The deep symbolism of the British queen’s four-day visit to Ireland - and especially her honouring gesture at a key site of modern Irish nationhood - carries a benign depth-charge for both countries.
In Ireland, the phrase “guests of the nation” has a bitterly ironic flavour. It comes from the title of Frank O’Connor’s story, written in 1931 and set during the 1919-21 war of independence. The story begins with ordinary human friendship - Englishmen and Irishmen calling each other “chum”.
We gradually learn that the Englishmen are captured soldiers - hostages being held by the IRA, to be killed in reprisal for British executions of IRA prisoners. When told that they are indeed to be taken out and shot, one of the soldiers, Hawkins, gives a cry of despairing incomprehension: “Why did any of us want to plug him? What had he done to us? Weren’t we all chums? Didn’t we understand him and didn’t he understand us?”
In the third week of May 2011, the phrase “guests of the nation” acquired a different meaning, free of irony and terror. Hawkins’s question - don’t we understand them and they us? - was tinged not with despair and incomprehension but with relief and hope. It seemed, finally, that the answer to the question might simply be “yes”.
O’Connor’s story suggested that, left to themselves, without the interventions of violence and power, Irish people and English people get on together rather well. It is cruel circumstance that has blighted a naturally decent relationship. Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland on 17-20 May 2011 was essentially about bringing home the reality that those circumstances have changed for good.
On the cold, rational level, the visit didn’t change anything: it reflected a change that has already happened. The British and Irish governments have been working very closely together on the Northern Ireland peace process since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and especially since the mid-1990s. There are effectively no policy differences on by far the most sensitive area of British-Irish relations, a state of affairs that would seem astonishing had it not become a truism.
Equally, with one shining exception, the highlights of the visit were consequences, not causes, of change. The queen and the Republic of Ireland’s president, Mary McAleese, could lay wreaths together at the Islandbridge war memorial because attitudes to the Irish dead of the first world war have long since been changed, not just by historians and politicians but by artists such as Frank McGuinness, whose groundbreaking play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme goes all the way back to 1985.
Likewise, the queen could visit Croke Park because the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) itself has been actively moving towards a more open ideal of Irish culture for well over a decade. The GAA’s moments of truth had already happened: the singing of God Save the Queen at a rugby match in Croke Park and the funeral of the murdered PSNI constable Ronan Kerr. What was remarkable about the Croke Park visit was not that some representatives of Ulster counties stayed away but that even these absences were deliberately inconspicuous. No one felt like making a fuss.
A post-empire moment
Such moments in the visit, however symbolically resonant, merely dramatised what has already happened. They were not making history so much as marking it. But there is something beyond this rational truth, the silent something contained in the worldless moments when the queen laid her wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, where those who died in the struggles for Irish national independence are honoured. This was not just a literal crowning of a long-established process. It didn’t just symbolise change. It was itself a moment of change.
That moment appealed to something far beyond the rational. It reached into places where no speech or declaration could, or should, try to go: the irrational, psychological terrain of superiority and inferiority complexes, of inherited insult and thoughtless condescension. It hit all the raw nerves that lie just beneath the surface of this knotty relationship, delivering a shock that was, paradoxically, soothing.
The moment in the Garden of Remembrance altered the nature of the entire visit in a way that none of the exquisitely careful planning of British and Irish diplomats can possibly have calculated. Before the queen did that, the visit was overwhelmingly about us. It was about the Irish proving to ourselves that we are mature, that we’re over all that bitterness, that the chip on our shoulders is now a mere mole. The visit seemed like a kind of immersion therapy: you cure yourself of Anglophobia by welcoming the queen in the way you might cure yourself of arachnophobia by walking into a roomful of spiders.
The ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance transformed the visit by making it also about them. It wasn’t just the Irish who were being bravely mature: it was also the English. Generations of English superciliousness towards Ireland (the suave, upper-class, good-natured sort being the worst) was disavowed in that moment. The queen managed a dignified humility and simplicity that were the polar opposites of condescension.
Her gesture was not, as some overexcited commentators and headline writers sought to insist, some kind of homage to the rebels who bate the Brits. It was more meaningful than that. It was a simple acknowledgment that Ireland is a different place, with its own history and mythology, its own encoded meanings. Different, that is, but equal.
