The British are friends, but I wouldn’t invite them to the 1916 celebrations

ONE thing really jarred with me about the State visit of President Michael D Higgins to Britain. Actually, there were a couple of things, but one of them didn’t occur until the interviews, as part of the massive coverage of the visit. Let me explain.

The British are friends, but I wouldn’t invite them to the 1916 celebrations

First, I thought the State visit was powerful: powerful in its impact and symbolism, and powerful in its effects.

I wouldn’t agree with commentator Olivia O’Leary, when she said that this visit finally gave us a licence to like the British, because I’ve always liked the British, as many (I think a huge majority) Irish people do.

We’ve all had family living and working, and raising their children, in Britain. We’ve all followed our favourite British football teams, and we’ve all made frequent visits back and forth.

I’ve always been proud of my late father. I saw him as a great, ordinary Irish man. Most of his working life was in Aer Lingus, and he saw his work there, helping to build a national airline, as patriotically important. And he was right.

My father didn’t fight for Irish freedom — he worked for its independence, instead — but during the Second World War he wanted to fight for other freedoms, and he joined the army that was fighting against Hitler — the British Army.

I inherited my deep and total pride in being Irish from my Dad. So I’ve never felt the need to have my equality with anyone from the United Kingdom validated. Yet I still felt tremendous pride in seeing our President being greeted by Queen Elizabeth, not as a guest, but as a friend and an equal.

And I thought President Higgins’ demeanour and style did our country proud.

But there wasn’t always equality between us and them — and certainly not in terms of their (the British) perception of us. I’m not just talking about the tired, racial stereotyping of the past, but official attitudes to our role, in terms of our common objectives.

When I was watching the banquet in Windsor Castle, I thought of several people and events. First, I thought of Garret Fitzgerald. He fought, against sometimes implacable opposition, to achieve greater equality between the two governments. And he succeeded, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 — that’s less than 30 years ago.

I remember being at some of the early joint meetings that flowed from that agreement. They were stilted, difficult affairs. At almost every meeting, a British minister or official would say, about some item on the agenda, “we can’t discuss that. That’s an internal matter for Her Majesty’s Government”.

Thanks to the exigencies of politics, I left those meetings in 1987 and didn’t attend another until 1992. In the interim, the atmosphere had changed considerably. It was much less officious, and there was a much stronger sense of a joint project. But negotiation — which was all around the language and process that would enable an IRA ceasefire — was still prickly and tense.

Another thing I thought about during this week’s State visit was an event in May 1993, when then President Mary Robinson had tea with Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace — another breakthrough in terms of relations.

President Robinson was accompanied by Dick Spring, who had to look stately and relaxed. But throughout every hour of that visit, he was also engaged in tense negotiations with the Northern Ireland Office over a make-or-break aspect of the Downing Street Declaration. If it wasn’t achieved, the effort to end the violence would have been further set back. It was a difficult time and context in which to make crucial political decisions.

The assertion of our equal status, which has often gone hand in hand with the development of peace, has had many staging posts, and been the handiwork of many people.

So it irritated me to be asked several times if I was surprised that former taoiseach Bertie Ahern wasn’t invited to Windsor Castle.

Sure, he had every right to be included, but he’s not the only one. Albert Reynolds may have been too ill to attend, but two other former taoisigh both played significant roles. Dick Spring, David Andrews, Peter Barry, Martin Mansergh, and at least a dozen civil servants I can think of all have similar claims on a place in history. And that’s just from our side of the debate.

But out of the State visit, here’s the one thing that really bugs me. It arose from the queen’s speech, when she said: “My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”

That sentence appears to have caused all sorts of excitement, because it was immediately assumed that the royal family was on their way back to Ireland to help us to celebrate the centenary of 1916. I even heard one commentator speculating that the royal party might include Prince George, who will by then be a bustling toddler.

Could somebody please tell me, with the greatest possible respect, what in the name of God has the anniversary of 1916 got to do with the British royal family?

WE’RE citizens of a republic. Among the seminal moments in the founding of that Republic was the Easter Rising and the Proclamation of Independence. There are no masters in a Republic, only a democratically-elected government that derives all its powers from the people.

They had better consult us about whether, and to what extent, we should celebrate the anniversary of 1916. Of course, there’s much to celebrate, but there’s also much on which to reflect. How great has the achievement been that this nation has survived that founding moment, and the other conflicts and crises that came afterwards?

On the other hand, have we really lived up to the ideals and values set out in the Proclamation of Independence — not the bloodthirsty ones, maybe, but a sentence like “the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally …”

We may have succeeded in some ways, and failed in others.

We will reach the end of 100 years in 2016, and the start of another 100. In any event, the things we need to debate, discuss, celebrate, or mourn, are all about us. They’re not about our relations with our next-door neighbour, which are on the footing they should be on.

If we insist on having the royals visiting us to validate our progress, then we haven’t grown up at all.

No disrespect, but I reckon we can do without them this time.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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