Friends at long last


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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