Seamus Heaney: political seer?

Political predictions made by individuals are, by and large, a  waste of  time.   I can think of only  two that later events proved accurate. One was  by Gerry Kelly  who  predicted that  the TUV had peaked at a time when most people, myself included, thought  they were a growing threat. A week or two later Gerry was proved conclusively right  while the rest of us tried to wipe the egg off our faces. The other  was when I made a bet  with Eoghan Harris about  the fate of Sinn Féin candidates in a twenty-six -counties election that was four years away.  (Eoghan, who to his  credit stumped up, told me I’d got lucky.  Maybe he was right.)   So you’ll  understand if I don’t clap my hands to my head and run off shrieking,  now that Seamus  Heaney has predicted  there’ll never be a united Ireland.

I’m  not clear if he was asked a direct question about  the subject  in  the interview he did for  The Times, or whether he just came up with it.  But I found myself thinking about  a man I used to work with who was an outstanding practitioner of  drama in education.  He said that he found people had begun to ask him questions, not just about drama, but about  other things. Like climate change. Or vegetarianism. Or animal rights. He said he couldn’t figure out the jump  in logic people made, from his expertise in drama to his assumed expertise in  all these other areas.  

I also thought of Sam McAughtry, a man whose  views I wouldn’t share on a  number of subjects. Sam wrote an article once about his time in  the Civil Service, I think it was.   The main thrust was that his superiors at work, because they were  his work superiors, tended to assume superiority on any topic that  came up in a discussion.  Sam saw no sense in this and used treat their  ideas with no more respect than he’d give to that of someone he’d encountered in a pub.  His work superiors didn’t like this lack of deference and it got him into some bother over the years.

Seamus Heaney is a fine poet. But I’m baffled as to what part of his poetic imagination allows him to predict so firmly the never-never-never-never of a united Ireland.  Or,  for that matter,  quite what he means when he says “Loyalism, or unionism, or Protestantism, or whatever you want to call it, in Northern Ireland it operates not as a class system but a caste system. And they [the loyalists] have an entitlement factor running:  the flag is part of it”.  If he means that loyalist protesters believe they’re entitled to do whatever they want and to have the Union flag fly as often as they like, he’s right.  If he’s saying  “And they should be granted their  wish, because they have an entitlement factor”, he’s talking through his Nobel  armpit. Loyalists/unionists/whatever have no entitlement to reject a democratic decision reached by the city councillors in a democratic vote.  To talk about people   having  some sort of dispensation from democracy is to side with those  who, because they’ve done what they felt like doing for so long, think it entitles them to keep on doing whatever they like.

When Seamus and I were pupils in St Columb’s College, Derry in the 1950s,  unionism  saw itself as entitled to gerrymander and discriminate at will,  and the  nationalist population shrugged its shoulders in resignation. I  hope this doesn’t come as too big of a shock, Seamus, so I’ll whisper it gently: up here, we’ve stopped shrugging.

12 Responses to Seamus Heaney: political seer?

  1. Daniel January 29, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Should the possession of an “entitlement factor” necessarily justify the conservation of a status quo? I shouldn't think so. Plenty of hegemonies have possessed notions of entitlement down through history, but it didn't necessitate or justify the maintenance of their power or structures. The slave-trade was founded on the notion of entitlement, for example, but the existence of a sense of entitlement was no reason to maintain it in light of better reasons to get rid of it. Of course, I'm not implying that unionism enjoys some *outright* hegemony in the north, nor am I comparing unionist power to the slave-trade; just using a fairly light analogy for the sake of argument in the sense that unionist identity symbolism is undoubtedly the more dominant in terms of visual culture in the north.

    Besides, loyalists *are* being let fly the flag on designated days. The flag's display has been restricted rather than prohibited. Heaney may quote Eddie McAteer in relation to both sides being entitled to their pageantry (and I don't disagree with the sentiment), but there'll be no tricolour appearing next to the Union flag on Belfast City Hall. Surely the logical conclusion of endorsing such sentiment would be to support the flying of both flags? And if a united Ireland is never going to happen anyway, according to Heaney, then shouldn't the emphasis be on ensuring cross-community cultural comfort for everyone in the north rather than appeasing simply unionism/loyalism on this issue?

  2. Eddie Finnegan January 29, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Jude, how come young Ó hÉanaí
    Never got into Rainey?
    Hume may yet lose his rag,
    Choked on a Union Flag.

    -from The Boys of St Columb's

  3. Anonymous January 29, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    It was a daft statement and I find it funny that he can comment on a Belfast issue and yet I dont remember him having similar concerns about the whereabouts of the Union flag in his native Derry!

  4. Anonymous January 29, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Jude, Heaney appears to be implying that loyalists/unionists are positively primal and follows on by suggestring we should do anything to rile them lest a civil war starts, which says a lot for SH's view of democracy. Also, it's a bold statement to predict that even in the 22nd century there's noo chance of a UI, and follows that by saying ' so, let them have the flag' a curious logic runs therein. Poet's certainly aren't automatically seers.[madraj55]

  5. Anonymous January 29, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    I'm sure in response to the furore over the Times interview,Seamus will clarify whether the reported comments were fully accurate.In the meantime,we should give him credit for being “his own man”and not parroting the latest Sinn Fein wish list.Anyone who has read his poetry over the decades ,will be be in little doubt about his attitude to aspects of the “North”.One doubts whether he will be overly worried about criticism in the Jude Collins blog!

  6. Anonymous January 30, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    There will come a day when the people care not so much for flags and pageants but are united as one in hearts and minds towards a better society for everyone,until then there will undoubtedly be push and pull but one thing's for sure the starting point is with equality ,parity of esteem and mutual respect for each others' cultural identity,there's no disputing Seamus Heaney is a brilliant poet/writer and as such he should clarify his words or explain his thoughts and context for he is also one of the more revered of his tribe.

  7. Frank Kelly January 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Hey Jude,
    re Seamus Heaney's Bellaghy Handshake, his “how's it goin'?” headbutt.
    I think what he was really saying (whatever you say, say nothin') was that flags are idiotic. He could/should have added that the 'south' should take down all tricolours too … for good, not only because it would give the loyalists something to think about but because it would be honest, since the Republic has already handed over its sovereignty to the EU anyway (thanks to gombeen cute hoors bankrupting the place) and does not deserve a national flag.

  8. giordanobruno January 30, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    You neglected to mention which chapter of your book this piece is from!

  9. Anonymous January 30, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

    Ah you know poets, they never explain anything

  10. footballcliches January 31, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    I wonder though, was he talking about the constitutional question or the more metaphorical as he is accustomed to dealing with? Will the island ever truly be 'united'. I've read his comments and I do wonder…

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