Stephen Collins: Hard politics a bigger challenge than handshake with prince

‘It is 20 years since Prince Charles attended a State banquet in Dublin Castle hosted by the then taoiseach John Bruton but it has taken this long for him to be able to visit the scene of Lord Mountbatten’s murder’

‘Thankfully the true neighbourly feelings that exist between the vast majority of people that live in these islands can be expressed without inhibition now that the slow learners of the political world have come to terms with the reality.’ Above, Prince Charles and   his wife Camilla  are welcomed  to Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph:  Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA

‘Thankfully the true neighbourly feelings that exist between the vast majority of people that live in these islands can be expressed without inhibition now that the slow learners of the political world have come to terms with the reality.’ Above, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are welcomed to Mullaghmore, Co Sligo. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA

 

The abiding image of Prince Charles’s visit to the west of Ireland was not the much-publicised handshake with Gerry Adams but the dignified way the heir to the British throne behaved throughout, particularly when visiting the place where his godfather was murdered.

The warm welcome given to the royal couple by the people of the west was the other striking aspect of the visit. The intrinsically good relations between the people of Ireland and Britain, which have been distorted for too long by a warped version of nationalism, were on display.

Thankfully, the true neighbourly feelings that exist between the vast majority of people that live in these islands can be expressed without inhibition now that the slow learners of the political world have come to terms with the reality.

The media’s Pavlovian response to the handshake with Adams in Galway threatened to undermine the value of the visit but in fact, Charles’s open-minded and friendly approach to all of the people he met ensured that it was not hijacked for any narrow political purpose.

If anything, the Adams handshake served as a reminder of the sheer futility and heartlessness of the terrorist campaign that cost so much in death and ruined lives and scarred the island for almost 30 years.

The pity is that the process of normalisation between the two countries has taken so long despite the IRA cessation and the establishment of agreed powersharing structures in Northern Ireland.

It is 20 years since Prince Charles attended a State banquet in Dublin Castle hosted by then taoiseach John Bruton, but it has taken this long for him to be able to visit the scene of Lord Mountbatten’s murder.

Incidentally, a malicious and misleading version of Bruton’s speech of welcome on that occasion has gone into political folklore and is accepted as fact, even though the event was filmed and his exact words are on record.

Bruton did not say, as is widely believed, that Prince Charles’s visit was the happiest day of his life. He said the visit had done more in “symbolic and psychological terms to sweep away the legacy of fear and suspicion that has lain between our two peoples than any other event in my lifetime”. A bit of hyperbole perhaps but not what Bruton’s detractors have managed to insinuate into the accepted narrative.

Prince Charles’s latest visit has come at an appropriate time, with the centenary of the 1916 Rising just around the corner. The commemoration of important historical events has the capacity to reignite the conflicts of the past or to reconcile people to a shared future.

It is now widely accepted that the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966 fuelled a mood of aggressive nationalism that played a part in the tragedy that unfolded in subsequent years.

The challenge facing this State next year is to mark the Rising in a way that properly commemorates a decisive step on the road to Irish Independence without encouraging the handful of dissident republicans who are still wedded to the use of violence to achieve their ends.

Prince Charles’s visit provided an opportunity to reflect on the appalling consequences of political violence as well as being an occasion to celebrate what binds us rather than divides us in those two Atlantic islands while also recognising our separate identities.

Another small step towards recognising the complexity of our history was taken in the past week with the agreement by the authorities in Leinster House to hang the portraits of the leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party on the walls to recognise their contribution to the shaping of modern Ireland.

At present portraits from the Grattan’s parliament era, as well as of significant figures in Irish history such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, hang in Leinster House while there are bronze busts of the 1916 signatories in the Dáil chamber.

There is a portrait of the Liberator Daniel O’Connell in the building and a bust of Parnell, but the lack of recognition for the political leaders who strove for the establishment of an Irish parliament and finally got Home Rule on the statute book has been a serious omission.

Now, thanks to the initiative of former Oireachtas members and historians Maurice Manning and Martin Mansergh, that omission is going to be rectified. The two men are members of the Oireachtas group on centenary commemorations and they have been working for some time to give the constitutional political leaders of Irish nationalism their due regard.

Portraits of Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Redmond and John Dillon, as well as a composite picture of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1914, will soon be hanging on the walls in Leinster House.

The move was approved at a special meeting of a subcommittee of the Committee on Procedures and Privileges last week and the paintings will be in place later this year.

Finding a solution to the ongoing wrangling that threatens to bring down the Northern Executive will not be as easy with crucial decisions having to be made in the next week or so on the question of welfare reform.

Sinn Féin faces the dilemma of how to justify implementing so-called austerity measures in the North while opposing them tooth and nail in the Republic. On the other hand, bringing down the powersharing Executive in the North might indicate to the southern electorate that the party is not capable of exercising power.

That, combined with Sinn Féin’s total support for Syriza in Greece, could prove more damaging to its electoral prospects in the Republic than implementing measures required by budget disciplines in the North. Hard politics may prove more of a challenge than a handshake with a prince.

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