I don’t want to be impolite or anything, but I do want to get it right. We’re all citizens of a republic here, after all — it might be a bit down on its luck, but it’s been a republic now for just over 62 years. There must be, I’m sure, a correct way for a citizen of a republic to address a queen.
I couldn’t find one, though. When I was trawling through the web, I did notice that a former Minister for Justice of ours, Michael McDowell (who always prided himself on his true republicanism, even if he had a slightly different view of the notion of equality than most republicans do) changed the way us citizens are supposed to address judges. We used to call them “My Lord”, but thanks to the former Minister, we now just call them “judge” (It doesn’t seem to have had any effect on their pay, mind you.
Even the great Michael McDowell wasn’t able to pull that off). I suppose, if My Lord is now just plain Judge, I should probably call you “queen”. But Michael didn’t address that issue, so I have to rely on the standard mode of address. And anyway, according to the King’s Speech, it’s still appropriate that the first time I address you, it has to be Your Majesty. But apparently it’s ok for me to refer to you as Ma’am after that.
Well Ma’am, if you’ll forgive all the digressions, you are genuinely welcome to Ireland. In fact, I think I speak for most of us when I say this visit is long overdue. We’ve already had Prince Charles a couple of years ago, and I have to tell you he made quite an impression. I was actually present at a garden party in the British Ambassador’s residence when the prince was here, and I’m afraid to report that quite a few of our more bourgeois folk lost the run of themselves that night, so great was the crush to get close to your son and heir. More than a few republicans (and the odd builder and banker) elbowed their way to the front of the queue that night, I can tell you.
And of course Princess Anne has been a fairly regular visitor here in the recent past. There was a time when a Cabinet minister couldn’t take a few days off work to relax at Punchestown without bumping into the Princess Royal. In those days, of course, we used to count our blessings if the Cabinet ministers stayed at home for the races. The cost of transporting them to Cheltenham or the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, and catering for them in the manner to which they quickly became accustomed, nearly bankrupted us all (of course, there have been instances of some of them making a few bob on their visits to the UK — especially while attending matches in Old Trafford).
They probably haven’t told you this, Ma’am, but part of your purpose in coming here is to cheer us up. And boy, do we need cheering up. For example, many of us have just finished reading a long article by one of our economics professors, who has a pretty good track record when it comes to predicting disaster, and if you believe it all we’re just about doomed.
You probably think the aim of the visit is to cement relations between your country and ours, and in some senses to repair bits and pieces of history. We do have long memories in Ireland, and not all those memories are good ones. Perhaps unfairly (or perhaps not), your predecessor, Queen Victoria, was known in Ireland as the Famine Queen, and presided over a government that allowed a million men, women and children to die of starvation in the middle of her reign.
And of course there have been many more recent incidents that have bedevilled relations between our two countries. Most of us could give you a list of things we want you to reflect on, and some we want you to apologise for.
But perhaps the most recent incident is one that might be worth mentioning when you come. The murder of PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr was a direct assault on the peace process that has put down stable roots in Northern Ireland. But the reaction of the community to that murder shows how stable those roots really are. His funeral, with guards of honour drawn from the GAA as well as from his police colleagues, was a moving and direct statement of intent by a community intent on a better future.
And just the other day his family used the occasion of his memorial mass to urge people to vote in the Assembly elections. They didn’t take sides — in fact they went out of their way to say that it didn’t matter who you voted for as long as people stayed involved the democratic process. And their statement concluded, “By not voting we are allowing the men of violence control and power over our lives. By exercising our democratic right to vote, we are condemning violence, ensuring power sharing and mutual respect and supporting law and order in our country.”
Yes, Ma’am, times have changed here. In all sorts of ways. You’re coming to visit a country where people are as proud of being Irish as they have ever been — and we’ll show off our country with real pride.
BUT people feel betrayed too. They feel betrayed by politicians and by policies, but also by church leaders, bankers, builders, regulators. It seems in recent years here that a position of authority was a thing to be abused.
We had good times, of course, but we didn’t use them well. Public resources were squandered for political ends and for ideological reasons.
Despite all that, you’ll still be visiting a relatively rich country. They’ll show you the best of it, no doubt. But you won’t get to meet the hungry children we have now, or to see the queues for essential services. I don’t suppose you’ll be taken to the crumbling schools, or the housing estates that were promised regeneration and became the first casualty of the recession.
All of that, and the dire prognostications of worse to come, has generated a lot of anxiety in the country. But we’ve always been known (in your country and throughout the world) as a resilient people, pretty good at sticking together when we have to, and with a reputation for looking after one another.
It’s those kind of things we need to rediscover now, as we face one of the greatest crises we’ve ever had to deal with.
We’ll get through it, and we will rebuild hopefully a better place in time. You might see a few of us putting the negatives to one side for a couple of days and letting our hair down when you’re here — any excuse, after all. It’s just our way of making friends feel welcome.