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Friends at long last
The visit of Queen Elizabeth was a watershed moment in the turbulent history of Great Britain and Ireland.
Perspective may not be everything, it may not even be true. But whether it is true or false it can be a very powerful determinant on how we live and on how we shape our nations and our societies. Perspectives are not easy to create or manipulate. They are often the result of the law of unintended consequences. The strategies we employ to bring about changes of perspective either in nations or among nations go wrong so often that we might feel there is no point in trying.
The seismic change in perspective which came about in the world view of the Irish people in the aftermath of the 1916 rebellion was something not even the wildest dreams of the romantic leaders of that rebellion could have imagined. Its leaders, when they were taken off as prisoners after a few bloody days of resistance, had to suffer the taunts, jeers and pelting of the citizens of Dublin who lined the streets to see them go on their sorry way.
However, within little more than two years, in August 1918, Sinn Fein, the political party identified with those rebels, swept to victory and proceeded to mastermind a bloody war against the British Crown. Within less than six more years the Irish Free State became a reality and with it came a totally new perspective and a new identity for the Irish people. This perspective has persisted ever since in its dogged – sometimes mild, sometimes lethal – anti-British way. Well, until last month.
Even in its milder manifestations this perspective was a prison for the Irish people which crippled their true identity. To be Irish was not enough. To be Irish you had to be not British. It is of course, a well documented condition – the post-colonial mentality, marked in this case by what we generally call Anglophobia. In many ways it was a condition which existed side by side with very close social and economic bonds between the two islands. The Irish constitute Britain’s biggest ethnic group and vice-versa. Britain is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and Ireland is Britain’s fifth largest export market. But it was still a debilitating and regrettable state.
Then, on May 15 the Irish Times announced in a banner headline “The Week that Anglophobia Died”.
What happened? Over four days, from May 17 to May 20, the reigning British monarch visited the Irish Republic. Ireland is a small country – with a population of just over four million in that part which constitutes the Republic of Ireland. Yet it was speculated in the British press, before the visit, that this was the single most important state visit in the entire 59-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II. In its aftermath many now believe that this long wished for and well executed event will prove to be a watershed in international relations in a small corner of the world.
The week after this visit the President of the United States also visited the Irish Republic. As has happened with every President who has set foot on Irish soil he received a rapturous welcome. But despite the disparity of power wielded by these two heads of state – one being the most powerful man in the world, the other an archaic relic of an imperial past – there is no doubt as to which visit was of greater significance.
The President of Ireland, Mary McAleese – who did so much to bring this event about over her two terms in office – described it as “an extraordinary moment in Irish history, a phenomenal sign of the success of the peace process and absolutely the right moment for us to welcome on to Irish soil Her Majesty the Queen.”
A media take on the overall impact of the two visits in The Irish Times rated the visit of the Queen as the winner “by a historic mile”. “The Queen’s visit was dripping not just with symbolism but with deep historical significance: the lowering of her head to remember fallen Irish patriots at the Garden of Remembrance; laying a wreath at Islandbridge in memory of the Irishmen who fought in the first World War; a Sinn Féin councillor in Cashel shaking her hand – a first for any member of that party.” President Obama’s visit was folksy and a very joyous occasion – and not without significance for him electorally, nor economically for a financially devastated Ireland. But it was not of the same order of significance.
It was all enough to make the most ardent advocates of republicanism rethink – or at least modify - their views about monarchies. This 85-year-old Queen was able to bring about a change in the attitudes and disposition of a few million people in a way that the numerous visits of British prime ministers to Ireland over the past few decades had not done. Even a mature political society is governed by laws which are not written in books.
Columnist Fintan O’Toole said that the British Queen helped “to free us from the crippling insecurities of false choices. Before, the choice was to hate England or to be a West Brit. Now there is the healthy option of simply getting on with the neighbours.”
But the British and Irish are more than just neighbours. The French are neighbours, too. O’Toole continues: “The death of Anglophobia is a useful part of the redefinition of what it means to be Irish. That new identity has to be positive rather than negative. But it also has to find a way to include Britishness. Those on the island who value the British part of their identity have to know that, for everyone else, British is not a dirty word. After this week, it isn’t.”
The Queen herself, in her exemplary and dignified – I suppose one should say majestic – address at the State Dinner provided the keynote of the whole event when she said: “Indeed, so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”
For generations, this was only a dream. Now the dream has become a reality.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.
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