British Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe with
Ireland's President Michael D Higgins.

When the Irish government first introduced the Certificates of Irish Heritage I was a keen supporter. I saw the certificates as a long overdo attempt by official Ireland to acknowledge the debt Ireland owes to the Irish diaspora and to reach out and say to those who are 'proud to be Irish' that "Yes, we are one."

I'm wavering, possibly changing my mind because I don't think the government perceives the Certificates in the same way as I do.

Last Wednesday in London Ireland's President Michael D Higgins presented a Certificate of Irish Heritage to former British Olympian Sebastian Coe. {To be fair to Higgins, who I'm no fan of, I doubt this was his idea.} If you know anything about Coe you know he's about as British-English as they come. He won gold medals for Britain in the Olympics and he was a member Parliament for the Conservative Party in the 1990s.

None of that preludes Coe being and feeling Irish. For all I know he may be quite proud of his Irish ancestry, which comes from his maternal great-grandfather. If Coe had applied for and received his Certificate of Irish Heritage on his own without prodding from the Irish government that would have been great. I'd have found it kind of quirky, but interesting.

I simply don't believe that's how it happened. No, I feel confident that the government got wind of Coe's Irish roots and thought they'd get a photo op with Coe, who is much in the news in Britain thanks to his central role in organizing the London Olympics this summer. Marketing Ireland as a tourist destination was what this was all about.
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My problem is not with Coe, but with the Irish government. I fear they view that these certificates as their idea (they weren't) and that they can use them whatever way they'd like to. If that means using them as a prop in a marketing exercise so be it.

Obviously there was always going to be an element of this to the Certificates. Reaching out to the diaspora in any genuine way would quite probably have led to a greater interest among the children of Irish exiles in traveling to Ireland, studying in Ireland or buying Irish goods. The Certificates were always going to be an economic positive for Ireland.

However, the more they are used as blatant marketing tools the more the certificates will be tarnished among those who would truly value them.

Certificate of Irish Heritage

This is really annoying because it seemed that the certificates marked a change where those who are actually keen to be Irish, indeed "proud" to be Irish, were going to get some of the respect that's all too often doled out to celebrities who have never had any interest in being Irish or even knew they had any Irish in them.

Coe knew he had an Irish great grandmother so he doesn't quite fit the bill, but I kind of doubt he would have applied for his Certificate of Irish Heritage without prompting from the Irish government. That's what grates.

I wish there had not been such a public presentation of Sebastian Coe's Certificate of Irish Heritage. It would have been far better had President Higgins presented a Certificate to a 75-year-old who had been an Irish music or Irish history or Irish dancing (or whatever) enthusiast and who had encouraged many others to be as keen on being Irish. It would have been a wholly appropriate use of the Certificate to acknowledge a lifetime of effort devoted to spreading the "Irish" gospel.

That would have been an endorsement of the real diaspora, of those who really are Irish even if their links to Ireland go back quite a ways. That's what the Certificates should mean and that's how they should be used.

{Photo thanks to}