Should Queen Elizabeth visit Ireland?

Mon, Jan 26, 2009, 00:00

She has reigned for almost 57 years and been to almost every country on earth, save that nearest to her. A visit now would normalise relations, says Mary Kennywhile Charles Lysaghtbelieves that a visit by the queen would reopen old divisions and bring to the fore latent Irish distaste for certain totems of Britishness

YES:THE POSSIBILITY of Queen Elizabeth II visiting the Republic of Ireland was probably first suggested in 1965, when the late princess Margaret made a public, though not official, visit to Birr in Co Offaly, accompanied by her husband, Lord Snowdon (half-brother of the present Earl of Rosse).

Tony Snowdon told me in an interview that the princess had “loved Ireland” after her trip to Co Offaly, and she thought the bungled effort of the IRA to plunge Birr Castle into darkness was of little account next to the warm welcome extended by most Irish people. At Dublin airport, Tony and Margaret were mobbed in the friendliest way, and Dublin ladies called out “come back soon – and bring your sister with you!”

As Anglo-Irish relations were beginning to improve in 1965 – with the Lemass-O’Neill rapprochements – the idea was not inconceivable. But the onset of the Troubles in the North ushered in a long phase of scratchy relations. We learned recently, via the release of State papers for 1979, that president Hillery did consider a State visit to Britain, but was dissuaded from pursuing this notion, being told that Queen Elizabeth “didn’t like the Irish”.

As Elizabeth is a cautious constitutional monarch who does as her ministers bid her, and never expresses personal feelings about any national group, that is more likely to have been an official’s maladroit excuse.

Though the queen did have a hostile reception in Belfast in 1977, with bad vibes reverberating from Dublin: both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent published astringent editorials saying she should never have been allowed to set foot in the North in these sensitive times.

There was a palpable fear that the lady might be assassinated. And indeed two years later, her kinsman Lord Mountbatten was assassinated. From the late 1970s onwards, Elizabeth’s visits to Northern Ireland were brief, and very carefully controlled: the casual walkabout days were over.

However, the mood music changed in the 1990s, as relations gradually got better. In 1993, president Mary Robinson paid a successful personal visit to Queen Elizabeth and the two were photographed having tea together. Many people in Ireland hailed that meeting as a herald of a new phase of friendly relations, and Robinson herself predicted that it would not be long before an official exchange of state visits.

In 1995, the prince of Wales visited Dublin, and was enveloped in a céad míle fáilte by the Dublin mammies calling out that “Charlie was their darlin”.

Robinson saw Queen Elizabeth again in 1996, when The Soldiers’ Song was played at Buckingham Palace: in 1998 President Mary McAleese stood side by side with Queen Elizabeth and the King of the Belgians at Menin Gate, commemorating the dead of the first World War.

President McAleese has now met Queen Elizabeth five times; she speaks openly of how well they get along together, and openly, too, about her desire to welcome the monarch to Dublin, and of Queen Elizabeth’s readiness to visit the Republic of Ireland whenever an invitation is forthcoming.

In the 1990s, Prince Philip visited several times, and in 2002, Prince Charles visited the Glencree Peace Centre where he made a sensitive speech not just about peace – but about Ireland’s historic sufferings.

These events were taken to presage a state visit by Queen Elizabeth: one of the last statements Bertie Ahern made as Taoiseach was that he hoped such a visit would take place in 2009.

The North has always been the abiding difficulty: but if it has not been definitively “solved”, at least a democratically-supported modus vivendi has emerged of power-sharing and progress through consent.

It is widely agreed that Anglo-Irish relations have probably never been as constructive and harmonious as they are now: certainly it is what senior diplomats and civil servants constantly say. An exchange of state visits between the two heads of state is the logical symbol of normalisation of relations.

There is still a sense of hesitation. There is always a fear that a royal visit might arouse extreme-republican hostilities.

There is also an opposite fear that the Irish might respond not too churlishly, but too well, and manifest a rush of “abject loyalty”: after all, every other British monarch who stepped ashore at Dún Laoghaire was greeted rapturously.

At present, concern with the economic recession might be another excuse to defer a visit – although it should be noted that a royal tour always boosts wider tourism, a much-needed fillip right now.

