The rather moth-eaten claim that “Ireland is at the heart of Europe”, which politicians like to parrot, took another dent yesterday with the funeral of Vaclav Havel in Prague.
Havel’s career is too well known to need repeating here in any detail. A poet and a playwright, Havel emerged from 1968 on as a leading political dissident who determinedly opposed communism and was a passionate supporter of non-violent resistance to the regime. He was imprisoned on a number of occasions, including almost five years from 1979 to 1984. He was lucky to have come to the fore when communism was atrophying; a generation earlier and he would probably have been murdered for his views, like the former Hungarian premier Imre Nagy, and others right across Central Europe whose fate is largely unknown or forgotten, disappeared into the century.
When communism began to crumble, once Gorbachev eschewed its trademark policies of murder, torture, mock trials, imprisonment and political oppression, Havel came to the fore as a leading member of the Velvet Revolution which swept the communists from power. He became Czechoslovakia’s first President and, later, when the country split peacefully, he served two terms as President of the Czech Republic.
Our politicians could probably take a few lessons from the Czechs and the Slovaks on what it really means to lose sovereignty ; their country dismembered and occupied by the Nazis after 1938 and then to suffer a police state for four decades after the war, under a regime imposed and maintained by the Red Army. Havel first came to prominence when Warsaw Pact forces invaded in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.
It is worth recalling that , when Fianna Fail was planning and executing its master plan for the 1977 elections, and seriously undermining the country’s tax base in the process, Havel, with a number of other dissidents, was publishing Charter 77 to protest – peacefully – the Czech government’s failings in the human rights area, including breaches of international commitments. By 1979, when Haughey was lecturing the Irish for living beyond their means, Havel was beginning a five year gaol sentence for subversion, for protesting the treatment of Charter 77 signatories.
But that was then and this is now. The bridge has seen much water pass under it. We pride ourselves on our human rights record and our profile internationally on similar issues. We support non-violence and even offer our expertise internationally in conflict resolution, based on our experience in Northern Ireland. We espouse the notion that all 27 EU member states are equal and speak of building alliances with like-minded member states. For all of these reasons Vaclav Havel was the type of person we should admire and mourn his passing as one of the significant figures – for good – in Central Europe over the last 30 odd years.
Yet at his funeral, attended by many international heavy hitters including the Presidents of France and Germany, and Prime Ministers including Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Ireland was represented by the charge in Prague. Former President Mary Robinson attended, and is to be applauded for doing so. But where were the politicians? We couldn’t even rustle up a junior minister to do a same day journey on the government jet. They can’t all have been busy – or shopping. For a country where attendance at funerals is part of the political culture, this was a poor show, all the more so as Havel deserved it. Shame. Heart of Europe?