This blog has, of course, already drawn attention to the decade of centenaries, but the official recognition now given to it by the Taoiseach will probably raise its profile somewhat.
Cowen referred in his speech to the observation, by poet Robert Greacen that "in Ireland, especially in the North, the past hangs round people’s necks like an albatross". Cowen said that following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement "we all – together – began to lift the albatross from our neck" – not in the sense that we have started to forget our history, but in the sense that the albatross is a dead weight that weighs us down.
The albatross reference comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere), which was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797–98. The albatross is hung around the mariner's neck by his angry companions as they blame him for bringing misfortune on them by killing it. Unlike in Cowen's version, the mariner did not lift the bird from his neck – it fell off only when he managed to pray.
Whether the weight of the albatross of history will fall from the neck of the Irish nation is hard to know, and past experience does not bode well. History is a powerful motivator, and raises passions that are otherwise dormant. Cowen may well have been bowing to the inevitable by opening a public debate on the decade of centenaries – they will be remembered anyway – and he may have decided to deal with them proactively.
Several years ago the southern state decided to upgrade its commemoration of the Easter Rising. This move was taken for two reasons; firstly because the end of the IRA's war in the north meant that the southern state could no longer be seen as providing moral succour, and secondly to reclaim 1916 for 'official Ireland' in good time for the centenary in 2016. Perhaps Cowen's move today is being taken for similar reasons – if the state and its institutions are leading the commemorations there is less risk that they will be hijacked by others, including the dissident republicans.
The re-appropriation of history by the state carries with it another opportunity. As Cowen said:
" … the Government has considered these issues in recent weeks and has decided that its approach will be guided by several principles.This means that unionism will be faced with a dilemma. Its centenaries will be included amongst those commemorated by the southern state – so how will unionism react? Will it churlishly refuse to join it, insisting on having its own separate ceremonies? Or will it embrace the opportunity to detoxify history?
We want to see full acknowledgment of the totality of the island’s history and the legitimacy of all the traditions on the island that draw their identity and collective memory from our shared history.
We want the process of commemoration to recognise the totality of the history of the period, and all of the diversity that this encompasses,
We believe that mutual respect should be central to all commemorative events and that historical accuracy should be paramount.
Based on those principles, we will engage in a programme of outreach to all those who are interested in commemorating our history, in all its dimensions, with pride and with respect.
That will, of course, include all of the political parties on the island, as well as leaders of civic society and cultural institutions."
If it is the former, then by 2022, when the bulk of the centenaries will be behind us, unionism will emerge looking smaller, pettier and more isolated than ever. If, as all indications imply, unionism will be a minority creed and Protestantism a bare majority in the north, the psychological impact may be enormous, and may help to speed the death of unionism as a significant political movement.
But if it is the latter, then by 2022 unionism will have been intimately involved with Irish nationalism, both north and south, for a decade, and will have shown that de facto it is an Irish movement with a past and a future in Ireland. All sorts of new relationships will have been created, and all sorts of barriers broken down. The logic of close north-south cooperation may have been learnt, and who knows where that might lead …
That albatross still has a lot of power to influence our lives.