The day has come


PRESIDENT MARY McAleese has called the State visit of Queen Elizabeth II “extraordinary” and “phenomenal”. Given that this is the first such visit in a century, such words are not out of place. Yet, the real significance of the event lies, less in being extraordinary, than in being pleasantly and properly ordinary. It is at last possible to say that the relationship between Britain and Ireland is simply normal. It is what it ought to be between neighbouring countries bound together by strong economic, political, cultural, social,sporting and personal ties.

This new-found conviviality cannot, of course, be taken for granted. The last time a reigning British monarch came to what is now the Republic, when George V visited his Irish subjects in 1911, Dublin was a provincial city, not a national capital. Political power was exercised by unelected British figures, the Earl of Aberdeen as Lord Lieutenant and Augustine Birrell as chief secretary. Ireland was not regarded by Britain as a neighbouring country, but rather as an often wayward back yard.

It took many decades and a great deal of pain for the relationship to be placed on the footing of equality and respect that is essential to true friendship. No one is seeking to forget that struggle and the Queen’s visit to the Garden of Remembrance is a poignant recognition on the British side of its legitimacy. Just as Ireland has had to rid itself of knee-jerk anti-Britishness, Britain has had to drop its deeply ingrained habit of superiority.

The small minority of extreme nationalists who begrudge the visit seem incapable of grasping the way it symbolises the distinct and separate sovereignty of the two states. Generations of Irish patriots could only dream of a time when a British monarch would arrive here as honoured guest rather than condescending ruler, as a friendly neighbour rather than an embodiment of imperial power.

Yet, the diehards do this independent State some small service – they remind us of what Ireland as a whole has left behind. They still define Irish identity negatively – as anti-Britishness. Most of the rest of the nation, even in the midst of our current travails, has the self-confidence not to need a hatred of Britain to make it feel Irish.

Nor does it believe that “Irish” is an exclusive, narrow term. One does not have to be a monarchist to recognise that the Queen, as head of state of the United Kingdom, and as head of the Church of England, carries a special significance for many people on this island. A lack of respect for her is also a lack of respect for them. Equally, one does not have to disavow Irish nationalism in order to recognise the basic decency of a British queen and an Irish president jointly honouring the forgotten memory of the 50,000 Irish soldiers who died in the first World War.

Queen Elizabeth is welcome as a remarkable woman in her own right, as a figure to whom a significant minority on this island give allegiance and, above all, as a symbol of the mutual affection and common interests of two separate but closely connected countries.