Don’t let minority stuck in past take over 1916 events

Opinion: Public backing for royal participation in centenary is a welcome sign

‘The poll showed that even among Sinn Féin voters, who might be expected to be most suspicious about inviting a British royal to an event so central to the party’s identity, there is a clear majority in favour.’ Above, volunteers clearing debris in Dublin after the Easter Rising. Photograph:  Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

‘The poll showed that even among Sinn Féin voters, who might be expected to be most suspicious about inviting a British royal to an event so central to the party’s identity, there is a clear majority in favour.’ Above, volunteers clearing debris in Dublin after the Easter Rising. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Sun, May 25, 2014, 12:01

The peevish reaction in some quarters to the Government’s proposal to invite a member of the British royal family to attend the 1916 commemorations is not shared by most Irish people, going on the findings of the latest Irish Times/ Ipsos MRBI poll.

The fact that an overwhelming majority of people from all social backgrounds and all political persuasions would like a royal to attend the commemorations is a welcome sign that the desire for a strong, healthy relationship with our nearest neighbour is not confined to the political and official classes.

The poll showed that even among Sinn Féin voters, who might be expected to be most suspicious about inviting a British royal to an event so central to the party’s identity, there is a clear majority in favour.

The party leadership’s responsible and nuanced approach to the issue has clearly played a part in shaping public sentiment on the matter. The attitude displayed by a majority of the electorate, in contrast to the carping of some commentators, is a welcome sign most people in this State now feel confident enough about their independence and identity to give expression to the warm relationship we actually have with our nearest neighbour.

After all, other countries which engaged in far more brutal conflicts in the more recent past have shown an ability to put bitterness behind them. The European Union is the ultimate testament to the desire of former enemies to work peacefully together for the greater good.

If the governments of the Allied countries which defeated Nazi Germany could invite German chancellor Gerhard Schröder to the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy in 2004, surely it is long past time the Anglo-Irish quarrel is relegated to the pages of history.

An invitation to the royal family and a member of the British government to join us in celebrating Irish independence would be a small thing by comparison.

Sadly, those who cling to a warped version of history are still trying to pursue the objective of a united Ireland by violence in clear defiance of the wishes of the majority of people on both parts of this island.

Past relationship

The presence of a royal representative at some event in the 1916 commemoration programme would personify the desire of the

majority of Irish people to put the negative aspects of the past relationship between the two islands behind them and concentrate on the things we have in common.

Complexity of the relationship

It will also enable the complexity of the relationship which always existed between the two islands, despite simplistic nationalist and unionist narratives, to be formally acknowledged. In a speech to the British Irish Association in Cambridge last September in which the proposed royal invitation to the 1916 commemoration was first mooted, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore hit the nail on the head.

“There is no relationship between any two other states in Europe where history, culture, people, economy, land and maritime proximity are intertwined in such a way,” he said.

The State visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 and the return visit of President Higgins to the United Kingdom last month expressed the positive nature of the relationship that exists between the bulk of people on both islands. Gilmore in his speech also spoke of the need to reflect the duality and the contrasts of our history in the way we commemorate “the experience of all Irish men and women – my grandparents and yours – a century ago”.

He focused on the nationalist/unionist duality, but the complexities of our history go deeper than that. For instance, how should we remember the Dubliners who took to the roof of Trinity College to fire back at the rebels and protect their institution?

And what about the ordinary Irish policemen who did their duty as best they could and tried to keep the peace and protect life during the momentous events that overwhelmed the capital; never mind the unfortunate civilians caught up in the event, who were the biggest group of casualties in 1916. Some of the events organised for the decade of commemorations which began in 2012 have reflected that complexity of our history.

Public acceptance

The contribution of the Irish parliamentarians who put Home Rule on the statute book after 40 years of struggle has received some acknowledgment. Without that unremitting political campaign, Irish independence would probably never have come about or, if it did, it would probably have developed in a very different way.

Among the other events commemorated over the past two years have been the campaign for women’s rights and the struggle for workers’ rights as epitomised by the lockout of 1913. However, it is the nature and scale of the commemorative events of 1916 that will determine whether the past can be remembered in a truly inclusive way.

The Tánaiste started the ball rolling with his speech last September but the Government would need to start moving quickly to devise a programme of events at local and national level capable of commanding wide public acceptance.

The widest possible public consultation and involvement of the public in the commemorative events would also be advisable. With the elections out of the way, the time is right to begin the process before a head of steam develops behind the inevitable coalition of naysayers.

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