But the most compelling argument is that it is abnormal that Elizabeth II, in her long reign since 1952, could have visited almost every country in the world, but is yet to be welcomed by the closest island nation.

Until that is altered, we can never say that Anglo-Irish relations have achieved normality.

Mary Kenny is an Irish-born journalist who spends her time between London and Dublin. Her forthcoming book is Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy. New Island, May 2009

NO:AS A PERSON who deplores Anglophobia as demeaning to ourselves and who desires close friendly relations between Ireland and Britain, I have grave misgivings about Queen Elizabeth paying us a State visit, with all its panoply of parades and speeches.

It seems to me to be attended with risks and not offer any compensating advantage except, perhaps, a symbolic statement that our relations with Britain are now normal.

The fundamental difficulty with this is that the relationship of Britain and Ireland is too close to be normal and Queen Elizabeth is not just another foreign head of state. In ordinary conversation here she is “the queen” – except when people are making a political point.

All this makes manifestations of enthusiasm in Ireland for British royalty threatening to Irish nationalists, and has a potential to open up old divisions in our society dating back to days when people were defined by whether they were loyal to the British crown or to Ireland.

The disappearance in the Republic of active loyalism, except perhaps on a personal level, has removed the need for displays of opposition to the crown – although the demonstrations surrounding Princess Diana’s death could be so interpreted.

But it would be a mistake to infer that there is not still a fairly widespread latent distaste for the crown as an institution.

This is evidenced by the unease, even resentment, still surrounding the Union flag, God Save the Queen or the acceptance of British titles.

Hostility towards the British crown in this country has understandable historical roots. The crown’s sectarian character still gives legitimate grounds for offence. Only last year a Canadian girl with Irish Catholic roots was forced by ancient anti-papist legislation to change her religion to marry into a cadet branch of the British royal family.

All that the Irish majority ever owed the royal family was the creation of Killarney as a tourist centre (the result of Queen Victoria’s 1861 visit), the name Patricia (invented for her granddaughter Princess Patricia of Connaught), and – something that should never be forgotten – the good offices of King George V that made Lloyd George’s government call off the Black and Tans.

A parade by the queen through our streets would provide an occasion for displays of enthusiasm by some who are all too likely to provoke the hostility of others.

The riot on Dublin’s O’Connell Street that disrupted the Orange Order march a few years ago is testimony to the ability of a small determined crowd to disrupt parades.

Doubtless, by careful crafting and keeping Prince Philip quiet, the speeches could be made to pass off without major controversy. But the price would be a lot of archness and manipulation of historical truth.

The queen would doubtless be expected to apologise for British misdeeds, including the Famine, but not allowed to mention benefits we derived from the British connection.

She would probably not be allowed to voice British gratitude to the many Irish who served the empire, including those who in Churchill’s memorable words, “hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour” in the second World War.

She would have to walk the tightrope of praising the achievements of modern Ireland without sounding patronising.

One wonders what could be offered in exchange that would do much for British-Irish relations and maintain our dignity not wallowing alternately in victimhood and triumphalism.

What good would it all do? It is a delusion to believe that Ulster Unionists would be conciliated by a royal visit to Dublin.

They are more likely to view this further cosying up between London and Dublin as a threat to their position. Their cause thrived when London and Dublin were at loggerheads.

The main political beneficiaries would be Sinn Féin, who could point the finger at Fianna Fáil Ministers oiling up to the queen of England in support of their claim to be the sole true heirs of the republican tradition.

Moderate people have long recognised the danger of symbols and ostentation in British-Irish relations and have acted on the view that good relations between Britain

and Ireland, as within Ireland, are best built up by practical co-operation and low-key contacts.

We should be slow to forsake this well-tried approach. We do well to realise that we have attained only an amicable modus vivendi, not a final resolution of our historic differences.

Our wonderful President has paid several informal visits to Britain. If Queen Elizabeth wishes to come to Ireland it would be best if, like her great grandfather Edward VII, she came to watch her horses or some such event without the panoply of a State visit.

She is such an estimable person that everybody would welcome her as thousands of her compatriots are welcomed here every year. A State visit is still a step too far.

Charles Lysaght is a founder member of the British Irish Association and editor of Great Irish Lives, a collection of obituaries of famous Irish persons, published in 2008