Queen's visit to Ireland demolished age-old myths
WORLDVIEW: For the British, the royal visit offered a vision of what a more mature relationship with Ireland could bring
BRITISH ROYAL visits normally involve interminable waits, meetings with uncongenial people, long, meandering trips to tedious locations, anodyne speeches and jousts with local officialdom – and that’s just for us UK journalists. Goodness knows how Queen Elizabeth puts up with them.
The trips are usually justified, slightly defensively, by Buckingham Palace talking about goodwill gestures, boosts for British trade or flying the flag.
Trips are either innovative, if the destination has not been visited in the last five years, or ground-breaking, if it has not been visited before at all.
By such definitions, this week’s state visit to Ireland has been both innovative and ground-breaking.
Even the most cynical of us could not have imagined before we came just how appropriate those words would be. This week’s visit has felt much more genuinely significant than most, for Britain as well as Ireland.
Queen Elizabeth has charmed those she has met largely by being herself – though in a much more relaxed and smiley version than we often see; her face usually being altogether unable, even after 60 years of trying, to hide boredom or aggravation. She has seemed genuinely pleased to be here, tinged maybe with a little relief at the warmth of the welcome and the absence of cogent opposition.
At 85 years old, towing a husband who will be 90 in a fortnight, it was an odyssey she did not need to make, but did. More than that, her gestures and the words she uttered in her brief speech at the state dinner in Dublin Castle on Wednesday evening seemed – because they undoubtedly were – considered and sincere.
Easy to scoff that her words are crafted for her – she would not say them if she did not mean them. If her Irish-language introduction was a small piece of showmanship, it seems to have had the wow factor, at least for President Mary McAleese.
The Queen has met many former freedom fighters and campaigners for independence, but to see her bowing her head in silent contemplation at the Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to those who died fighting British rule – some of whom would have killed her ancestors if they could – was unexpectedly moving.
Then to hear her speaking at the dinner of “things which . . . we would wish had been done differently, or not at all” was unusually direct. British monarchs are not politicians; they do not make ground-breaking, or even interesting, speeches, but dutiful ones. Therefore, this was quite exceptional – and most Irish people I have met have picked up on that.
These may be gestures, but gestures are all that British kings and queens can effectively make – indeed, have been able to make – for more than a century in our constitutional settlement, for they do not have unlimited powers as some Sinn Féiners pretend to believe. And so, her actions resonate.
More than that, her visit seems to have killed some suppositions on both sides, or at least cut them down to size. You could almost describe it as a Wizard of Oz moment: showing the British that their head of state could be warmly welcomed in Ireland, and the Irish that the Queen of England is not some all-powerful rapacious tyrant, hanging on wilfully to a small corner of their island.
Of course, we all knew that, didn’t we? But sometimes it needs to be shown symbolically. In this, to tangle the metaphor, the Queen may have shot the republicans’ fox. Elizabeth Windsor has been for them almost the last symbol of the old British ascendancy, which actually withered and died many years ago.
Now that partition has been accepted for the foreseeable future, that administrations North and South co-operate and that the DUP can sit in government with Sinn Féin, there is precious little left coherently to complain about.
To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, between a Shinner with a grievance and a ray of sunshine it is not difficult to spot the difference, and now the Queen of England has come and gone, uttering gentle words of reconciliation and amity and registering the independence of the Irish Republic, what imperialist bogeys are actually left?
Will the naysayers finally realise Britain really does have no selfish strategic interest in hanging on to Northern Ireland? This is a country that ceded independence to much larger countries across the world, usually without bloodshed – and 100 years ago legislated to give home rule to Ireland too – but I suppose we should not hold our breaths that the old scab will no longer be picked.
This week’s official visit has given visible reasons why that scab should be allowed to heal over, and a vision of what our joint futures might become. At the end of his last visit, 100 years ago, George V said he hoped to return “at no distant date”. This week his granddaughter finally fulfilled that wish and gave powerful reasons why the next return should and will not be so distant.
Stephen Bates writes about royal affairs for the Guardian