Don’t use the word too hard, the head of the Church of Ireland warned at a church service I attended recently. They could tie a knot that cannot be untied.
On an island where it can be a minefield to find the right terms to navigate the complexity of shared and separate identities, different religious beliefs and distinct historical traditions, it sounded like wise advice from the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Most Reverend John McDowell.
But in a year marking the centenary on both sides of the border, Irish President Michael D Higgins sparked a political row by dismissing a invitation to interfaith anniversary event next month precisely because of its wording.
Higgins was invited by the heads of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, as well as the leaders of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Irish Council of Churches, to a “service of reflection and hope” on October 21 , to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland ”, which Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain is expected to attend.
But during a visit to the Vatican, Higgins said he would not go, arguing that the wording of the invitation was not neutral and “had, in fact, become a political statement.” “What started as a church service or reconciliation is now the celebration, the marking, I think that’s the word used, [of] the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. It’s something else, ”explained the president, himself a poet.
Higgins was then upset when the Democratic Unionist Party called him “President of the Republic of Ireland”; the DUP in turn took offense to the Republican Sinn Féin party by referring to the UK’s “shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland”.
At home, 81 percent approved of Higgins’ decision. Still, former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton said he didn’t know what it was as the title referred to “simple realities, namely the partition and creation of Northern Ireland”.
Not surprisingly, emotionally charged vocabularies are frequently used to support the enduring polarization of politics on the island. As Rosemary Jenkinson, Northern Irish playwright and short story writer, says: “We use words as weapons in this country.
She bursts out laughing at her own choice of phrase. “‘This country’. That’s another problem! It’s all debatable,” she said. “We need everything to be vague and nebulous here, rather than concrete.”
With a statement undergoing forensic examination, I wondered, as a new FT correspondent, what should I be called. Since the 1998 peace accords ending three decades of sectarian strife dubbed, with colossal understatement, the Troubles, the people of Northern Ireland have been able to identify as British, Irish, or both.
But would “the correspondent of Ireland” evoke the old territorial claim of the republic – abandoned in 1999 – on the island of Ireland? Do I list my Republic of Ireland mobile number as “Irish” and the other my “UK” or “Northern Ireland” number?
For most of the people of the republic, the land beyond the 1921 divide is simply “the North.” To loyalists this may be “Ulster” – although this also refers to one of the provinces of Ireland and three of Ulster’s nine counties have been excluded by partition.
The peace agreement itself is both the Good Friday Agreement and the Belfast Agreement – or even the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, just as the second largest city in Northern Ireland is at both Londonderry and Derry. No wonder a local reconciliation partnership in the 1990s hedged its bets by calling itself Derry / Londonderry / Doire – the latter is the name in Irish.
The Irish language – spoken by a minority in the north and south – is another box of verses. Language law – a long-standing Republican demand enshrined in the peace agreement – allowing Irish to be used in courts and on road signs is expected to be passed by Westminster next month after the standoff politics in Northern Ireland itself.
Higgins, a thoughtful man praised for his unbiased approach to remembrance, kicked off a Centennial Lecture Series, machnamh 100, Irish for reflection and contemplation. The kick-off, and rightly so, was given with a lecture on the challenge of public commemoration.