The British government has attempted to colonise the legacy of Irish poet Seamus Heaney in support of the partition of Ireland by using his image as part of a campaign to mark its centenary.
The campaign was unveiled by British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis on Monday. For a failed statelet that was created and sustained through violence, gerrymandering, and sectarianism, the launch was farcical. But the co-option of Seamus Heaney to unionism’s cause was the most glaring error.
Mr Heaney, considered Ireland’s greatest poet of the 20th century, made clear his nationalist identity when he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen”.
Born into a rural Catholic family in Bellaghy in County Derry, Mr Heaney, who died in 2013, abhorred partition and the unionist domination that followed.
He wrote: “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.”
However a colour painting of the Nobel laureate appears among images in the “Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100” initiative.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood branded the use of the image as “deeply offensive” and a “cynical attempt to co-opt Seamus Heaney’s image and reduce his work to a branding tool to promote that narrative about partition”.
More offensively, the Heaney family were not even spoken to about his portrait being used in the branding for the official British ‘celebration’ of the centenary of partition.
Details of the planned events are expected to be published at a later date. Britain’s Northern Ireland Office claimed the events would celebrate the North’s “people, culture, traditions and enterprise; and its vital contribution to the United Kingdom”.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said his party will not celebrate the centenary but would respect that others will. He said it was “an opportunity for discussion and dialogue”.
“There will be celebrations for some people; for other people it is a period of reflection to look at the impact that partition has had on this island for 100 years and all the negative consequences that have flowed from that,” he said.
“It’s a good opportunity for discussion, for dialogue, for analysis, for charting out a better political future for all of us who live on the island, and certainly we will be engaging in it.
“But we respect there are people who will want to celebrate this; it’s not something that I as a republican who is opposed to partition would want to celebrate, but we respect that others will want to do that and they need to be given space to do that.”