Reminder of troubled past must not block path to brighter future
Published 10/04/2014 | 02:30
If the sound of lips puckering for an embrace has carried on the wind across the Irish Sea this week, it's because Britain and Ireland are busy kissing and making up.
From centuries of bad blood to four days of red carpet treatment. From mutual fear and mistrust to Tricolours and Union Jacks fluttering side by side. From armed conflict to olive branches.
Led by their dedicated and astute monarch (a woman who out-charmed the Irish on our own turf three years ago), the British are showing a genuine desire for reconciliation with Ireland.
The purpose of the pomp and circumstance at which our neighbour excels is not to overwhelm us with ceremony, but to formally demonstrate that past enmities have been set aside.
The trappings of this state visit – some a little quaint, most of them impressive and occasionally moving – act as a peace treaty, a show of goodwill and public theatre for the masses rolled into one. The royals, with their tiaras, carriages and footmen, are oiling the wheels of diplomacy.
The attention lavished on the Irish delegation was intended as a courtesy to the people of Ireland. And courtesy always trumps warfare.
Perhaps too much blood has been spilled for the slate ever to be wiped completely clean between our nations. But as both Queen Elizabeth and President Higgins emphasised, we can choose to set aside previous enmities and concentrate on a shared future.
Reconciliation not recrimination. As plans go it's an excellent one. Both sides are singing from the same hymn book.
But reconciliation needs to be active rather than notional and it needs to happen in three spheres: between Britain and Ireland – that's well under way; between North and South – more work is required, the Republic has a responsibility to the northern counties; and between the two communities living in the North – some progress made, further efforts necessary, as the proliferation of peace walls and the flags issue highlight.
The peace process is also an ongoing process. Hopefully, Queen Elizabeth's leadership in terms of the British-Irish entente cordiale will inspire those in key positions in the other two spheres to maintain the momentum.
Yet, let us remember how far we have travelled. The dark days of the 1970s and 80s – an era scarred by internment, hunger striker deaths, and bombs exploding with the death of civilians accepted as collateral damage – are far from ancient history.
Who, in the midst of such horrors, could have imagined a day when the Irish national anthem would be played at a state banquet in Windsor Castle? Or that a former Provo leader would don a white tie to attend? Or that Britain's monarch would pledge royal attendance at centenary events in Dublin to celebrate the 1916 Rising?
Martin McGuinness took a step towards the rapprochement championed by Queen Elizabeth with his attendance at the banquet, and by standing to toast her while the British anthem played. This was no insignificant gesture on the Deputy First Leader's part. It was a salute to the unionist community, and an act of faith in the peace process.
He followed it up with a measured response to Norman Tebbit's ill-judged but understandable attack on him. Tebbit, a former Tory Party chairman whose wife was paralysed by the 1984 Brighton bomb, expressed the hope that dissident republicans would shoot Mr McGuinness in the back. Some have called this a call to assassination.
Yesterday, on Sean O'Rourke's RTE radio show, McGuinness said Tebbit and his family had been "badly hurt by the conflict", and insisted he wouldn't make an issue of it. His restraint deserves credit.
MANY people have suffered from the Troubles, and some find it difficult to surrender their bitterness. Equally, many are willing to let bygones be bygones, and the recognition that revenge is a barren and self-defeating emotion is widespread.
That doesn't mean justice ought to be set aside, or the quest for truth ignored. Britain could offer more co-operation into unresolved cases such as the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane and the Dublin-Monaghan bombs – both carried out by loyalist paramilitaries with suspected security forces' collusion. Finucane's son Michael speaks without rancour, even as he continues to seek the truth in his father's name.
Those killed in the turbulent history of these islands can never be restored to their families. That wrong can never be righted. However, as President Higgins observed, "to be forgotten is to die twice". An obligation rests on political leaders North and South, and on Britain, to nurture the peace process when it falters. "It is the only restitution, the only enduring justice we can offer them," said the President.
Meanwhile, a shared future of co-operation between neighbours can be envisaged, even as legacy issues remain outstanding. We get a lot wrong in Ireland. But we got it right with the peace process – civil war in the North has ended and an abnormal environment has been replaced by a normal one, with growing understanding of the need to respect people of different traditions. More should be done: integrated education is a must, for example. But what has been achieved needs celebrating. In that context, President Higgins's state visit matters a great deal at home, just as it resonates with the Irish in Britain. By no means does it represent the culmination of the peace process – that's a work in progress – but it is another significant staging post.Queen Elizabeth referenced Seamus Heaney when she spoke of hope and history jarring, then rhyming. There has been much clashing between our peoples. But how sweet the harmony when we rhyme – when we turn the other cheek.