As much as any Pope, President Michael D Higgins believes himself infallible.

Published: 4 October 2021

Michael D Higgins at his 2011 inauguration

Michael D Higgins at his 2011 inauguration

Yet his recent behaviour has had an utterly toxic effect on relationships between nationalists and unionists in this centenary year. It has forced hidden hatreds into the open and delivered yet another probably fatal blow to United Irelanders.

As a furious Unionist friend – who has spent years seeking to assist north-south understanding – said to me on the phone at the beginning of the row: “That’s what they think of us. We don’t even exist.”

Northern Irish people who had come to think that “unionists and nationalists can talk away their differences until a change of sovereignty becomes as easy and seamless as changing one’s socks,” said the commentator Owen Polley, had exposed themselves “to all kinds of nonsense about a ‘new Ireland’ where Britishness will be one of a range of identities that are respected and cherished”.

For them, “Higgins’ behaviour is a shock and a blow”.

The artist and writer Brian John Spencer, whose years of trying to understand southern viewpoints and connect with them took him to every county on the island, was one of those: “Reconciliation and parity of esteem, as far as I can see, is dead. This episode has completely turned my view of the Republic of Ireland and all their traditions and norms upside down. I will not be the same sympathetic and curious person.”

I have been around longer than Spencer, and I wasn’t surprised. Nor was Polley: “For those of us who have been paying attention, it’s no surprise that the Irish republic is as mired as ever in its foundational myths and hatreds. I’m what they hate: I’ll notice when they stop and will let you know.”

He recommended unionists keep listening to Michael D Higgins. He reveals that the “’new Ireland’ is much like the old one, but smugger; it retains the same attitudes, even if its anti- unionist, anti-British prejudices are cloaked in condescension and bad poetry”.

Although my background was broadly Catholic-nationalist, and my first 21 years were spent in Dublin, when in the 1970s I began to take a serious interest in the politics of Northern Ireland, it seemed to me blindingly obvious that the way to persuade unionists of the merits of united Ireland was not to try to terrorise them into it.

Although I hadn’t yet come across the word “thrawn”, I had learned enough from my reading of history and politics to grasp that Ulster Protestants had a tradition of dogged, stubborn resistance to bullies. It was mystifying to me that Irish nationalists not only paid no attention whatsoever to the warning from Edward Carson that “Ulster might be wooed by sympathetic understanding – she can never be coerced,” but to varying degrees endorsed the opposite, self-defeating strategy.

It was Prime Minister James Craig who in talks in 1922 with Michael Collins quoted that warning, but although they signed a peace pact, and Collins was not stupid, his priority was to avoid a split in the IRA so he supported a brutal covert campaign against Northern Ireland, which entrenched sectarianism and hatred and began a century of needless suffering.

Protestant unionists became ever more obdurate, and Irish nationalists wallowed in self-pity and self-delusion.

The majority of southern Irish people have not bothered to get to know Northern Ireland or its people, though they don’t like them – nationalist or unionist – and frequently betray latent Anglophobia. Their idea of a united Ireland is a re-branding with no changes to the Republic.

Higgins’ bigotry has brought this into the open. The Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole addressed it bluntly. Speaking of the “fabulous Irish capacity for doublethink”, or “cognitive dissonance”, he reminded his readers of the 2019 exit poll which asked two key questions.

Asked how important the Irish language was to them on a scale of one to 10, 60% chose seven or above – yet 67% of those who could speak it, never did.

Similarly, 65% would vote in favour “if there was a referendum on a United Ireland tomorrow” – yet successive polls show that this support drops by around half if it would require higher taxes.

Let alone substantial changes to the Irish constitution.

The commentator Andrew Devine, from the Republic but of mixed roots, wrote of the reality that most nationalists have a “sneering and contemptuous attitude” to those of a British or Irish-British identity, who would be given no respect “in the kind of united Ireland marketed by Sinn Fein and the petit communist President who sits in Aras an Uachtarain.”

Last Saturday, in The Guardian, which is pro-nationalist, that fine Irish best-selling novelist Colm Toibin answered the proposition that Brexit would lead to a united Ireland by dismissing the idea as “mystical blather”.

Politicians were talking rubbish; “In this united Ireland of theirs, that will occur in their lifetimes, do they intend to foist the dysfunctional health system and the appalling housing crisis that exist in the Republic on the people of Northern Ireland? Do they want to import sectarian hatred and the politics of perpetual grievance from the north into the south?”

Higgins did unionists a favour. They can cease worrying about a border poll and focus their attention on sorting out the protocol.

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