Royal presence in 2016 would ultimately be a good thing
Reconciliatory history has always had the edge over the ‘violence works’ faction
Published 29/06/2014 | 02:30
Queen Elizabeth visited Northern Ireland again last week for yet another grip-and- grin with Martin McGuinness.
Perfecting her song of inspiration, sweet sounds and prayers, she seems to be edging closer and closer to Dublin for the 1916 commemorations in 2016. Manipulating the sensibilities of the Northern Irish seems to be second nature to her by now, while the Republic continues to pose one or two new problems.
One wonders what she thinks of the critique currently gestating in our midst. You will recall there were two distinct strands to this. One strand frets about how the royal presence will supposedly interfere with an emerging consensus that holds that violence was an absolute prerequisite in forcing her grandparents to abandon southern Ireland to Michael Collins.
The other strand rather operatically gags on the saccharine mood-music that these kinds of visits provoke. The worry is that too much talk about "reconciliation" and "moving on" will somehow infantilise intellectual life here. Historical writing in this idiom must remain a search for the capital-T truth, and such a project is said to be vulnerable to the blandishments of government-backed public relations jamborees.
And while both kinds of critique contain some insight, they also risk exposing us to ridicule should they come to dominate the play and thwart the royal visit. As regards the "violence worked" critique, it is ironic to say the least, that that faction should be upset about a possible royal presence in 2016.
Surely such a visit constitutes an attempt to pay some kind of homage to the rebels, and may even be the end point in that project described by Noel Dorr, a former senior diplomat during the Haughey-FitzGerald era, that centred around forcing the British to "accept that no institutional soporific will placate or extirpate Irish nationalism", this being "an irreducible reality".
If anything, a royal presence in 2016 will probably serve to isolate those of us who see Irish nationalism not so much as an "irreducible reality", but rather as an anti-intellectual, self-pitying and amoral crutch that has little to offer in the years ahead.
Those who read the Proclamation today and see only the poignant thinness of its rhetoric will be as isolated by a royal visit in 2016 as were the critics of the Peace Process during the glory days of the pan-nationalist front. How odd now, though, to see the "violence worked" traditionalists unwittingly conspire to let us off the hook.
The second critique, then, is even stranger. This focuses on the importance of "evidence" and "facts" and "truth" in historical writing, precious flowers that may wilt if the British queen and the President of Ireland make some kind of common cause in the matter of Pearse and Connolly. The irony here is nowhere in the world has this kind of conservative historical empiricism been so ruthlessly exposed than in Britain.
Irish historians have much to learn still from people like the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott who explained nearly 80 years ago that historical writing has never really been the search for the capital-T truth, but was rather best understood as what he playfully called the imposition of "conditional intelligibility" on unruly, poorly grasped patterns of information.
You might ask how we are to sort the sheep from the goats here so, and how we are supposed to distinguish the vulgar from the sublime in historical writing.
No one has ever bettered James Joyce's answer to this problem in Ulysses. Several of his characters are clowning around while talking about literature. Questions of assessment, ranking and quality come up naturally. One of the characters explains that when he wants to know what quality is he remembers that "the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring". And that's why what we might call reconciliatory history always has the edge over the "violence worked" faction.
Those who prefer an historical register that stresses complexity, ambiguity and even amity in the Anglo-Irish relationship do so in the certain knowledge that the self-pity and vengeance that animate the alternative registers ultimately damage our ability to live meaningfully in the world.
Those of us who welcome the principle of a royal presence in 2016 even at the risk of isolating ourselves on other, larger issues, do so with one eye on the world around us.
We live in an era when the German Chancellor Dr Merkel can speak in the Israeli Knesset in German without protest, or when the Polish Foreign Minister Radik Sikorski can fly to Berlin and become the first Polish leader this century to tell the Germans they are doing too little rather than too much in European affairs. We dare not cut ourselves off from these currents.