Final step to normal relations of Harp and Crown
The visit of President Higgins to Britain represents the normalising of relations after a century of division
When Queen Elizabeth II receives President Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle next Tuesday on the first day of his State visit to the United Kingdom it will be the final step in the normalising of relations between the Irish people and the British Crown after almost a century of division and misunderstanding.
It is exactly 100 years since the then leader of Irish nationalism, John Redmond, was invited to Buckingham Palace by King George V to a conference aimed at getting agreement between nationalists and unionists over the terms of Home Rule.
Shortly after that failed conference, held in the shadow of the first World War, relations between Irish nationalism and the crown became a key political issue that divided the two countries for more than half a century.
It was not until the state visit by the queen to Ireland three years ago that the friendly and trusting working relationship between the governments of the two countries, which had gradually evolved since the 1980s, was properly symbolised.
The attitude of Irish people towards the British monarchy has always been more complex than the political relations between the two countries, or between nationalism and unionism might have suggested at the time.
In 1900 Queen Victoria visited Dublin for almost a month and received an enthusiastic reception from the people of the capital, with just a few dissenting voices of protest led by Maud Gonne.
During her stay at what was then the Vice Regal Lodge and is now Áras an Uachtaráin, she met people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
In the following years King Edward VII visited Dublin twice and his brother George V came in 1911, shortly after his accession to the throne. Both men were well received, although there were more vocal nationalist protests.
A real shift in nationalist sentiment towards the crown developed in the wake of the 1916 Rising and the election of the first Dáil, which was followed by the War of Independence.
While King George V played an important role in encouraging the British government led by Lloyd George to open negotiations with Sinn Féin in 1921 when he opened the new Northern Ireland parliament with a plea for peace, the relationship with the crown was a key issue for the leaders of the independence movement.
A significant part of the negotiations which led to the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 focused on the relationship an independent Irish State would have with the Crown. Opinion on the Irish side between those who want ed nothing less than a republic and those prepared to accept some relationship with the Crown as long as the country got its political independence.
At the insistence of the British, the treaty contained an oath which would have to be taken by all those elected to the Dáil and Senate. Dubbed the oath of allegiance to the Crown by its republican opponents, it emerged as the most divisive element of the treaty and it proved to be the catalyst for the Civil War.
Strictly speaking, the oath was one of allegiance to the constitution of the Free State and its democratic institutions but it did require TDs to say they would be “faithful” to the crown by virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain.
The split over the oath poisoned Irish politics for decades and damaged the relationship between the independent state and the United Kingdom.
When he established Fianna Fáil in 1926 Eamon de Valera and his followers refused to take the oath and so were unable to take their seats in the Dáil.
The murder of Kevin O’Higgins in the summer of 1927 prompted the Cosgrave government to require all candidates for election to take the oath and that prompted de Valera and his followers to sign up to it on the basis that it was an “empty formula”.
When he came to power after winning the 1932 election de Valera proceeded to remove the oath from the constitution as a matter of priority. That was one of the primary reasons for the economic war which wreaked havoc with the Irish economy in the 1930s and further soured relations between the two countries.
The abdication crisis in the UK in 1936 provided de Valera with an opportunity to further weaken the link with the crown. The following year he published the new Constitution Bunreacht na hÉireann which established the institution of the presidency which in effect took over the functions theoretically exercised by the crown in Irish affairs.
The formal declaration of the Irish Republic in 1948 gave expression to the reality of the situation but it caused a further estrangement between the two countries, with Ireland leaving the Commonwealth.
In the following decades there was a frosty relationship between the Irish State and the British crown. In the course of her long reign Queen Elizabeth visited almost every corner of the globe, including Northern Ireland, but there was no question on either side of a visit to the Republic.
The long running political sore of Northern Ireland and the terror campaign of the Provisional IRA made it even more difficult to contemplate normalising relations, even though the two governments gradually established a working relationship.
It was only when Northern problems began to edge towards a solution that the first steps in establishing proper neighbourly relations began to emerge.
The breakthrough came in 1993 when Mary Robinson became the first president of Ireland to visit the queen at Buckingham Palace. Disagreements over protocol had to be ironed out in advance of the visit, but it was a truly groundbreaking event.
Mary McAleese built on those early contacts and a year after her election she took part along with queen in the formal dedication of the Messines tower on the site of the first World War battle to the Irish soldiers who died fighting in the British army during that conflict. There were more meetings between President McAleese and the queen until finally in May 2011, the reigning British monarch paid a formal state visit to Ireland.
The Queen’s laying of a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to those who died fighting for Irish independence and her moving speech at a state dinner in Dublin Castle made a big impression on the Irish public.
While the tight security meant Queen Elizabeth did not get to meet many ordinary members of the public during her visit to Dublin, the warm reception she received from people on the streets in Cork confirmed the good impression she had made.
President Higgins will now put the final seal on the new relationship with a first ever State visit to the UK, during which he will attend a banquet at Windsor Castle hosted by the queen and lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey. During a visit to the Houses of Parliament, the President will view Irish items from the archive, including a copy of the Home Rule Act passed into law exactly 100 years ago. He will also make a speech in the Houses of Parliament.
That would be an appropriate place to acknowledge the contribution to Irish freedom made by all the great parliamentarians from Daniel O’Connell to Redmond, who pursued their cause by democratic means.