The Significance of The Significance

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

-George Orwell, Animal Farm

I think that’s enough for today. I have just turned off the Liveline programme on RTÉ Radio. Callers were discussing the suit worn by Michael D. Higgins on the State visit to the UK. Earlier, on the Sean O’Rourke programme, guests were discussing the outfits worn by Sabina Higgins and the Queen of All That Is. Apparently if it is a windy day, Sabina Higgins may have to wear some pins in order to keep her hat on. Everything was weighed up in terms of its significance: the music, the military displays, the horses, the hats. Indeed, I doubt I’ve ever heard the word “significant” used so often in such a short space of time as I did on the Sean O’Rourke programme this morning. Eminent historian Roy Foster, called upon to put everything into perspective, was asked how significant the State visit was. He was asked if it was significant that the first State visit came from Britain, and not the other way round. Yes, said Roy, this was immensely significant.

You know something is significant when they get Roy Foster on to signify how significant it is by saying “it’s significant”. But that it is significant is far more significant than whatever it is that the signifier signifies. Got it? No?

OK. What is the significance of all this significance? Or to put it another way, what sort of system of signs are we being confronted with here?

Let’s start with a few basics. Michael D. Higgins is the President of Ireland. He is on a State visit to the United Kingdom. That means, in constitutional terms, that Michael D. Higgins is representing the people of Ireland in an official encounter with the…well, the Queen. The people of Ireland, so it goes, have sent Michael D. Higgins to represent them, and the peoples of England, Scotland and Wales have sent the Queen to…wait a minute, I don’t think that’s written down anywhere. The Queen is not doing anything on behalf of her subjects; rather, she is doing it because she is the Queen. It’s a pity Lord St. John of Fawsley isn’t still around to resolve these thorny questions.

Anyway, as The Guardian in the UK notes today, Michael D. Higgins is officially the head of democratic and republican Ireland. That means, for those who take these things seriously, that when he visits UK on a State visit, and he stays at Windsor Palace, he is doing so on behalf of each and every citizen of Ireland. If you are a citizen of Ireland, this means that it is as good as you yourself sleeping in the Queen’s bed, and drinking her brandy. The significance of this, to the people of Ireland is: if you’re ever in the vicinity and the Queen is in town, she’ll put you up for a mighty night’s craic. If you are ever evicted in London, I encourage you to try this some time, to check out how much the signified corresponds to reality.

Absent from all this talk of significance, apart from the most superficial of references, was the question of the intended target of this significance. To whom were these things supposed to signify stuff? A generous interpretation would be that mystical imaginary body commonly known as “the Irish people”, who, it turns out, are pretty much the same “people” that existed back in the day of Queen Victoria, when, according to Roy Foster, it was only “extremist nationalists” (his words), such as Maud Gonne, who objected to the relation of a subject people to its monarch.

Various Irish people had their views sought by RTÉ on the significance of Michael D. Higgins’s visit. Many others had their views represented by RTÉ broadcasters. As they put it, it must have been very significant for them to see their Head of State come to Britain. But wait. Most Irish people in Britain didn’t vote for Michael D. Higgins as ‘their’ Head of State. If you emigrate from Ireland, you lose the right to vote in the country’s elections. It has been a feature of Irish ‘democracy’ that the material deprivation that drives emigration goes hand in hand with basic political disenfranchisement.

A TV documentary is running on RTÉ at the minute titled ‘A Sovereign People’. Last week, a judge was talking about the 1916 Proclamation. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the language of the document, with its emphasis on the citizen, stood opposed to the political discourse of the subject that had hitherto prevailed under the colonial power. Whereas the subject, the royal or imperial subject, in these terms, was passive and obedient, the active citizen was the central figure of popular sovereignty. This kind of citizenship necessarily entails dispute, argument, conflict: qualities utterly absent from RTÉ coverage of the State visit, and from its political coverage more broadly. Instead, the RTÉ listener could hear Olivia O’Leary effuse about how “we” had given the Queen a great welcome to Dublin. Which is why An Garda Síochána put Dublin on lockdown for the duration of her visit.

These days, the significance of citizen poses problems for the declaration of equal rights enshrined in the 1916 proclamation. What now comes to the fore, in these post-sovereign days, is merely the question of who is a citizen and who is not, or more broadly, who is Irish and who is not, and how that distinction can best be drawn.

Who should be first in line to have their entitlement to health and welfare withdrawn? Who is useful to economic growth, and who is not? Who should be locked up and deported, and who should be allowed to move freely? These are the real shared concerns of the Irish and British ruling classes. What is rendered absent, from the generally sympathetic representation of Irish people who were once the object of suspicion, exclusion and surveillance in Britain, is the fact that this apparatus is now trained on other sectors of British society, particularly British Muslims, and Muslims more generally, but also migrants from places such as Romania and Bulgaria.

In this scenario, it comes naturally to Ireland’s media establishment to identify the Irish in Britain as their own, as part of the ‘diaspora’, and to go as far as identify the achievements of these people as the achievements of Ireland, whilst turning a blind eye to the processes that landed them in Britain in the first place, and to the fact that these people have been altogether excluded from Irish political life. Michael D. Higgins will be paying a visit to Irish people whose labour helped build the National Health Service; the bitter irony is that Ireland has never had one, and the British establishment represented by the Queen is dismantling it anyway.

Instead of these live political concerns, we have the image, conjured up by people like Roy Foster, of two peoples being “separate, but equal”, at the very same time that popular sovereignty in both islands is little more than a sick joke, with financial and economic elites destroying the public institutions and services and social protections that were built by generations of British and Irish people. And beneath all this, it as if there is a secret celebration underway that the Irish, or at least, the Irish people who matter, have now become fully white in the eyes of their former masters.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Significance of The Significance

  1. You explain a lot but then don’t reveal whether Sabina needed the hat-pins or not. I was all agog. Think of the significance of the possibilities. I feel used now.

  2. paul

    unfortunately you missed the highpoint of rte radio today… 😉 which occured when mary wilson and her guest discussed whether we could possibly join the commonwealth after this ‘sucessful’ visit

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