In all the finely crafted words of the queen’s speech at Dublin Castle on 17 May, this was the most important: equal. She spoke of Ireland and Britain as “firm friends and equal partners”. In most contexts this is bland diplomacy-speak, the kind of phrase the queen has probably read a thousand times at official dinners. Here it mattered, and from the way she conducted herself through the week it was clear that the queen knew why it mattered.
The gesture of equality that the queen made at the Garden of Remembrance may not change anything in reality, but it does clear away a whole heap of long-accumulated psychoses. It had obvious meaning for Irish culture. If the British monarch can behave with such genuine courtesy, the manic swings between cringing inferiority and hysterical self-assertion that have characterised Irish attitudes to England can surely stop.
But the true power of the gesture lies in the fact that it was not just a symbolic moment in Irish history. It was also a meaningful moment in post-imperial British history, a stage in Britain’s own process of coming to terms with the idea that Britain is an ordinary country with no claims to superiority. If the slow death of the British empire can be said to have begun in Dublin in 1916, it can now be said to have reached its conclusion in Dublin in 2011.
The end of empire that was so powerfully symbolised by the British monarch’s gesture of respect to those who rebelled against it should also be the end of the habit of defining Irishness as anti-Britishness. And that means an end to a peculiar Irish neurosis.
Anglophobia in Ireland has gone hand-in-hand with a desperate need to ape the English. Think of the former taoiseach Charles Haughey wrapping the green flag round himself while desperately trying to act the squire. Think of the self-made Irish businessmen who wet themselves at the prospect of getting anywhere near the royal box at Ascot. Think of the psychotic urge for some kind of revenge that made Irish property developers pay way over the odds for landmark buildings in London during the boom years. Think of the childish pleasure the Irish developers took in buying the artificial “island of England” off the coast of Dubai.
A freeing touch
The interesting thing about this week is that because there was no condescension on the British side, there was no fawning on the other. There was a desire for everything to go well but no desperate need to impress.
The raucous cheer that went up at the convention centre in Dublin on the evening of 19 May when the queen climbed on stage wasn’t that of subjects proclaiming their loyalty. It was a big, hearty Irish roar that said no more - but also no less - than “Good on you. You’ve done a great job.”
The lack of reverence was obvious in the humour that was threaded through the week. There was the suggestion from an Irish Times letter-writer that making the queen sit through Westlife meant that we could call it quits for 800 years of oppression. Within an hour of the royal visit to Croker, people were showing each other texts and emails sent by an anonymous Louth GAA spokesman complaining that “at the site of the single greatest injustice in our history, to invite those responsible back to the scene of the crime is galling”. The target was the Meath forward Joe Sheridan, who was there to meet the queen and who scored an infamous “goal” to deprive Louth of last year’s Leinster title.
The jokes caught the mood of the week: the brew of good-natured irreverence and moments of unexpectedly emotive solemnity was headier than the pint of Guinness at which the queen smiled so stoically.
Gender and age were essential ingredients in this mix. The visit was a very womanly affair, entirely dominated by Ireland’s national mammy and Britain’s national granny, with the men in suits hovering around the edges.
It helped enormously that British power appeared in the form not of a beefy swaggerer but of a sweet, elderly lady who reminded us of a (slightly more regal) version of our own mothers and grandmothers. Most people who got anywhere near her felt instinctively protective towards her. However hard you try, it’s impossible to feel patronised by a small 85-year-old woman who is putting all her considerable energies into being nice.
It also helped that President McAleese more than held her own against the queen’s celebrity power. The president’s performance banished any notion that there is some kind of secret Irish longing for monarchy. The queen may have temporarily set aside Irish aversion to the notion of hereditary rule, but the president amply proved that there’s not much wrong with having an elected head of state either.
The combination of all of these factors made the visit an oddly liberating occasion. No one would have thought that the British queen could free Ireland, but she did help 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’s the healthy option of simply getting on with the neighbours.
The long-term value of this psychological shift is twofold. First, it frees Irish energies, official and otherwise, to concentrate on our real and pressing problems. The superb organisation and brilliant choreography of this week’s events were reminders of just how much of the best of official intelligence and competence has been devoted to Anglo-Irish relations, at the expense of other things. If the relationship is now normal, perhaps some of that competence and intelligence can be channelled into the small task of recovering the sovereignty that was won from the British and lost to the European central bank.
Second, 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.