State visit to Britain - A good day to be Irish… and British

Yesterday, as the hope that we on these islands might live together without the ghosts of history colouring our every interaction came closer to being a vibrant reality, two vignettes pointed to the complexity of our shared history.

The unmistakable, rolling and cadence-rich Northern Ireland accent of one of the army officers ordering events at Windsor reminded us of the centuries-long tradition of Irishmen, whatever their background, serving in Britain’s armed forces. Even if that tradition was often an economic necessity rather than an expression of loyalty to the crown, it provoked long-lasting bitterness. Indeed, that division was so virulent that it has only just become possible to speak with pride for the Irishmen and Irishwomen who served with the British army during both world wars.

The other vignette, one from the other end of that difficult relationship’s pendulum swing, was the news that PSNI detectives investigating the terrible 1998 Omagh bombing had arrested a man in connection with that murderous event.

Both these men, like the rest of us, were offered a choice yesterday that the majority of every generation born in either Ireland or Britain for centuries have hoped for — a peaceful relationship between everyone on these small islands based on respect and mutual support, one full of opportunity but without rancour or destructive tribalism.

In reality, yesterday’s pageantry was more a retrospective reading of the marriage banns rather than a declaration of intent, a signing off rather than an opening up. It was another case of politics catching up with the world outside the confines of protocol and diplomacy — even if protocol and diplomacy were essential tools in the development of the new, improved Anglo-Irish relationship.

There is a danger though of being too self-congratulatory this morning; a lot remains to be done, especially in the North, in the process of normalisation.

This difficulty is encapsulated in the fact that Unionists welcomed, but did not celebrate, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness’s decision to attend Queen Elizabeth’s state banquet. The rejection of calls from former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain for an end to the North’s conflict prosecutions point to an undiminished hurt and distrust. Mr Hain’s suggestion may be a bitter pill to swallow but every day that passes strengthens his argument. Reopening these wounds, recalling all of the wrongs done on all sides, may prove more counterproductive than consoling.

There is too the prospect, even if it is remote, that some elements of Northern loyalism may feel threatened or isolated by the strengthening relationship marked yesterday. They should not be as yesterday was a celebration of a wider partnership not dominance.

The relationship between Ireland and Britain has taken on many hues. It has sometimes been oppressive, savage, dishonourable, exploitative, hateful, violent and mutually destructive. Yet, despite all of that calamity, millions of people of Irish descent live good lives in Britain and very many British people are happy to live here. That seems a core truth that can only be enhanced by yesterday’s events and the enthusiastic participation of Queen Elizabeth and the President of this independent Republic, Michael D Higgins.

A very good day to be Irish… and British.

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