Lots of people asked me what I thought of the British Royal visit.
There are so many ways to view the visit, and the reactions of both the British and Irish, that it’s hard to know where to start. This can only scratch the surface.
On the whole I don’t think the visit is terribly important – to be honest. It’s far too late for it to change anything much. By now Ireland will continue to be an independent republic and the UK will continue to be a constitutional monarchy, and affairs in NI are quiet if not finally settled. Both countries will continue to be friends, members of the EU, etc., The UK will continue to be more important to Ireland than vice versa. The world will go on.
On the visit itself…that it took so long for a visit to be possible is sad. Ireland and Britain are near neighbours who have a complex history. Most of the bad stuff ended long ago, and the recent troubles were ugly but comparatively minor and were handled unimaginatively but not-badly on a state level. More frequent state visits could have helped minimise the bitterness that there was, but the courage to make such visits was lacking, on both sides.
If Irish Presidents had visited London and spoken clearly there all through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, imagine what a difference it might have made!! If Elizabeth had visited Dublin in 1975, imagine what she might have been able to say! Imagination was lacking on both sides. Visiting now can’t do more than put a cherry on a cake that others built with great labour and too little help from Buckingham Palace and Aras an Uachtarain. The bully pulpit of Head of State might have been useful earlier…too late now.
Again, imagine a Queen’s speech on how NI was a sectarian state, on how the UK didn’t treat Irish and especially Catholic Irish very well through history and how the UK would work to correct these things. Imagine an Irish president speaking on behalf of the Irish people and proclaiming friendship with the UK in 1975, and that the domination of the Catholic church in Ireland was a scandal and a barrier to reconciliation with NI unionists. Now it’s a done deal, but lots of bad things happened in between.
As for the visit itself, it went well. People were respectful and charming – in both directions. That’s good, if not bloody brilliant considering what might have happened.
However, as with anything between Ireland and Britain, the rest of the reactions and perceptions are not so simple.
Beyond the proximity, the cultural similarities we share are often over-rated. We’re both mostly northern european countries, like a bunch of others, and while we’re close we’re no closer in most ways than England and The Netherlands, or Scotland and Norway, or The Netherlands and Germany. The tendency – seen frequently during the visit – of some Irish intellegensia to portray Ireland almost as a British province returning to the fold is lazy and inaccurate. Mostly, it illustrates nothing more clearly than a shared inability to speak other languages.
Then, the fact that a British Head of State came to Ireland and didn’t act as if the Irish should bow and curtsey is good to see and will surely change perceptions in both countries. Elizabeth did no more than she would visiting other countries, but it seems to resonate more in Ireland. For too long many British – even if only in the upper echelons of society – have viewed Irish people as amusing idiots, somehow people who ought to be English and were oddly unwilling and unable to manage the feat. The Churchill quote in the article is close to things I’ve said to describe the phenomenon. However, Elizabeth wore green, spoke Irish, and was most definitely not sneering at anything. That’s good, but in many ways we shouldn’t regard such basic courtesy as something special. I suppose it’s like the joke with the question “Have you stopped beating your wife yet”. Elizabeth came and didn’t sneer. Why are we reacting so much? She would do the same visiting Belgium, or Morocco, or Gabon. Now, to be fair, the IRA blew up members of her family so there’s an additional barrier to overcome, but the IRA no more represented Ireland and the Irish people than the BNP represents her or Britain.
I’m inclined to feel that all the fuss indicates that we haven’t yet matured as a nation. There seemed to be a level of fawning that went beyond appropriate respect for a visiting Head of State. If Beatrix visited, would there be such a fuss? No. Part of that is the sad tendency of people to worship celebrity, and Elizabeth is one heck of a celebrity. Another part of it is still an Irish tendency to reference the value of something Irish against what the English think of it. Ireland can’t claim to be a grown up country until we grow out of that, and more. We need to be more self aware, more ambitious, and much more cosmopolitan to reach that goal.
Is it worthwhile to celebrate that relations are normalised between the two countries? Sure. On that grounds the joyfulness of the visit is right, but the visit itself merely allows recognition of an already existing reality.
As for relations with Britain, I’m probably like many people. I’ve lived in Scotland and England. My sister in Wales. My greatgrandfather was in the Royal Navy. My grandmother spoke of fearing the Black and Tans, and what her grandmother told her of the famine. London is full of second cousins. In general I think that the Brits are a great bunch, self-confident, urbane, civilized (mostly). We should be friends and put a complex history behind us as much as possible and build a shared mutually beneficial future. The future relations between the countries should exploit our closeness, not continue to luxuriate in a miserable history.
However, while I’m all for friendship and reconciliation and love between Britain and Ireland, I see my children as Irish princes and princesses. They can be Head of State one day. There is no queue of people who must die before they become eligible. I want to see Ireland as a proud republic, not as a backwater always looking only a little to the east for respect and recognition, and certainly not really concerned at what a king or queen thinks of anything.
I’m glad that Elizabeth visited and that it went well. If I’d been invited I’d have gone happily. I might not have cheered for 5 mins or waved a Union flag but it’s not because I’m anti-British (I’m not), just because I don’t think it was such a big deal.
It might have been a big deal 20 years ago..too late now.