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Thursday 8 December 2016

They came, they saw... and we conquered

Liam Fay

Published 24/05/2011 | 05:00

CONTRARY to conventional wisdom, it is rarely better to give than to receive. Those who come bearing gifts are only entitled to feel pleased with themselves if the gifts they bear are of meaningful value.

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The recipients of goodwill gestures, meanwhile, should always find a fitting way to return the compliment.

Without all concerned playing their parts, even the most well-intentioned expressions of friendship can wind up souring rather than sweetening relations, leaving both sides feeling short-changed.

The state visits of Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama were exemplary exercises in mutually beneficial gift-exchange.

During what's been a remarkable and unexpectedly uplifting 10 days, the Irish people have engaged in a cleverly complex process of giving and receiving that has left everyone involved better off. In a rare boost for the country's balance sheet, nobody has benefited more from the transaction than ourselves.

The grace, good humour and dignity with which the queen and Obama were received by the Irish citizenry amounted to a triumph in itself.

The efficiency of the staging and dexterity of the choreography that marked both visits provided a similar victory for the Irish authorities, allowing them to come across as administrators of a modern cosmopolitan state that is simultaneously businesslike and creative.

Showcasing these attributes before an international audience would've been a worthwhile investment at any time but, under the parlous circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is gratifying to discover that the accomplishment has already paid dividends.

Ireland did not regain its sovereignty over the last week but it did recover something of its self-confidence.

After an extended period during which we've been reduced to the status of supplicants in our dealings with foreign powers, it was heartening to see our representatives afforded the opportunity to greet visiting heads of state as equals. For a few days at least, the Irish populace was able to re-experience what it feels like to be citizens of a free and independent republic, a nation once again.

The past three years have come close to crippling our national psyche, undermining the way we see ourselves and how we imagine we are seen by others.

The country has been let down by its leaders in the most grievous manner imaginable. Politicians and senior civil servants, who prided (and indeed rewarded) themselves on the basis of their supposed economic astuteness, have been exposed as charlatans.

Less than a century after the State's founding fathers won the right to self-determination for Ireland, a generation of buffoons and time-servers surrendered it to the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

Through no fault of their own, the broad mass of people now find themselves in the grotesque position of bailing out financial institutions while struggling to put food on their own tables. Gloom is the prevailing mood among many, fear the emotion with which they face the future.

Not surprisingly, most of us had begun to question the basic competence of the individuals who comprise both our elected and permanent governments. On a practical level, therefore, it was a relief to observe the sheer ingenuity that went into the organisation of the queen's visit in particular.

Though the details of the four-day programme would've been hammered out by officials from London and Dublin, the Irish side would obviously have played a leading role in setting the scene, pace and tone.

It is reassuring to discover there are still those in our domestic bureaucracy who know exactly what they're doing and can rise to the occasion when presented with a major challenge. We are going to need them.

The queen's itinerary and the stage management of the most politically sensitive set-pieces were veritable works of art, as creatively composed as the joint statements and tentative communiques that Irish and British diplomats used to inch the warring factions in Northern Ireland towards a peace agreement.

Rich in symbolism and historical resonance, events like the wreath-laying ceremony at the Islandbridge War Memorial deftly acknowledged the differing traditions that underpin the relationship between Ireland and Britain in all their nuances and ironies.

The audacity of the intentions behind the visit was most evident at the Garden of Remembrance when the queen made her momentous bow, a mark of respect to the dead patriots who fought against the British for Irish freedom. With this single gesture, the entire state visit was emphatically elevated above the level of mere courtesy call.

During the bleak recession of the 1980s, when Anglo-Irish relations were often at breaking point, it wasn't uncommon to hear disenchanted Irish people of a certain age bitterly suggest that we should hand the country back to the British and apologise for the shambles we've made of the place.

There was no such loose talk during the queen's visit, not even in jest. On the contrary, in fact, everyone involved in the logistical management of the event seemed determined to put their best foot forward, to demonstrate that this is still a country capable of professionalism and pride.

There was also a more profound sense in which last week's events will have helped stiffen the spines of many Irish citizens for the daunting years ahead.

When the queen made that small but historic bow in the Garden of Remembrance, she was inadvertently reminding those Irish people who may have forgotten about the great sacrifices that were made by earlier generations. Irish freedom was hard won, and we should take great care to ensure it is never again squandered.

