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Why do we insist on feeling aggrieved that Britain would want to honour Irish citizens?

That Britain wants to acknowledge the impact the Irish have on its society should be a very basic source of pride

Last month David Cameron was made Rishi Sunak’s foreign secretary. But foisting a former prime minister who is no longer in the House of Commons into the cabinet requires some constitutional trickery: for Cameron’s appointment to be legitimate he needed to be granted a life peerage to the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords. And so, upon taking up his position in the foreign office Cameron became Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. Social mobility in Britain is alive and well.

It’s perfectly easy to look askance at the whole honours system – knighthoods exchanged for political favours; titles handed out to friends and allies; ceremonies replete with all the pomp and circumstance Great Britain is famous for. Ermine, swords, sirs and dames: of course from the vantage point of a republic this is hard to understand.

But simply because the system in Britain is different from our own it does not mean it is wrong or faulty. Though, it is faulty. But it also rather generous: in the past 30 years the UK has extended 14 honours to Irish citizens in recognition of their contribution to British public life. Just last year Waterford woman Louise Richardson – former vice-chancellor of Oxford University – was awarded a damehood of the Order of the British Empire.

This has not prevented our Constitution from bearing a rather sour grapes clause: that the UK government must seek express approval from Ireland to confer honours on our people. And, in spite of the cultural generosity, plenty in Ireland still refuse to indulge Britain in its eccentricities: this is all an imperial hangover; how ludicrous to have knights wandering among smaller men; wasn’t it everything we fought to get rid of?


It strikes me as rather petty – and odd – to sneer at such obvious gestures of goodwill; to deride a political culture for the small crime of being different to our own; to feel aggrieved that Britain would want to honour Irish citizens. And the “imperial hangover” charge is rather flimsy. We shouldn’t be too quick to forget that Ireland was not just a subject to the British Empire, but also an active and willing participant in it. Though this is a mode of historical-forgetfulness that Ireland is quick to get away with.

Never mind. If the British system is really so offensive ought Ireland not conjure its own? How else to recognise that across the country there are people quietly and honestly working in service of their communities and country? Maybe it would work – an honours system isn’t actually anathema to a republic. The légion d’honneur in France is a good example. But that was established in 1802. It derives status from its longevity. Magicking a new system out of thin air and superimposing it on the country would not be easy. It works in Britain because it is ancient and mythical; it comes bearing the weight of national mythology; people care because it is encoded into the psychology of the country.

This antagonism to British honours reminds me of the recent argument over the Royal Horticultural Society. The case for the prosecution was simple: the royal eponym has no place in a now-independent republic. Since we are no longer subjects to the royal family why on earth do we still refer to the Royal Irish Academy? What kind of mistaken fealty are we pronouncing?

This is rational on a micro-level but in a macro sense it’s terribly shortsighted. First, because it’s good to remember our provenance; how the commonwealth forged Ireland – for the bad and, yes, the good too; how our institutions came to be. Stripping the royal moniker from them doesn’t change their character or their history, it simply makes our public life a bit more dishonest.

But there is a more practical reason to preserve royal eponyms and to loosen our cynicism towards British honours. If Ireland reunifies – a long way off though that may be – it will be assuming roughly one million people who identify as British into a new country. There is a lot of talk about how to respect incompatible traditions in Ireland; how to accommodate competing identities. All of this will look very shallow if we do not think long and hard about the process of making an all-island republic a place that these British people want to live. Symbolic gestures like this run deep.

But more than any of this, Ireland cannot fashion itself as the mature partner in Anglo-Irish relations while holding on to bitter enmity of long ago. At its core this is not a complicated problem: it’s nice to acknowledge gestures of good will; it is poor manners to eschew shared history; clinging on to the oppression of the past starts to ring a little hollow as Ireland emerges as a very rich country with vast soft power.

A confident nation that fashions itself as a winner on the international stage would not be so worried about royal prefixes and quirks of British political culture. That Britain wants to acknowledge the impact the Irish have on its society should be a very basic source of pride, not a cause for snark or anxiety.