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4 August 2014

The Presbyterian caught in eye of storm over 1916

Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys

Like most Irish government reshuffles, Taoiseach Enda Kenny's last month was less to do with promoting talent than with shoring up electoral prospects. Because of multi-seat constituencies, Irish TDs are captives of their constituents, doomed to attend innumerable funerals and waste their time lobbying government about minutiae lest some competitor be seen to be more assiduous.

Irish voters are increasingly volatile, independents and protest parties are on the march and Sinn Fein is awash with money and recruits, hence – more than ever – Kenny's priority was to placate any corner of the country where a Fine Gael seat might be under threat in the 2016 general election.

So although Heather Humphreys is able and impressive and understands both finance and farming, the likelihood is that she was appointed to the Cabinet because Cavan-Monaghan, where Fine Gael won three seats in 2011, will be reduced from five to four seats at the next election.

Her advantages include her gender (the government is short of women), being married to a Monaghan farmer, having close links to Cavan where she used to work as a credit union manager and being a Presbyterian in a constituency with a substantial Protestant minority.

It is because of her religion that there was a startled reaction to her appointment to be Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, for this gives her a key role in organising the events surrounding the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the hottest of hot commemorative potatoes.

There is little unity over this event. Ex-Taoiseach John Bruton has been speaking out for those who believe the rising to have been a catastrophe that poisoned the island with political violence. Most party members approve of 1916 and the War of Independence, but think all violence after that lacked legitimacy.

Fianna Fail, who opposed the treaty and were on the losing side in the civil war, went into government and imprisoned and hanged recalcitrant IRA die-hards who are honoured by Sinn Fein, who view as true patriots everyone involved in republican violence until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

They denounce the so-called dissidents, who regard themselves as the true heirs of the men of 1916 and have a point. If 98 years ago it was legitimate in a democracy for a tiny cabal to kill people in the name of Irish freedom, it's difficult to argue that the Provos, who lost and went into Stormont, have the right to prevent another generation following in their bloody footsteps. The government and Fianna Fail are fearful that Sinn Fein will hijack the commemoration – which, of course, they are bent on doing – but in turn, Sinn Fein fret that the dissidents will secure a propaganda victory through the liberal use of uncompromising quotes from the 1916 leaders and, possibly, violence.

A further complication is that the commemorations may be taking place during the election campaign.

This has caused Enda Kenny to announce that in a spirit of inclusiveness, not only will every tradition on the island of Ireland be welcome to participate, but his government will be inviting along a senior member of the British Royal family.

This rather odd gesture has been denounced by Irish historian, Diarmuid Ferriter, as an expression of "a post-colonial inferiority complex", by Gerry Adams as an attempt to obscure the fact that the 1916 goal of a free, united Ireland is "unfinished business" and by the president of Republican Sinn Fein as an attempt "to sanitise our history to the point that it has been robbed of any meaning".

There was a taste of the trouble to come when Minister Humphreys had to rebut the decidedly non-inclusive allegation that she has links with the Orange Order. She explained firmly that she will continue to attend cultural events associated with "a diverse range of communities including the Protestant community". She tells us soothingly that she will be working toward a consensus "on a respectful, appropriate and inclusive way to commemorate this hugely significant event in our history".

I wish her luck. She'll need it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards