State visit seals the end of an era for Ireland
Opinion: Reciprocal state visits suggest the two countries finally see each other as separate but equal
‘As regards Ireland, the current State visit by President Higgins puts the seal on the end of an era.’ Above, President Higgins with Queen Elizabeth II during a ceremonial welcome at Windsor Castle yesterday. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
After the Treaty of 1921 the Irish poet and mystic George Russell (“AE”) pointed out, with his habitual shrewdness, that the reasons why Ireland had to separate from Britain lay in “the psychological factor” rather than oppressive government – which was, by the time of the revolution, no longer an issue. But history and psychology made the Irish regard any kind of government by the British as “a tyranny inflicted on them by aliens” who were incapable of understanding their aspirations to a less material, complacent world than the model of Anglicisation on offer.
The same message can be read through the Anglophobic reactions of many of the revolutionary generation; independence was necessary, one of them remarked, so the English would have to stop talking down to the Irish with their “damned superior smiles”. The subject of England’s condescension to its Celtic neighbours, currently back in focus as the Scottish referendum approaches, is a rich one. But as regards Ireland, the current state visit by President Michael D Higgins puts the seal on the end of an era.
The incomplete and uncertain way that Ireland left the Union may have contributed to the continuance of ancien regime attitudes. After a civil war fought over the question of allegiance to the crown, the country remained from 1922 to 1948 a restive member of the commonwealth, while establishing many of the institutions and appurtenances of an independent state. The surprise declaration of a 26-county republic in 1948 clarified some things about the relationship, but not all: certain reciprocal and non-reciprocal rights remained (the Irish in Britain retaining voting rights not awarded to the British in Ireland for many years). The continuing flow of emigration from Ireland to its larger neighbour was a constant. And official attitudes tended, in some ways, to view Ireland as not quite separate and certainly not equal. In the mid-20th century the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen remarked that the two countries regarded each other with “a mixture of showing off and suspicion, nearly as bad as sex”.
The status of Northern Ireland
The change in approach signified by the first official Irish state visit comes in the wake not only of Queen Elizabeth’s extraordinary state visit nearly three years ago but of decades when British- Irish relations have become closer and closer. Paradoxical as it may seem, part of the reason lies in the very issue that bedevilled British-Irish relations through the decades since independence: the status of Northern Ireland. So long as the official view on each side of the Irish Sea adhered to the mutually exclusive fantasies that Northern Ireland was either as British as Yorkshire or platonically part of a visionary 32-county Republic there was little hope of advance.