Sinn Fein and others of a similarly hidebound mindset claimed the queen's visit was "premature". They were wrong on multiple counts. Deferring the visit for even a few years would've been a mistake because, as an individual, Queen Elizabeth was uniquely well-placed to be the first reigning British monarch to come to the Republic of Ireland.

At 85, she is almost as old as Irish independence itself and has lived through all of the convulsions that characterised the various bloody chapters of the 20th-Century Troubles. The sentiments expressed in her masterful Dublin Castle speech about "forbearance and conciliation" -- about being able to bow to the past without being bound to it -- seemed all the more significant because it was she who was expressing them.

It was important, too, that President Mary McAleese, a Belfast-born northern nationalist, was still in place to play host to the queen. Building on foundations laid by President Mary Robinson during the early 1990s, President McAleese has devoted considerable energies to creating the optimum conditions for a royal visit.

The success of the visit was helped enormously by the fact that the queen is a smiling grandmother rather than a swaggering, blustering agent of imperial hauteur.

It was difficult to feel anything but admiration and indeed sympathy for this elderly matron as we witnessed the unflagging fortitude with which she greeted the apparently endless lines of minor worthies and major windbags who queued to shake her hand at the various formal events. It was easy to see her as an emblem of the innate decency and tolerance of the English character at its best.

For all too many decades, Anglophobia was the semi-official ideology of the Irish State. The strength of an individual's antipathy towards the Brits was deemed by some to be the most accurate measure of his or her Irishness. Anti-Englishness became the lens through which these nitwits viewed the world, discolouring everything from personal encounters to political views.

It was all nonsense, of course. Given the tight bonds of friendship and kinship that exist between the two nations, the actual relationship between Irish and English people has long been much happier than the bigoted few would like to pretend.

By welcoming the queen with enthusiasm but not deference, we were simply acknowledging the warmth and closeness of the ties that exist with our nearest neighbour.

Ultimately, however, the state visits were about them as much as they were about us. Enlightened self-interest is always the watchword in foreign affairs, and it should be no surprise that it was the driving force in what happened over the past week.

The political benefits for Obama are most immediately evident. In the preliminary stages of his campaign for re-election, at a time when his domestic poll ratings are flat-lining and US national debt has reached a stratospheric $14 trillion, Obama is eager to ingratiate himself with the estimated 35 million Americans who claim Irish heritage. Hence his enthusiasm for photo opportunities on the auld sod.

Though much less explicitly political, however, the queen, too, had her own agenda. Heavy is the head that wears the crown but long is the game that she plays. From an early age, monarchs are taught to view themselves as historical figures, key players in an epic saga with a millennia-spanning timeline.

While she is still held in high esteem by most of her subjects, even those with little regard for others in the royal family, Queen Elizabeth would be acutely aware that the standing of the British monarchy has been greatly diminished in recent decades.

She is no doubt eager to ensure that the latter years of her reign are remembered for reasons other than the soap opera antics of her dysfunctional progeny and their consorts.

Unlikely though it would've seemed only a few years ago, Ireland represents a good news story for the British, as centuries of violent conflict have finally been laid to rest.

By embarking on such an ambitious visit to Ireland, and so eloquently expressing regret for the colonial outrages of the past, the queen has guaranteed herself an honoured place in the historical annals that clearly mean so much to her.

For all their headline-grabbing weight and glamour, the state visits will soon be forgotten as Irish people continue to confront the scarifying fallout from our economic predicament.

However, there is a sense in which Ireland's handling of these ceremonial events highlights a potentially profitable route forwards as we commence the long, hard struggle to regain our sovereignty, by providing an object lesson in how even the creaky conventions of gesture politics can be turned to the intensely practical advantage of all involved.

Ireland's debt problems are so chronic they could never be unravelled by the Irish State on its own.

Action will eventually be required at a European, if not indeed global level, to restructure the debt, in order to afford Ireland a sporting chance of returning to economic sustainability.

If this doesn't happen, Ireland threatens to bring down the European banks to which the country is so deeply indebted, with all the knock-on political mayhem that this would entail.

Consequently, Europe needs Ireland as much as Ireland needs Europe.

Appeals to enlightened self-interest are, therefore, the strongest cards we have to play as we seek a more generous settlement from our European partners.

Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama came bearing gifts but they left here with a lot more than gimcrack souvenirs of a getaway trip to the Emerald Isle.

By approaching the state visits with flair and imagination, and making sure that the visitors got what they needed to get, we proved we are still exceptionally skilled practitioners of the diplomacy game.

They came, they saw. We conquered.

Irish Independent Supplement

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