Spurning a banquet

Spurning a banquet

A missed opportunity for unionism to present its case to a fervent Irish-American. Malachi O'Doherty reports

I suppose the value of an invitation to a banquet lies very much in who you’re going to be sitting beside.

Then there is the danger that the guest of honour or the host might make a speech that so contrasts with your worldview that you’ll feel you should either walk out or keep your head down.

Seamus Heaney perhaps reflected deeply before accepting a seat at a banquet for Queen Elizabeth, hosted by Irish president Mary McAleese.

He had already written a poem in which he had declared that his passport was green and that ‘No glass of ours was ever raised /To toast the Queen’.

He wrote this to correct the thinking of those who regarded him as British and included him in an anthology of British poets.

Personally I think that was uncharacteristically tetchy of him.

He had grown up in a part of the UK and paid taxes to the British exchequer and had benefited from a free British education system. Why wouldn’t Britain take some credit for his achievement?

His attendance at the banquet for the Queen showed that that little huff was past.

It was a gesture of respect. And in anticipation, before it was clear how well the night would go, he might have feared that he would be ridiculed for being there. Some might have said he was endorsing a monarch, a woman elevated only by an accident of birth and revered as almost divine. And, on top of that, she was the head of state who cherished the legacy of empire.

But, good on him. He went. He supped and it did him no harm. And the Queen did much that week, as an instrument of British diplomacy, to soothe historic difficulties in the British Irish relationship.

When Doug Beattie, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party got an invitation to attend a banquet in Dublin Castle, hosted by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for the US president Joe Biden, it’s fairly likely that a few apprehensions occurred to him too.

What if Varadkar made a blatantly republican speech endorsing the Easter Rising? He did.

What if Joe Biden had called him out and asked him to stand up and then made some floridly naive tribute to him that would have him cringing for months?

He did that with others, including Marie Heaney, Seamus’s widow, mispronouncing her name. And we saw her usher the approaching camera away, clearly embarrassed.

Doug says the invitation came late and besides he had other commitments. Could he not then have asked someone else to go on his behalf?

Clearly an occasion like that could be an horrific ordeal.

Much of the British media and voices in unionism were already sneering at the obvious pleasure Biden was taking in the celebration of his Irish ancestry.

A Times cartoon depicted him in a triptych as a prancing leprechaun spilling his Guinness.

And how we howled with outrage at this racist caricature of Irishness.

I am hoping that cartoons might yet survive the censorious cancel culture and get away with images that, if paraphrased into simple text would be outrageous and unfunny.

If Beattie had gone to the dinner he would have been sneered at on Twitter, as he often is, by those who regard him as soft on the Union.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson recently described the UUP as ‘the epitome of weak roll over unionism’.

Beattie would have known to expect further derision of that kind if he had gone to the banquet. Indeed, he knows to expect it anyway, so what would it really have cost him?

His challenge, as he well understands, is to extend his party’s reach to draw in support for the Union from beyond the protestant minority.

If Joe Biden is, as his critics allege, essentially a chauvinistic Irish nationalist blind to the British component of northern identity, then it might have helped enlighten him a little to have had Beattie there, a former British soldier who had fought hand to hand in Afghanistan.

Beattie might, indeed, have had a wee word with the president about that mess too.

Maybe he didn’t want to toast the man who had abandoned the cause he had risked his life and killed for. One could sympathise if that was part of his thinking.

But sometimes it’s better to just button up, sit down and take the soup.

There’ll be little point in complaining that America doesn’t understand unionism after neglecting a chance like that to explain it.