Tuesday, 29 January 2013
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.