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Stephen Collins: Michael D Higgins should have attended John Redmond event

Refusal casts doubt on ability to represent different strands of Irishness

President Michael D Higgins: refusal to acknowledge contribution of those who sought to achieve independence by peaceful, constitutional methods casts doubt on his ability to represent the different strands of Irishness commemorated in the Decade of Centenaries. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The decision of President Michael D Higgins to decline an invitation to open a State-sponsored event on Tuesday to mark the centenary of the death of Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond was disappointing.

The President was notable by his absence from the State’s formal acknowledgment of the contribution of Redmond, and by extension the entire constitutional nationalist tradition, to the achievement of Irish independence.

The President’s office told The Irish Times he was unable to accept the invitation to open the symposium for “logistical and diary reasons”. The President’s diary listed no engagements for Tuesday although a number were listed for Wednesday and Thursday.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who stepped into the breach was a more than adequate replacement. Making clear his attachment to the Fianna Fáil republican tradition, he nonetheless paid tribute to Redmond as an Irish patriot.

President Higgins’s refusal, for whatever reason, to formally acknowledge the contribution of those who sought to achieve independence by peaceful, constitutional methods casts doubt on his ability to represent the different strands of Irishness that are being commemorated in the Decade of Centenaries.

Honouring John Redmond’s memory does not imply an endorsement of all his actions any more than the commemoration of the 1916 Rising and its leaders amounted to an endorsement of violence as the only way to achieve Irish freedom.

The whole point of the Decade of Centenaries is that modern Ireland should acknowledge the contribution of all of those who helped this country to take its place among the nations of the world.

Enormous achievement

The enormous achievement of Redmond and his party in forcing the British, through political action, to accept the legitimacy of an Irish parliament has been obscured in the popular imagination because the first World War led to its postponement and that in turn led to the Rising and the First Dáil.

A number of speakers at Tuesday’s symposium in the National Gallery made the point that with the enactment of Home Rule in 1914, the British government and British public opinion had accepted the demand for an Irish parliament.

The Rising and subsequent events led to a greater level of independence than that envisaged by Redmond but that would not have been possible if Home Rule had not already become an accepted fact of political life.

Former Fianna Fáil minister and historian Martin Mansergh put it succinctly: “If they [the Irish Party] hadn’t got as far as they got, others would not have been able to go farther.”

Mansergh also made the point that the strong parliamentary tradition going back beyond Redmond to Parnell and O’Connell played an important role in ensuring that an independent Irish state remained a democracy when so many other new states established in the wake of the first World War slipped into totalitarianism.

At a mundane level, how many people realise that our single transferable vote system of proportional representation, enshrined in Éamon de Valera’s constitution and held dear by the Irish public, began its life in the 1914 Act as the electoral system envisaged for a Home Rule parliament?

Parliamentary tradition

More importantly, the respect in which the elected parliament is held by the vast majority of Irish people owes much to the deep roots put down by our parliamentary tradition before independence. Incidentally all our major political parties have copied to a greater or lesser degree the organisational framework developed by the Irish Party.

What is probably of more relevance today than anything else is that Redmond’s approach to dealing with Irish unionism firmly ruled out the notion of coercion under any circumstances. While Redmond took far too long to come to terms with the depth of unionist feeling, he did everything in his power to avoid partition but was clear that coercion could not be countenanced.

Speaking in the House of Commons on the day Redmond died, his most bitter political opponent, Edward Carson, paid tribute to the late Irish Party’s leader’s courtesy and kindness. “As far as I am concerned, it is enough for me that he was a great Irishman and a most honourable opponent, and as such we mourn his loss.”

In that same speech, Carson reflected on how close he and Redmond had come to an accommodation in the wake of the 1916 Rising before it was scuppered by more intractable elements on both sides.

Another MP who paid tribute to Redmond in the Commons on the day he died was the leader of the then small Labour parliamentary party, William Adamson.

“Not only has the House lost a distinguished colleague and friend, but the British Labour movement has lost a friend who on many occasions stood by it. Before the party with which I am associated found a place in this House, the late Irish leader, and the party with which he was associated, rendered invaluable services to the cause of the working-class movement of this country on many occasions,” said Adamson.

This is a little-known aspect of Redmond’s political life but another reason why a Labour Party president of Ireland should have represented the State in remembering an Irish patriot and a good man.