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Move along now

May 24, 2011

So. As a Republican, in both Scottish and Irish settings, what do I make of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in the past week? Was it game changing, irrelevant, or somewhere between those two extremes?

As a Republican – with a small r and a big R – I’m tempted to say that a state visit from an hereditary monarch – to any country – is irrelevant. However, particularly in the case of Ireland, that would be ingenuous. Firstly, because there are evidently a fair number of people in the Republic who are interested in the ‘British’ Royal Family – for better or worse; secondly because a full on State Visit – even if only for the major disruption caused to roads and TV schedules – is going to have a measurable effect on the host country; and lastly, of course, because of the history, seven or eight hundred years of it, between Ireland and the country of which she is the figurehead.

There is a maturity about in the Irish Republic – and it has to be said – within the Republican Movement, which is moving on from defining itself first and foremost as ‘not English’. De Valera’s foundation of the state on that basis – following on from the Republican cry of ‘United, Gaelic and Free’, may have served its purpose in getting the fledgling state off the ground, but his continuance of that creed well into the fifties led to stagnation and isolation. Rightly or wrongly, Ireland’s entry into the EU and ultimately the Eurozone, was a positive way of defining its independence from former colonial rule, and though the country’s wholesale hubris in the throes of the Celtic Tiger proved disastrous, it was at least a step away from looking across the Irish Sea with a mixture of envy and disdain.

One of the realities of the connection between Ireland and the other countries of these islands is that it is mixed and bewildering – and my own history reflects this: born in Scotland, with an Irish passport, and a childhood spent largely in England. Historically my extended family members were involved as a British tommy in World War 1, a member of the Black and Tans, and as supporters of the Republican Movement. If I want to honour the memory of my forebears, I can choose between Gavrelle and Arbour Hill, Paschendaele and Kilmainham Gaol.

Generally, my allegiance tends to follow my County Leitrim roots, but not exclusively. I wasn’t sure about the need for a visit to Ireland by the Queen: in some ways it seemed to be labouring a point about the peace process. There are many in Ireland – as in republics across the world – who seem to be transfixed by the celebrity of the monarchy – ‘west Brits’ they are often called in Ireland, and I do find their attitude puzzling. This visit would please them, but, politically, would it have any meaning?

I suppose my ultimate reaction was formulated by a moment in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin’s Parnell Square – the national memorial to those who fell in the fight for Irish independence. The site of this monument is around 100 yards from the forecourt of the Rotunda Hospital. It was on that patch of grass that many of the leaders of the Easter Rising were held under Crown Forces custody overnight after their surrender in 1916. As was the case everywhere after the Rising, there was a mix of attitudes from British officers towards their opponents. Some treated them with courtesy, recognising Irish officers and behaving appropriately; others saw the insurresctionists as little more than criminals and treated them badly and with scorn.

As the Queen, alongside President McAleese, laid a wreath at the memorial and stepped back, it occurred to me that, during the war of independence, republican forces seldom talked of fighting the English, or even the British; the usual phrase was to talk of taking on ‘the forces of the Crown’. As I reflected on that, the Queen bowed her head in recognition of the men commemorated in the Garden of Remembrance. The BBC later commented: monarchs very rarely bow their heads. It was a moment in which, to me anyway, the British establishment recognised the legitimacy of Ireland’s fight for Independence.

I think that was an historical moment.

Others waited for sign of an apology in her speech the following day but I’m not sure if that would have added anything to the symbolism of the previous day. History has happened and both sides in conflict have been alternatively brave and craven; that can’t be changed. The future is what counts and I do believe that the countries can move forward on parallel tracks without feeling the heavy weight of what has gone before. It would seem that both sides have realised that constitutional progress is best made without resort to physical means, and for that we should be thankful.

The Queen is a symbol and her visit was carefully designed on that basis; in the end another piece of baggage has been deconstructed, and proper, grown up, concerns about defining the Irish state and promoting a programme of fairness and equality can be addressed. Symbols are important – but in themselves they achieve little. Properly, and as it should be, it is the Irish people, rather than their relationship to a former colonial power, who will shape the future of their country. The Queen’s visit, the reaction of those who met her, and the gestures she was advised to make, have all sent this message – move along, there’s nothing to see here – the Crown acknowledges the fight for Independence. The ‘unfinished business’ in the six ‘northern’ counties is a matter for the people who live there, change to come through political not military action.

One of the highlights of the week was the insouciance with which the Irish Defence Forces – the Army, Air Corps and the Naval Service – executed a high level of ceremonial – an ability more usually associated with British state events. Maybe that, more than anything else, was a measure of how far the Irish state has come since Independence. Once the Irish were preoccupied with the British, as a worried child eyes a strict and unpredictable step father; these days, when the neighbours drop in for tea, there is polite interest, but a balanced understanding that there are many more pressing matters to exercise the national consciousness.

Just as it should be.

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