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

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.


The process of recognising where the problems of identity and allegiance really lay was recognised from early on by talented and imaginative civil servants and diplomats in both Ireland and Britain who forged strong bonds with each other; it came to fruition in the series of statements and manifestos that began with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and proceeded through the Downing Street Declaration to the Belfast Agreement. For Britain and Ireland to follow a joint line on the status and future of Northern Ireland, delegating to its inhabitants the autonomy to shape their future, seems in 2014 only a matter of sense; but 30-odd years ago it looked like very long odds indeed.

Accompanying this process, and the mutual respect of mandarins, diplomats and politicians that survived the litany of crises and horrors through the 1970s and 1980s, were other, unconnected phenomena. One was Ireland's enthusiastic embrace of Europe, and the transformed status this brought in terms of diplomatic and political relations. Another was the growing confidence, fashionability and influence of the Irish cultural presence in Britain. Irish actors, novelists, musicians, playwrights have scooped major prizes and awards and at certain points seemed to dominate the London scene (as anyone recently trying to get tickets for the revival of The Weir or Olwen Fouéré's performance of riverrun can testify).

Changed profile of the Irish in Britain
This was a syndrome established long before, when Irish cultural entrepreneurs wielded surprising influence in the worlds of Victorian theatre and journalism – very far from any stereotype of "Paddy the entertainer". But from the 1990s, in conjunction with the less laudable and less enduring effects of the economic boom years, it entered a new dimension, and the export of Irish culture, along with the inrush of Irish money, changed the profile of the Irish in Britain for good.

The President’s visit also speaks to, and reflects, the sense of identity among the Irish living in Britain. For those of us in London the atmosphere at receptions in the Irish Embassy, local gatherings in the Irish centres such as those in Camden and Hammersmith, or the Fleadh in Finsbury Park, is not that of mournful diaspora or the regrets of a disadvantaged community in exile. The ease with which Irish people settle in Britain – and vice versa – reflects not only a long and shared, if tangled, history. The kind of Anglo-Irish relations that are symbolised by reciprocal state visits, that are as enthusiastically embraced as the queen’s and the President’s, suggest the two countries finally see each other as indeed separate but equal, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Nearly as good as sex.

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford