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Michael D Higgins: There is a reluctance to criticise empire and imperialism

Uachtarán na hÉireann wrote in the Guardian that a “feigned amnesia” of Anglo-Irish history would not help create a better future.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

UACHTARÁN NA hÉIREANN Michael D Higgins has said that there is a reluctance to criticise empire and imperialism, especially when compared to critique of nationalism.

This year marks the centenary of the end of the War of Independence, the Anglo Irish Treaty that lead to the partition of Ireland; topics which an t-Uachtarán has been reflecting on in a series called ‘Machnamh’.

Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Michael D Higgins wrote about how not accepting the negative impacts of imperialism has had an effect on the citizens of countries who had been colonised, and how a “feigned amnesia” around “uncomfortable” parts of Anglo-Irish history would not help create a better future.

Uachtarán Higgins wrote that at imperialism’s core was persuading its citizens of an “assumption of superiority of culture” to justify the othering of a population, and imperialistic injustices had a “brutalising effect” that left pain and resentment “sometimes passed down through generations”.

“As I reflect on the topic, I am struck by a disinclination in both academic and journalistic accounts to critique empire and imperialism. Openness to, and engagement in, a critique of nationalism has seemed greater.”

He wrote of Ireland’s fight against the British empire:

“From the perspective of the British imperialist mind of its time, attitudes to the Irish for example, were never, and could never be, about a people who were equal, had a different culture, or could be trusted in a civilised discourse of equals.
“From the perspective of the Irish, who had their own ancient language, social and legal systems and a rich monastic contribution to the world, this view had to be resisted. 

Higgins argued that imperialism was masked as modernity to expand “cultural suppression, economic exploitation, dispossession and domination”.

“Such consideration also helps explain a reluctance in former imperial powers to engage now with their imperialist past and to examine that past with descendants of those previously colonised, many of whom still live with the complex legacies of that colonialism.”

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An t-Uachtarán will host a seminar called ‘Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power and Resistance’ as part of his series Machnamh 100, which will “recall significant events in Ireland a century ago, in the context of changes taking place within the British Empire”.

The seminar will be chaired by John Bowman, broadcaster and historian, and will include contributions from President Higgins, Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin), Dr Marie Coleman (Queen’s University Belfast), Dr Niamh Gallagher (St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), Professor Eunan O’Halpin (Trinity College Dublin) and Professor Alvin Jackson (University of Edinburgh).

The seminar will be broadcast on the RTÉ Player at 7pm on Thursday 25 February.

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