hurt

President Michael D Higgins  at Áras an Uachtaráin. ‘As regards next month’s religious service and the President refusing the invitation, it no longer matters who was right and who was wrong.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin. ‘As regards next month’s religious service and the President refusing the invitation, it no longer matters who was right and who was wrong.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

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If he had gone to the service, no one would have noticed. No one apart from the fundamentalists whose tendency is to see the tree and not the woods.

If the President, Michael D Higgins, had accepted the invitation to the church event in Armagh next month, his presence and the event itself would have received no more than the usual cursory media attention that such occasions attract.

The deed and the damage that flows from it is done. Why it happened I know not, beyond an observation that the President is scholarly and exact.

I have sat in audiences and admired his scholarship and his exactitude, taking pride in a President who can dissect, explain and challenge ideas and histories that were too often allowed to hold disruptive prominence and influence in our understanding.

No matter what the starting agenda, the ending agenda will demand compromise and fundamental attitudinal change

We are told the matter is now concluded and that there is no possibility the decision not to attend will be reversed. Strangely, that may be a greater mistake than the original decision not to attend. Not because it will result in any greater dispute and discord but because it will pass up on an opportunity to do a great amount of good.

The most transformative moments in Anglo/Irish and unionist/nationalist relationships have been when individuals and institutions have gone beyond the politically correct and the judicially safe.

When the first nationalist mayor attended the cenotaph in Derry’s Diamond to commemorate those who fought and died in the British army; when the then taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was driven through the narrow streets of Belfast to meet with the commanders of the loyalist paramilitaries; when Martin McGuinness stood in line to shake hands with the queen.

The President correctly remarked that the current reconciliation traffic was mostly one way, from South to North. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that nationalism is wooing unionism and the wooer always must do the bulk of the running. The big moments of reconciliation are still remembered and are the roots of the improvement in relationships.

But even those events were the result of political astuteness that recognised the changing atmosphere that was demanding a more courageous leadership. The generosity that was shown was in tune with the prevailing winds.

Despite the progress that has resulted, we have never reached the state of being fully relaxed and at ease with each other’s motivations. Our antennae are always alert to the wrong word or the gesture that exposes the underlying intention.

Reconciliation begins when we are allowed to be wrong, when we are judged or held to account, not on every word or gesture, but rather on the totality of our being and our actions. And we are far from that.

Sometime in the coming years, in the not-too-distant future, we are going to have to sit down and talk to each other – again. This time it will not be about how to bring violence to an end by constructing political institutions in Northern Ireland. This time it will be about the totality of relationships between the peoples in the whole of Ireland and the interconnection with the British Isles.

Changing demographics

This time will not be about an interim arrangement – it will be about a “forever” arrangement.

Those talks, that set of negotiations, will take place against a backdrop of changing demographics within which there will be no overwhelming majority and a growing centralist constituency – Alliance in the North, Greens in the South would be examples – who are growing more intolerant and impatient of dogmatic political positions.

Those talks are going to be difficult and frank. They will travel into the fibre of our political DNAs. They will deconstruct and reconstruct deeply held beliefs and principles.

It still could be an opportunity to break down some of the circular negativity that has dogged our relationships

No matter what the starting agenda, the ending agenda will demand compromise and fundamental attitudinal change. There will be many times when each side will have to accept or admit they were unaware, or ignorant, or wrong.

As regards next month’s religious service and the President refusing the invitation, it no longer matters who was right and who was wrong. The incident and the responses have gone to a different place. That place is just another one of those moments when a small incident has led to a further tensing of the sectarian and political nerve ends. It is a common enough occurrence in our history.

The story itself, of course, will eventually disappear off the media. The President will not be all that damaged because he is a person of great integrity, who is much loved by most of the people on the island. But it will remain in the ether for a long, long time, to be used as an example that suits whatever destructive argument is being put forward.

An opportunity

But it still could be an opportunity to break down some of the circular negativity that has dogged our relationships. The Higgins presidency has already demonstrated that there is a place beyond political and judicial correctness.

For such a president to say I might have got it wrong, that the Constitution is to serve the people, even the unionist-minded people, would be a strong statement. That even if right, he had no desire to confuse or hurt anyone, especially those who are growing more insecure and fearful of their constitutional future and political identity.

To lovingly allow for an accusation or even perception of being wrong and willing to change for the greater good, is a model and a virtue that would serve the present and the future politic extremely well. It would be an example of true reconciliation. Our President, Michael D Higgins, is more than capable of such an act.

Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board

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