independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Eoghan Harris: FitzGerald always acted with good authority

Garret FitzGerald famously wore odd socks. On one occasion he wore odd shoes. His mind was on more important matters. Like making a permanent peace between the two traditions on this island -- which is a lot harder than making peace with England.

We have long liked England. We only needed permission to say so publicly. And the main achievement of the Queen's visit is that from now on we are free to speak of our friendly feelings for England and English people.

Tomas Mac Anna, former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, who died last week, was what I call a real republican. As such he would have viewed the Queen's visit both as redemptive political theatre as well as a perfect example of Bertolt Brecht's theatrical theory of "making strange".

This means taking something that is so familiar we no longer notice it, and reworking it artistically so as to make us see it as if for the first time. Sean O Riada did this for Irish music, Riverdance did it for Irish dancing, and the Queen's visit has done it for our dormant love for English decency and English tolerance.

It took guts for both governments to run the risk of riots -- or worse -- at the play. But the two principal actors, Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese, rose to their historic roles. Tragically, the author did not live to see the happy ending.

Garret FitzGerald's genius was to see the need for a political drama which would drive home the link between loving England and loving our Northern neighbours. So in 1981 he began to write the play we now call his "constitutional crusade" but -- as Barbara Fitzgerald of the News at One reminded me -- Garret himself called it a "republican" crusade.

At the heart of his crusade was hard principle of good authority -- put your own house in order before criticising your neighbours. Accordingly, good authority avoids mawkish self-pity like the plague. Something the media did not altogether avoid during the visit.

So while I have no wish to rain on the Queen's parade, I want to sprinkle a few cold drops over the media's maudlin interpretations of the Queen's bowed head and sections of her speech. Because the bowed head and the playing of the British national anthem were two sides of one complex coin.

By bowing her head the Queen was not merely showing respect for the fallen soldiers of her former foes -- she was also signalling to her unionist subjects in Northern Ireland to fully respect the Irish Republic's rituals and rubrics. Conversely, by playing the British national anthem we were signalling to a minority of northern nationalists that there are no safe houses here.

Some of the media also put a MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) gloss on the section of her speech where she spoke of past events that "have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy". But as Tommie Gorman pointed out, she was also talking about the pain the Provos had inflicted on her personally when the IRA murdered the aged Lord Mountbatten.

The media also missed the political importance of the Islandbridge ceremony. It was important to the peace process because it included a strong contingent of unionists, led by Peter Robinson, who has matured into a major statesman. Many of these Northern Protestants, deeply moved by the ceremonial drill of the Irish Army cadets, left Dublin more politically relaxed, having seen the Republic respecting the unionist tradition -- ironically by coming to terms with its own marginalised dead.

Looking back, Sinn Fein must now see it made a major strategic mistake in not playing a full part in the Irish Republic's ecstatic welcome for Queen Elizabeth. So did the eight of the nine Ulster County Boards who turned down invitations to the Croke Park event instead of following the Co Down board's brave example of good authority.

Sinn Fein still doesn't get the nuances of the Irish Republic. It fails to realise that its recent respectable vote in the Republic was mostly a protest vote. Which it will lose if it keeps losing the plot of political plays like the Queen's visit.

Likewise, the Northern GAA boards should take note that even Christy Cooney, who was initially not happy about rugby at Croke Park, fell in behind the Republic's agenda, and made a fine speech which included a moving tribute to the late Constable Ronan Kerr.

By the end of the visit, Sinn Fein knew it had made a bad mistake. Cork drove the lesson home by giving the Queen a rapturous reception. The lesson was not lost on local Sinn Fein TD, Jonathan O'Brien, who stressed the peaceful nature of the Shinners' protest -- presumably lest they be called langers.

Peter Robinson has shown himself to be more in touch with the mood of the Irish Republic than either Sinn Fein or the Ulster GAA. How that happened should cause them some serious soul-searching. Because right now Queen Elizabeth is queen of hearts in the Irish Republic.

These lessons must not be lost coming up to the centenaries of the Solemn League and Covenant and the Easter Rising. 1916 must not become a recruiter for the Real IRA by being another Bloody Sunday every bloody Sunday. Learning from last week we can write another cathartic drama in which Protestant, Catholic and dissenter have respected roles to play.

Meantime, we will miss Garret the Good. As the funeral of Frederick the Great of Prussia passed by, an onlooker observed: "We're on our own now." So we are. Time we tried to fill his shoes. Because there is still work to do.

We might start by banning the brutal use of the word "Brits". Used jokingly, ironically and without bad intent it can sometimes be funny. But coming from a mouth twisted by malice, the word "Brits" makes a nasty noise. Worst of all when used by banker nationalists.

While I think Sinn Fein supporters were wrong about the visit, I do not view them as hypocrites.

But I would like to waterboard well-heeled wasters who privately call people like me West Brits but who publicly fawn and bob to royalty and beg tickets for the State Banquet.

Back in 2005, in an essay for the series Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, called My Secret Life, I admitted that since boyhood I had been both a republican and a bit of a West Brit, "besotted by an imagined England as well as an imagined Ireland". Thanks to the stunning success of the Queen's visit I am no longer alone.

From now on we can speak freely of our feelings of friendship for English people. So let me leave you with the last words from My Secret Life as we look back over a wonderful week, in the company of two wonderful women, Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese, words with which I know Garret agreed, because he told me so.

"This generation should give thanks. Hatred has lost its hold. God and geography made England and Ireland neighbours. God and good history can make us friends. Forever."

Sunday Independent

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