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Eight Hundred Years of Oppression and Now This?

17 May 2011

5:14 PM

17 May 2011

5:14 PM

Pete is right to say there’s a definite "resonance" to these pictures. Nevertheless, I suspect that British people’s view of the "historic" significance of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland is inversely proportionate to one’s experience of Ireland. That is, the more time you have spent in Ireland and the better you know the country the less you are likely to swoon at the sight of a British monarch setting foot in southern Ireland. 

Perhaps I’m extrapolating too much from my own experience and perhaps the over-40s think differently. But my impression strengthened, to be sure, by some of the breathless, hyperbolic BBC coverage is that many British people over-estimate how "controversial" this visit is. Not just the BBC either: The Times’ headline currently screeches "Queen Encounters Ireland Protest". True enough: 100 people turned up to demonstrate just how irrelevant their kind of Republicanism is in the context of modern Ireland. Some protest! You can find professional malcontents anywhere.

Then again, the BBC have form on this. When the English rugby team first played at Croke Park, the coverage suggested this was brave and symbolic and about the laying of ancient ghosts and lord knows what else. Then, last season, when England visited Croke Park for the last time before Irish rugby moved home to Lansdowne Road, wouldn’t you know it but there was a fresh blast of all this nonsense all over again. Blarney and bluster the lot of it.

If your view of Ireland is of a strange land, filled with terrorists and grudge-bearing contrary types who change their question any time anyone looks like answering it, then certainly you’ll probably think the Queen’s visit is of great import. For the rest of us these things were largely settled long ago. Evidently the "peace process" needed some kind of "conclusion" before such a visit could be contemplated at official levels but, if anything, it merely confirms what we already knew: these islands are bound together by culture as well as history and economic self-interest. Affinity matters.

No official declarations were ever needed to persuade one of this. Even 20 years ago it was clear that whatever their parents or grand-parents may have felt, the younger generation in the Republic saw Britain as just another country, albeit one filled with people not very different from the Irish themselves. That needn’t mean you no longer sing the old rebel tunes, merely that these expressions of Irishness should be understood as symbolic remnants of a past and a struggle that had long since been settled. A ritual, like much else, signifying almost nothing.

Dublin at any rate was too busy getting rich to trouble itself with history-based grievances. A visit from Prince Charles nearly 15 years ago passed off without incident; President Robinson’s decision to honour the Irish First World War dead was more controversial but, by and large, did not occasion serious controversy either. Irish history has been revised so often that the revisionists are themselves due a revision.

Anyway, people were moving-on, as the hackneyed phrase has it, and even the Northern Irish question didn’t really bother or trouble too many people in the Republic. Not above a symbolic level, anyway. Prosperity mattered  because it permitted the growth of confidence and self-belief in an Ireland that, perhaps at long last, had come of age. Despite the recent setbacks, that spirit still endures.

The Queen’s visit, then, is a nice thing but something that confirms what we already knew. Only those unfamiliar with Ireland and the Irish can truly think otherwise. If you think, as you might if you believed the newspapers or some versions of history, the Irish hate the English then you’ll be surprised by this visit’s success. The Irish don’t hate the English, however. By and large and contra Ed West, Anglophobia is an inch wide and not as deep as it is widespread. There may be rivalry and banter but we can be – and are – grown up about these things nowadays.
Still, if the visit persuades London-based commentators of all this then it will have done some good. Normality matters but, really, the Queen’s trip to the Republic is not as Enda Kenny absurdly put it, a "moment of healing" because time and the people themselves did that years ago. Even so, if you feel the need for a symbol for all this then HMQ’s visit will do fine.

Mind you, it was still splendid to see the Union Flag outside Trinity College. Last time that happened UCD students rioted.

UPDATE: In the comments, FF makes a good point. It’s possible, Alex, that you are falling into the same trap. The point about the Queen’s visit is that she doesn’t do controversy. If, years later, she lays a wreath on republican graves it shows just how deeply uncontroversial it’s now become. That’s the point.

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