Australian History since colonisation has been written by the victors — by those who wrote Indigenous peoples out of the story by declaring 'terra nullius'. But this narrative is being challenged. Most recently, by an unexpected contributor to the debate: the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins.
Liz Deep-Jones

25 Oct 2017 - 6:51 PM  UPDATED 25 Oct 2017 - 6:56 PM

He travelled across the nation, meeting party leaders and dignitaries. But the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, did more than just share a few Irish tales. He reached deep into the core of Australia's history, recognising its troubled past.

President Higgins acknowledged Irish colonists’ persecution of First Nations Peoples and reminded Australians of the need to revisit their past.

“If we are to be unblinking in our gaze, we must acknowledge that while most Irish immigrants experienced some measure, some a large measure of prejudice and injustice, there were some among their number who inflicted injustice too,” Mr Higgins declared at the Western Australian Parliament.

The visiting head of state also cited former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s powerful speech acknowledging responsibility for crimes against Aboriginal communities.

“His were powerful words: ‘We took the children from their mothers, we practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice’. His speech and my belief was, and remains, an emancipatory act in the ethics of memory.”

His words moved many. He especially struck a chord with Labor MP Linda Burney, Australia's first Aboriginal woman to become a member of the House of Representatives.

"It was just wonderful to hear the speech because he actually acknowledged that his Irish settlers … in the colonial period were not completely innocent when it came to the treatment of Aboriginal people. And to hear a President of Ireland, another country, acknowledge the colonial history and what that meant for Aboriginal people was incredibly heart-warming and enormously honest," she told NITV News after the event.

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The President's words also resonated with journalist Stan Grant, who has spent his life questioning who we are as a nation, where we fit in, and what it means to be an Indigenous person.

"It's an acknowledgement of part of our history and the role that the Irish people sent here from Ireland, often sent here in chains themselves, had played in our history.

“It's really personal too in a way because I'm descended from an Irish convict and there were two parts of our family. There were the white Grants and the black Grants, and the White Grants were very wealthy people,” Mr Grant told NITV News.

“He came here in chains, he was an Irish rebel, his sister, mother and brother were executed or jailed and he was transported to Australia, but by the time he died, he was the wealthiest Irish Catholic in the colonies. He left a very big family, a lot of wealth and a lot of land and a black family [who] were written out of history.

“They (the white Grants) appear in the history books, their graves have monuments; my family are in the registry under unmarked graves. The same names, but one group of people enjoy all of the greatness of Australia and another group of people were left on the margins of Australia,” he said.

“That's a direct story that links us to the Irish Australian experience, so an apology like that in my family's case is a very personal thing, and it's an acknowledgement of that past."     

As Australia grapples with its history, President Higgins was forthright in his recognition of the dispossession of Australia's First Peoples.

“It is a relatively recent historiography that attempts to deal with the collision of those projects of 'discovery', 'place of banishment', 'settlement', 'domination' and above all, the subject of the treatment of the first occupants, for, let us never forget, Australia was never, except in the ideological hubris of imperialism, a terra nullius,” President Higgins acknowledged. 


For Mr Grant, President Higgin’s words reasserted the need to revise Australia’s history.

"It's 25 years this year since the Mabo high court decision. We know terra nullius is fiction. It doesn't exist in our law. We've been grappling ever since then, the place of Aboriginal people in Australia,” he said.

“If this was indeed Indigenous land and is acknowledged at law, how then do we explain our history? What does it say about the Australian settlement? What does it say about how we acknowledge Indigenous people in Australia?” he questioned.

“[This debate is] at the heart of talk about [a] treaty. It's at the heart of talk of Constitutional reform and these are difficult things for any country to come to terms with. What he has done is that he has crystallised that."

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President Higgins also delved further into Australia's psyche and quoted iconic writer and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal at a speech at Sydney’s University of New South Wales.

“When I think of my ancestors' arrival, I cannot help thinking also of those who were there before them and who had a culture that scholars put as old as 65,000 years. The words of that great poet and champion of the rights of her people, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), and her description of the desolation and loss engendered by expanding European influence over what would become the colony of Queensland come to mind. Her words on what was an ancient but now broken symmetry with nature:

'The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.

The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.

The bora ring is gone.

The corroboree is gone.

And we are going.'

“What was the character of the Ireland my ancestors left? Those fleeing from conditions of famine, lucky to survive, anxious to escape, who had been offered a new life, were nevertheless entering the lands of people who could foresee their own dispossession. What was the nature of the land to which they journeyed if it could be so dramatically experienced that it was not a terra nullius?” he told the audience.  

Stan Grant believes the President’s words had a soothing effect.

"Acknowledgement is always cathartic. Recognition is cathartic.  It's necessary ... to heal,” he said.

“There's a deep wound at the heart of Indigenous Australia and that deep wound comes from our history, and so anything that acknowledges that can have a restorative effect. It can help to allow you to change the narrative of who you are by that act of recognition no longer ignored.

“Someone acknowledging you, that's really important. Recognition and acknowledgement, at that human level, is really important.”

But the question is, did Australian politicians listen to the Irish President?

"When I read the speech it said to me that we don't hear that from our own leadership. We don't hear that enough. The idea that someone with a really critical eye and a depth of understanding can grapple with the questions of memory, truth and justice and recognition... They're deep philosophical questions and he came at that with a depth that's missing from our politics,” Mr Grant believes.

“It's very shallow compared to a speech like that. We've had it in the past but now with contemporary times politics is driven by sharp differences, it's polarised, it's combative, it's conflict-based, it's limited in its scope, it's very short term, so to get a speech that has that depth and that level of nuance and understanding and philosophical core depth is very rare. Certainly, our politicians can take a lesson from that, but they won't," he concluded.  

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