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.
The q ueen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 played was important in transforming the relationship between the two countries. The presence of a British royal in Dublin to commemorate those who fought for Irish independence and those who fought and died in the first World War should mark the final act in the reconciliation of the two countries as well as all the traditions on the island of Ireland.
One of the most poignant consequences of the way Irish independence came about was the obliteration for so long of the memory of the 40,000 or so Irishmen who died in the first World War, many of them believing they were making the sacrifice in the interests of an independent Ireland.
This week, the President paid appropriate respect to the memory of those men. He approvingly quoted the words of one of them, the Nationalist MP and poet Tom Kettle, whom he described as “an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European”.
The President's viewing of the colours of the five Irish regiments of the British a rmy disbanded in 1922 was another symbolic gesture designed to emphasise the shared history of the two countries.
When the colours were received at a ceremony at the c astle in June 1922 following the establishment of the Irish Free State, the k ing promised: “I pledge my word that within these ancient and historic walls your c olours will be treasured, honoured and protected as hallowed memorials of the glorious deeds of brave and loyal regiments.”
It is entirely fitting the President has now paid tribute to the memory of the Irishmen who have been neglected for so long. The President also paid tribute to the Irish parliamentarians who for almost a century struggled to achieve independence by constitutional and democratic means. Irish independence would probably never have come about but for their efforts which culminated in the first Home Rule Act of 1914. While the independent parliament they worked for came about by means they had not foreseen, the institutions of a free Ireland owed an enormous debt to their efforts.
Speaking in the building where Irish political leaders from Daniel O’Connell to Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond toiled for so long, the President paid due tribute to their memory and achievements. The queen also pointed up O’Connell’s achievements as one of the architects of parliamentary reform in the United Kingdom, because not only did Irish parliamentarians create the conditions for the achievement of independence in their homeland they also helped to shape British democracy.
The queen’s recognition of that and the President’s tribute to their memory was an important aspect of a remarkable state visit.