Joint commemoration plan is an important step
Inside Politics: Queen’s friendly exchange with McGuinness was a signal of how things have changed
President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth during the banquet held at Windsor Castle during the State visit of President Higgins. Photograph: Alan Betson
A new dimension has been added to the decade of commemorations with Queen Elizabeth’s announcement that a member of the royal family is prepared to stand beside President Michael D Higgins and the Government of Ireland in commemorating the events that led to Irish independence.
Many in the mainstream Irish political parties feared the 1916 Rising commemorations might be hijacked by Sinn Féin, but republicans may now begin to fear the British royal family could steal the show.
The presence of a member of a royal family should help ensure nobody steals the show and that the commemorations marking the first World War and the events that led to Irish independence will be truly inclusive of all strands of political opinion on the island of Ireland.
The President’s historic state visit to Britain during the week was an important step on the road to ensuring the ongoing commemorations will reflect the positive new relationship between the two islands rather than raking up the bitterness of the past. The queen’s speech at the banquet in Windsor Castle rivalled her superb Dublin Castle speech of 2011 in content and delivery. Her remarks about the Irish and British “finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other” summed up the theme of the week. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore responded warmly to the queen’s announcement that her “family will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your Ministers” in commemoration ceremonies, although the diplomatic niceties and the details of appropriate events will take some working out.
The queen’s friendly exchange with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at a reception in Windsor Castle was another important signal of how much things have changed.
Her role in cementing the new, close relationship between the two countries and promoting better relations between the two communities in Northern Ireland is entirely appropriate. A century ago her grandfather George V made a valiant if doomed attempt to get nationalists and unionists to agree on means of implementing Home Rule by calling them to a conference in Buckingham Palace in 1914.
The outbreak of the first World War only days after that conference ended in failure transformed the situation and led to the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. The king made another important intervention, in the summer of 1921, that prompted Lloyd George’s government to begin talks that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Opening the Northern Ireland p arliament he said: “May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, n orth and s outh, under one parliament or two, as those parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”
It has taken a long time for it to come about, but the acceptance by almost all strands of political opinion of the institutions of an agreed Ireland have laid the foundations of mutual justice and respect.